With this issue of The High Window we are featuring Birdfall a collaboration of poetry and art by Donald S. Murray and Douglas Robertson.
Born in Dundee, Doug now lives in Hampshire. An artist and teacher, he has worked on numerous collaboration projects and has exhibited widely throughout the UK. His work is in many public collections, including the Scottish Fisheries Museum and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis on the Isle of Lewis, and is included in the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’. In particular, he has worked on numerous collaborations with some of the countries finest poets, including Valerie Gilles, Harvey Holton, Kenneth White, Christine De Luca, and Andrew Philip.
He is also currently working on collaboration projects with two poets, Isobel Dixon and Gordon Meade. In the course of their collaboration, Douglas and Isobel are responding to D.H. Lawrence’s poems from the 1923 poetry collection, Birds, Beasts and Flowers! in various ways, and to each other’s work as a result of this contemplation and ‘conversation’ with the themes of travel, encounters with nature, our identity, mortality and otherness. With Gordon, he is following on from their highly successful collaboration Les Animots – A Human Bestiary (Cultured Llama) with another collection of drawing and poems ENDangeRED, which will be published as an artist’s book in 2018.
Donald S. Murray comes from Ness at the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis and now lives in close proximity to ‘the Ness’ at the southern end of Shetland. He has written much about islands and the seabirds that fly around them, the gannet especially, which features in his prose account, The Guga Hunters (Birlinn, 2008), and in the poems in Praising The Guga (North Idea, 2008). These books were inspired by the men who hunt the guga (or young gannets) each year in Sulageir off the north-east coast of Lewis. Gannets also feature in his illustrated collection The Guga Stone; lies, legends and lunacies of St Kilda (Luath Press, 2013).
Murray has written about other matters in his poetry, such as growing up bilingually in Small Expectations (Two Ravens Press, 2010), and Harris tweed in Weaving Songs (Acair, 2011). He has been a recipient of both the Robert Louis Stevenson and Jessie Kesson Fellowships.
Three books appeared during the course of 2015: Psalm Boat (Roncadora Press), SY StorY: a portrait of Stornoway Harbour (Birlinn) and the non-fiction Herring Tales: how the Silver Darlings influenced human taste and history (Bloomsbury).
‘Visiting this shoreline, aware that sky and ocean might one day be clear of their presence, that I might soon stroll round here and find both fish and fowl have disappeared.’ extract from ‘Terns’
In this collaboration Murray and Robertson have woven a poetic journey along the coast, both real and imaginary, where they encounter the birdlife of the strand, rock pool and cliffs, from the elegant flight of Terns and Lapwings to the winged menace of marauding Skuas and Black-backed Gulls.
The poetry and art in the collaboration encourages the viewer to take a fresh look at the familiar birds of our coastline but also takes care to underline the fragile and delicate nature of the lives of our shorebirds, which have undergone dramatic reductions in their populations in recent years.
In keeping with Murray and Robertson’s previous collaborations, there is a tongue-in-cheek element to the work. Along with the familiar birds of sea and shore, the viewer will come face to face with flocks of new species from the imagination of the poet and artist including the Raukmar, secretly inhabiting the pebbles on the beach, or the Fearmin’s twisted form among the bladder wrack, and the hitch-hiking and map drawing travels of the diminutive Oblomov.
Donald S. Murray and Douglas Robertson have worked on a number of collaborations over the last ten years including two volumes of prose and poetry, The Guga Stone (Luath) and SY Story (Birlinn), and Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, and Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands (Bloomsbury).
The Guga Stone and Herring Tales were included in the Guardian’s Best Nature Books of 2013 and 2015.
Previous Special Features
THW9 March 7, 2018
Gulls and terns to the slaughter,
fish seized from depths of water;
all providing fare
from this bird that spins
line and circle around sun,
as if talons have been unleashed to pare
the planet like the rind of fruit,
seeking to extract pith and juice
from both pelt and scale,
For this is the murderous immigrant
to which we have granted
space where its white tail,
hard eye and beak can flourish, food
which it can kill.
Assassin. Cut-throat. Mujahidin
with just one bloody purpose to fulfil.
At the heart of a dark pebble
found some days upon this beach
is a bird that goes to the trouble
of concealing itself – black wings, head and beak
curled up within stone.
Sometimes you can glimpse its veins when rainfall
smears a crack or ridge. Or its bones
appear, a bright and brittle skeleton, when squalls
stir up the ocean. It is at times
like these it wakes
and its sharp beak breaks cover, stretching out to find
different kinds of prey, cramming whatever it can take
deep within its belly – insects, crabs and jelly fish –
before it coils again, well satisfied
to retreat within rock, that rich
diet swelling that stone upon the beach where it will always lie.
There were worse catches
than that tiny bird which once perched
on bow and stern of every boat
that used to journey here,
Every vessel bearing scratches
of claw and beak wherever it berthed
on voyages. Afloat
it etched a chart of where its craft had veered,
the seaways travelled, marking out the piers
and harbours seen while it hitched
long lifts from fishing boats or cargo ships,
liners, ferries, yachts,
till it met its end somewhere like Casablanca or Tangier,
within the grip of a sailor who twitched
every time he saw it, suffered an itch to kill it. He hitched
a rope around its neck and choked with a hangman’s knot.