Working the tang, Birsay
These women are wrapped for the weather.
The fleece of long-nosed black sheep
so knitted into their skin, when their men
undress them there is often a little blood.
The weather wraps in gales of Arctic ice.
They gather seaweed: tremendous heaps
of tang and ware, dragged up the sloping beach
to the dry. These women burn
it steadily, crackling heather and hay in great pits
of stone until the white powder
of potash and soda is all that remains.
The men pound and pound,
cover with stones and turf. Leave overnight.
The ash shifts, cools, and lumps of toil
settle on their backs. They sleep with
the weight of a body on the chest.
Ghost dust drifts into livestock,
limpets. Fish are driven away.
The women are wrapped in the drapery
of ash, the cloak of salt, the taste of tang.
Their kelp-making for the laird’s gain.
Their backs spent for soap and glass.
©Nicola Easthope, from Working the Tang The Cuba Press 2018
Nicola Easthope is a teacher and poet from the Kāpiti Coast. Her first book of poems, leaving my arms free to fly around you, was published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa in 2011. ‘Working the tang, Birsay’ is inspired by her Orcadian roots and the etymologies and experiences of the Norse word for seaweed (among other things). She was a guest poet at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2012, and last month, the Tasmanian Poetry Festival.