I wrote this poem while excavating at the Ness of Brodgar, a Neolithic site located in the northernmost part of Scotland. My struggle with depression eventually took me away from the field school, so I had some time to explore some of the countryside.
The Orkney Islands are hauntingly beautiful, but they’re bleak. Livestock and 40 knot winds have scoured its features bare, leaving only grass and stony beach behind. When you travel across them, you feel like you’re traversing a primordial, half-formed world.
Megalithic structures dot the landscape, most of them a type of tomb called a dolmen. There are so many of them in the Orkney Islands, in fact, that the islands have been nicknamed the “Egypt of the North.”
As I entered these tombs and moved through them, I imagined laborers toiling under the shrieking winds. I imagined them tromping through blasted valleys to pull these stone structures together.
But I also realized that time has robbed them.
Some see their story in the firs,
in budding green and fallow earth.
I see my story in the stone
which creaks and grinds and gnashes slow,
for life is long and living short.
We mark the passage,
Atop a hill in lush Birsay,
a hill denuded, pocked like clay,
a cloister of small and rounded rocks
huddle beneath a frenzied sky.
Their passage marked,
When all etched letters fade away,
when only monuments remain,
then what will say that we danced
badly, that we stumbled when we ran?
Here we built, but did we kiss?
He smiled once, this nameless thing
beneath the stone, and his smile
is buried with his teeth.
Life is long and living short.
Life rolls and halts and gathers moss.
The mind will pass, our body after,
and the word before the stone.