‘Kuml’ – Pagan burial site (Iceland National Museum)
Shö lies, foetal, in a shell-saand grave
apön her richt side, maybe facin da sun;
twa steyns abön her skull,
een at her fit.
Her left hench-bane lies across her richt
da knap-bane below da tidder een
left airm curled inta her richt airm.
Shaklebanes, fingers, cöts, taes
der aa dere: young an unwörn.
Her grave-goods: jöst twa shalls,
a pebble, whit micht a bön a blade.
Naethin ta busk her fur her journey
nedder beads nor redder;
an nae sign o a lover.
Best no tink o her final ooers
fur der a peerie grave aside her
wi a rikkel o mintie banes.
Twa steyns at da head, een at da fit.
I lie i mi bed on mi richt side, foetal,
facin aest. Mi left knee rests jöst below
da tidder, left airm across mi bosie.
A’m said mi göd wirds, an tanks
fur tree score year an ten.
But I still draem lik a pagan.
Christian burial (1916–1918)
(Hólavallagarður Cemetery, Reykjavik)
Fowr fine sons lie here:
tree deed young, barely twa year
apairt. Wha kens what ailed dem?
Did da Great Frost Winter tak hits toll?
Der böried tagidder, sidey-fur-sidey,
da grave aest-wast. Laid oot straicht,
apö der backs, haands likkly crossed.
Only Stefán med hit ta fifty, maybe
outlived da midder an faider.
Murnin claes wis nivver affa da back,
blinnds barely liftit.
But noo hit’s a gairden, a Eden,
wi whitebeam an rowan
an birds i der thoosands
brakkin da silence.
Whin I win haem I email mi son,
tell him da birds wis a chorus,
dey jöst aboot daeved me;
an da bunches o berries on rowans
wis redder as bluid.
After Etgar Keret, Israeli writer
Da peerie bairn akses da faider
Foo lang do fock live fur?
Da faider says
Twa hunder year if you dunna smok
Da bairn says
Dat’s no lang enoych
Da faider cöllies aboot him:
Ya, dat hit is; hit’s plenty lang
Da bairn gowls
Na, hit’s no nearly lang enoych
Da faider greets wi him
Du’s richt, mi jewel.
Hit’s no nearly lang enoych.
Notes on this poem
Shetlandic is my mother tongue and I generally write more than half my poems in it. Although I enjoy writing in English too, I find Shetlandic closer to my emotional core. It is resonant with percussive consonants and soothes with long vowels. What it lacks in abstract nouns it makes up for in onomatopoeic richness and general sound quality.
Shetlandic is arguably the most distinctive variant of Scots; a product of its history. The island group was part of the Norwegian- Danish kingdom until the late 15th century when it was pawned to Scotland as part of a marriage settlement of the Danish princess; she was to marry the future King James III of Scotland. The language spoken for centuries had been the Scandinavian Norn, and although that was eventually superseded by Scots, the old language still lingers in the sound, the structure and much of the vocabulary. However as technology changes, language attrition speeds up. Today the ‘dialect’ lies unselfconsciously on the dialect-language continuum.
There is a small and growing literature in Shetlandic, particularly poetry. This poem, ‘Dis Life is Nivver Enyoch’, is a meditation on our coming to terms with the relative brevity of our lives, both as individuals and in relationship. The three sections, all set in Reykjavik, span from pre-Christian times to the here and now of our relatively long lifespans. I wrote it while visiting Iceland recently to launch a bilingual collection.
enyoch: enough; een: one; fit: foot; hench-bane: haunch-bone; knap- bane: knee-bone; tidder: other; shaklebanes: wrists; cöts: ankles; der: they are, there is; busk: bedeck; nedder: neither; redder: comb; peerie: small; rikkel: emaciated; mintie: tiny; bosie: bosom; göd wirds: prayers; sidey-fur-sidey: side by side; midder: mother; faider: father; murnin: mourning; win: reach; haem: home; daeved: deafened; foo: how; cöllie aboot: comfort, appease; gowls: cries loudly; greets: weeps; du: you (familiar, singular); mi jewel: my dear little one