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 them in gales of Arctic ice.
They gather seaweed: tremendous heaps
of tang and ware, dragged up the sloping beach
to the dry. These women are burning
it steadily, crackling heather and hay in pits
of stone – and large – 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 air of salt, the taste of tang.
Their kelp-making for the laird’s gain.
Their backs spent for soap and glass.