Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage, Part 5

17 Aug 2011 in Argyll & the Islands, Writing

IAN STEPHEN concludes his voyage in Crear and Edinburgh

OVER a hundred people gathered to enter a wide and long room with a window to Jura and excellent acoustics.

THE flamenco guitarist Paco Pena sat to play a varied series of Flamenco pieces. The skill was almost taken for granted after you tuned into it. You just came to know the dexterity would be there, meeting the pauses. And the perfection that comes from years of disciplined work allows something emotional to ring.

Flamenco guitarist Paco Pena

Flamenco guitarist Paco Pena

Poetry is like that too.  I’ve been thinking about craft – the role of the makar (Scots for poet by trade).  I remember when it was a dilemna – going for the chimings and  jarrings that prompt the syllables up for the jig, against the restraint that dares to leave lines simple. The sway between the close crafting of George Mackay Brown and the expressionist bold strokes – the no going back – of Iain Crichton Smith. In fact I brought the Brown Collected Poems along to share some in the evenings at Crear.

The issue is perhaps easier to deal with when you can step aside from personal ownership of a poem. Maybe that’s why I found translating such a good game.

After a week together, the island poets all had translations they were happy to sign off. You may have read some in the last chapter and if so you can judge for yourself. Thanks to the unobtrusive but sharp editorial skills of Robyn Marsack (Director of the Scottish poetry library), these were arranged into a balance of voices and languages and theme.

About 70 souls stayed on at Crear to hear our work.  It was a balanced selection and all read out loud and clear. But our new friend Carolyn, a French woman on a summer job, away from the world of Parisian theatre, made a pertinent remark. She had observed the way we interacted all week – the work and play and essential banter – but that part had not come across in the more formal setting.

From the reading at Crear (courtesy Literature Across Frontiers)

From the reading at Crear (courtesy Literature Across Frontiers)

So when we were transported across Scotland to present our reading at Edinburgh Book Festival, we decided to loosen it up a bit. We dropped a poem or two and allowed time for intros which would share something of the processes of the translations as well as the results. This time the feedback is that this was a good development.

Not only are we all still speaking but we seem to have become friends in a short time.  It would be shite as reality TV.

It would be more difficult for me to move on if it were not for the next project coming into sharp focus. I’ll soon be traveling with storytellers from other Islands – and that also includes an Irish teller as a link between the Odyssean voyages to the Mediterranean islands. So I’m going to leave you with the short versions of Maria Rosa’s poems, made with Robyn, the New Zealander.

And these will help form my own personal bridge into working with Angus Peter Campbell as we revv up for our outer isles road movie. No Harleys have been issued as yet, but I have been delving into Homer (without the Simpsons). We are into the territory of the ballads. Terse narratives will unfold,  though there will be lyrical touches. I will go to his own Book Festival event on Thursday and tune into his new prose.

So here are these ballads from the Catalan, bridges to other islands,  and they didn’t really seem very foreign in either  content or style.

Poems by  Maria Rosa Llabrés

A Tale

There’s a magic world inside the well.

Over leaf, under leaf.


They told you to beware Maria,

the woman with the hook.


But don’t be afraid, Catalina,

go down into the dark

through the green moss

and don’t forget to say

Over leaf, under leaf.


After a way of ferns

there’s nothing to be seen.

Your love thrives on mystery

as long as you don’t wake him.


He’ll appear at midnight.

Over leaf under leaf.


The love of three oranges


from an Italian  folk tale, told in Majorca


Joanota is looking down into the well.

For an instant she believes she’s beautiful.

But it’s not her own face. Catalina’s young laugh

breaks the dream into a thousand bits.

Joanota is sad now –

her needle spell drains Catalina.

Joanota still has no right to the king’s son.

She’s just ugly.




Out of the very black of the storm

she rose up with the strangest brightness

in her sea-weed eyes.

Laughing at the line of warriors, the

coming and going, the slipping by, disarmed,

unmanned.  So their features took on

her chiselled lines in a greenish light.

So she will always be adored


over their arrogant shadows.




No I won’t jump into the swell for you

boatman with your tan skin.

Your own pale sea

has a surface calm.

I’ll only let the sun

caress my closed eyes.

I’m thinking of you

on a concealed beach

composed of countless white shells.

Translated by Ian Stephen and Robyn Marsack.

© Ian Stephen, 2011