Islands of the Evening – A Review

What follows is my Goodreads review of this book. The amount of eclectic material that crosses my desk and ultimately finds its way to my GR ‘to-read’ pile can feel overwhelming at times, dizzying even. So much of it follows the same old patterns, character and story arcs both predictable and tired, tropes emerging like prairie calf-ruts can leave one wanting more.

In this case, my spirit just drank heaven from a garden hose. This post-evangelical, Celtic mystic sits in dust and ashes akin to a post-coital haze after mounting this treasure of a book (sorry, too much?).

Islands of the Evening: Journeys to the Edge of the World by Alistair Moffat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars (6, but I was only given the option of 5)

I read a lot of books. Fewer than some. More than others. I’ve come to expect certain things – peaks and troughs, mounting action and denouement, savages routed, heroes touted, love lost and regained, bad guys, good guys, undetermined guys; sometimes cliché, sometimes quaint, tropes and gropes and the like all tumbling together to form what eclectic fare has become my Goodreads history.

I’m no literary expert, nor do I pretend to have anything more than a reasonable grasp of specificities or requirements of genre. But I know what I like.

From time to time comes a book so beautifully crafted, so nuanced and unashamed to go to those deeper, unexplainable places of angst and ache, anger and anxiety, passion and purity. Alistair Moffat’s “Islands of the Evening” was, for me, that book. Part memoir, part travel blog, part history and hagiography, Moffat takes one on a truly remarkable journey into Scotland’s distant past. It is carved equally in stone and moss as it is blood and devotion of those white martyr saints intent on braving the elements in pursuit of union with their God.

Perhaps most notable is how powerfully a man who claims no discernible faith or even belief in any God can write about the God he claims not to embrace. I leave this here where you can decide for yourself.

“Even though churches are emptying and prohibitions are being dismantled, there is an enduring consensus across Europe, in the Americas and elsewhere about decency, good behaviour, about what constitutes right and wrong. Overwhelmingly that consensus was formed by the centuries of Christianity. As doctrine and belief evolved, and as far too much blood was spilled, the Church largely formed our morality…the teachings of the Church have been enormously determinant in the operation of a generally accepted code of conduct both in private and public life.”

An atheist wrote this. So, for God’s sake (or yours, whatever), read this beautiful book.

View all my reviews

Thank you, Mr. Lawrence

I have a new spiritual director. Her name is Lynn. She is a most perceptive lady, especially given how much I adore poetry. After our most recent spiritual direction session, she was compelled to send me this by way of follow up. Two things: find yourself an anam cara; a professional spiritual director or at least someone you trust to walk with you as you both walk with God. Secondly, look for the sacred in narrative and poetry. Next to creation and sacred writ, it is often the most meaningful manner by which the God of creation speaks to our souls.

So then, Lynn, thanks for listening so attentively.

Thank you, Mr. Lawrence for this poem which has always been a favourite.

Lord, thank you for both!

Where poets learn to see

Grey ash, dead-branch-dim









into corpses, exhumed-verse to still worse fate –


Words, once ample-ripe, now winter-sparse,

hunt, cock-ear’d, lungs-flatten’d, for somewhere

to land, to inhale.

Dust-grey soundings lay coiled, like the end of a painter’s day,

wrestling out colours, lines, faces –

not bothered anymore with looking beyond what is seen.

Just the clamouring fool’s last-call for the quick and easy.



letters, unfinished sen

Like changing tires on rusted farm trucks mired in tired dirt,

we muck about in quicksand of distraction, disappointment, deadlock,

the oppressive weight of art.

As needful distraction, we gather up the prosaic, pretentious, polemical,

in fits of laughing stems knit to notes, clinging tight to daylight’s end.

Throats worn from croaking long-forgotten songs of drunken men and laughing children.

Why not dare, instead, to probe the unentered caves where live

the furies, the forbidden, the fortuitous?

That prodigious, crowing dark –

where poets learn to see.

The scars of our days

We stumble on flat ground when shouldering the false hopes of doctrine,

grave clothes of religion – its diminishments. Falling headlong

on easy roads we can’t enjoy for our straining to explain.

We scratch at stones, wet from dawn-drenched, day-breath,

looking for what signs of life emerge.

But, it hides itself away in the damp unseen,

crevices unnoticed by all that never knows light.

Beauty grows savage, flowers pushing up through concrete,

stem intact, root-sutured rock.

Water still moves under winter’s deep-crusted yawn.

Finches fly back north to signal summer’s return.

There is a beauty too perfect for vain curiosities,

hope, hunted for, but stuck in the idolatry of certainty.

We are as we are grown, have groaned –

greater in the scars of our days.

On aging

The writer must create from one, or both, of two places: intention, the rhythmic pounding of chain gang-style word production, regardless of circumstance or existential readiness and/or secondly, inspiration, generally obtained through the navigations of a life-lived and sopping up the genius of creators much greater than oneself. The clear lack of words posted to this site in recent months is evidence that I fail miserably in the former. This one, however, comes from having read some of the collected poems in the posthumous collection: “100 Poems” of Seamus Heaney.

The best writers write much using little. They say fundamental things with brevity, economy, exactitude, and a settled, but discerned, relationship with their environment. Seamus Heaney is such a one.

This is brief, but I hope, settled in its own way. I pray it pokes at something in you that, like for me, has lain dormant. Maybe, together, we can reawaken to all the beauty still out there, waiting to be discovered and toyed with.

On aging

Candles, late and long of light,

ligamented now with downward

pour, its waxen tears

the reminders of tender’d space.

Still, there sticks a certainty

of return, innocence untethered,

released from her superlatives

of age; a perambulation of

secondary narratives, like barb’d

wire sunk deep into the

many-ring’d trunk.

Hands, purpled-shanks,

quiver through their tasks,

once the domain of domestic

industry; now but memories,

forgotten, a casual anxiety.

How can the same bird

recall the song, left on the

sill so ready of purpose?

She can but smile at its reticent timbre –

and start again.

Picture found here


Sometimes a poem works well enough to post again…sometimes.

Rob's Lit-Bits

Sometimes the drops of air laugh at our impudent chuckle

and gather themselves into a breath. Sometimes


when the robin stares too long at the kitchen window,

we become her careless dream. Sometimes


the patches of nothing between the rain

know something, too, of waiting. Sometimes


I pinch myself asleep long enough to awaken again

to the resurrection of your scent. Sometimes


the sucking sound when pulling boots up from the mud 
is how I hear your leaving. Sometimes

the one goose not in formation with the others, 
heading where life goes are my thoughts without you. Sometimes

like old leaves pasted back on the living tree 
is the sound of my cracked voice next to your song. Sometimes

like a shower in the lobby with the door open 
is our talk. Sometimes


in the wordless poetry, alone,

is our silence.


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The Moorland Fairies

After having a conversation about “old school” vs “contemporary” poetry with a young student in the middle of a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature, I thought this one might be a good one to repost. In honour of “old school”…

Rob's Lit-Bits

The folklore of the Scottish highland moors is extensive and, frankly, creepy as hell. This is a poem that narrates some of that creepiness. Enjoy…or whatever one does with this kind of poetry!

 Moorland Fairies

From marsh and hill through woodland, still,

arose the lithe-limb’d people.

Their frozen stare could nearly kill

e’en those under God’s steeple.

* * *

For many years they haunted men

and frightened little children.

They came at night from eerie dens

to poison, scare or steal them.

* * *

Hunted down with bow and gun

till all were tired and hopeless,

till one cold day, they came upon

a creature in death’s caress.

* * *

So pale and wan, it lay atop

a thicket, robed in grasses;

it’s bluish skin, stout hearts could stop

black eyes, like coal-molasses.

* * *

The men bent down to prod and stare,

its spindly shanks to…

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An old poem for a new year

“Church Bell” by Georgia O’Keefe

We climb over the short wall from one three hundred sixty-five day journey to begin another, hoping against hope that it is somehow better than the one before. We’ll be just a bit happier, thinner, better looking, less anxious, more of this and less of that. Ever an admirer of Romantic era poets, I give you the following as a poem to ring in the new year.

And, because Wikipedia is where all things are quickly found…

“Ring Out, Wild Bells” is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Published in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate, it forms part of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam, his sister’s fiancé who died at the age of 22.

According to a story widely held in Waltham Abbey, the ‘wild bells’ in question were the bells of the Abbey Church. According to the local story, Tennyson was staying at High Beach in the vicinity and heard the bells being rung on New Year’s Eve.

Ring Out, Wild Bells (from In Memoriam)

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.