Mythic and mysterious, these poems by Em Strang drew me in with their spell-like titles, then long stayed with me.
‘Tog Muhoni’ echoes Robert Frost’s iconic ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’: a dark forest calls to a traveller, who stops in contemplation. There’s the sense of a turning point rising here and now, and also an ambiguity to how we feel about the traveller’s decision.
In Strang’s poem however we’re way past the luxury of turning away from the forest and carrying on with life. The hour is late and this forest, embodied by Muhoni, is the damaged wild: fierce, visceral, urgent. Modernity collides with myth and a lost animality, and shatters.
The brief and beautiful ‘Horse-man at Crotha Bothy,’ written as a note to the speaker’s ‘beloved,’ is by contrast intimate and serene. Yet it contains the same earthy insights and convictions about reconnection, and the necessary work of shapeshifting, so we can find our way home again. (SE)
that his name is Tog Muhoni and his smile tells the way the river bends
and how he crossed it, one foot dragging behind like a snapped limb:
to stay or to go? You’re late for something, driving, and your whole life
is mapped out in the arm he’s missing. The shoulder blade is intact,
you can see as you slow down, rub the breath from the windscreen
and stare in the way your mother would have scolded. An owl
inside your head this morning, eyes, silent inquisition:
his body seems to shift, migrate from one shape to another
or he’s just a ghost waving in the cold, winter air wafting.
All those times you stood outside and watched your breath
cloud, large animal, moon face, hoof-less. You know his days
go deeper. Snow hole with a man curled in it. Small pack
stitched of deerskin. A fine knife, furs.
Instead of turning right, you stop the car and wait. Something in you:
a shiny, dark-skinned kernel, a need you’ve put away
like a button from your dead father’s coat, a need for history
or flight. No, both. Where you’re going, you don’t know
but everything you thought was true is false, everything
you’ve learnt flows out like guts from a split belly,
the strings of intestine you can read your fortune in,
your fate. But you can’t look forwards, only back
at the black hulk of the car as you walk off or through
or out. Where are you now? Wait.
The street is unfamiliar; you’ve never walked here before,
never walked like this with your whole face seeing,
eyes, yes, but also lips, nose, skin, and the skin’s soft,
barely visible vellus that marks you out as animal or bird,
a small hawk maybe, all seeing. You can’t be sure
but the figure walking over seems to be singing,
mouth wide like a warm dark stone and then the song
coming close, as though the singer’s inside you –
you’re the lone singer! Be still a while and listen.
Wide streets, wider than you imagined possible,
car-less now, each building flanking something beyond
the mind’s eye, something flickering inside an opening.
Never too late. A soul. Small black purse.
When he steps up you know his name is Tog Muhoni
and his life is a fire you forgot to feed, a time you forgot
to live. You drape your sorrow around yourself
but he laughs and with his one good arm
lifts your chin to the sky like a mother might
tilt her child. Somewhere in the other town
your desk is waiting with its papers and books,
a lamp leaning in like an eye piercing the same space
over and over. Tog Muhoni looks at you
as though you’ve never known looking before.
A blue shawl of looking. An embrace.
Horse-Man at Crotha Bothy
First light, fire, tea. I strip-wash at the sink as the moon goes down behind one hill and the sun rises over another. I stand outside on the deck at just after 6am and the whole glen is silent, utterly soundless, except for the first calls of small birds and the flowing burn. No wind. The trees are motionless.
I wish never to forget – this is where we come from and return to, at last.
‘Horse Island Woman’ by Kate Walters
Watercolour on paper
This watercolour emerged after a time spent on Shetland in 2017 at the south of the mainland. Evenings in July were long and light, and I’d sit and gaze out across the bay to the Ness of Burgi and Horse Island. I walked across that shining land of black rocks and birds to a corridor of flight, a wingspan from Horse Island. I sat and remembered my horse, pregnant, her head pressed against my chest; how she carried me over obstacles and through dense forests. Now I carry her – in memory, and dream. She is my sky.
Kate Walters is based in Cornwall, and loves to explore wild places in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland and in the Italian mountains. Her work has been exhibited in the Jerwood Drawing exhibitions, The Royal Academy and The Discerning Eye, and she has had a solo exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in 2012/13. She is currently Artist in Residence in several places, including Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens and Shetland and Orkney.