The Iolaire / An Iolaire, Jock Stein
Gaelic translation Maoilios Caimbeul
Intro by Alan Riach
The jacket is grey, with a green print placed just above the centre, or it could be a painting, of a shipwreck. The title is in a large handwriting type script (Zapfino?) in the top grey band, and just below it, the same title in Gaeilc. The Gaelic is in white and loops into the black English title above and the green picture below. The author's name is in pale grey below the picture, and below this the translator's name and the name of the introduction writer. Bottom left is the Handsel Press logo, a picture of black and white bubbles

Handsel Press, 2019

Patterns of meaning

Ever been there? Crumbling into an abyss? Inner shipwreck? It’s a theme in the Psalms. The void recedes. You’re left like a body beached by a casual wave, staring numbly at watermarked sand and crushed shell debris. Searching. For what? For any hint of pattern. Any gleam of meaning. This matches that:

to comb the silt
for bits and bobs of melody

[a’ sìoladh na druaip
airson criomagan ciùil]

The Psalms were sung poetry. Patterns of words and sound. A life-support system. Each line a sob of oxygen. Was there ever a more psalm-breathing community than Gaelic Lewis? I cannot tell it without tears: 1st January 1919. HMY Iolaire returning soldiers from WW1. Shipwreck in a storm. Come morning, over two hundred corpses washed up on the island shores. Grief beyond healing. Ever.

You turn us back to dust, dust blown
off course, unable to make landfall

[Tionndaidhidh tu sinn gu dust, dust
air a shèideadh bho a chùrsa, gun tìr air sgeul]

Jock Stein pilots us by flickering psalm-light, via charted channels of ceòl mòr, from ground to complex cross currents. This echoes that:

O Lord, A’m gratefu fir this saum
at gies me wurds tae lowse ma birse

[A Dhè, tha mi taingeil airson an t-sailm seo
a tha a’ toirt na facail dhomh airson m’ fheirg]

Jock doesn’t let us drown. We more than survive. He sherpas us upwards from sea-level to mountain-top, stewards us to the stars:

Fly down the alleys of blazars, go deep into
space, with its galaxies

[Seòl sìos trannsaichean lasraichean, rach domhainn
dhan fhànas, le a reul-chriosan]

We dance through patterns of movement. Sport woven patterns:

She does a chassis, moves into a quickstep
[Nì i chassé, a’ gluasad gu ceum-luath]

Yet all patterns of prayer get torn up:

howl, groan, gasp, spit
your prayers, real and raw as juniper.

[dèan d’ ùrnaigh le donnalaich, cnead,
plosg, sgread, cho fìor cho dian ri aiteann.]

And so we help weave each other off our bewildered beach:

Sing a dusty hallelujah
[agus haleluia smùirneanach a sheinn]

These poems transition via ‘meaninglessness’ (a personal experience of shipwreck) to an incremental recovery of personhood, by which I mean the gradual retrieval of a personal sense of worth or ‘meaning’.

Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh