Second Ten


  1. Wood Anemones, Craighall Den
  2. Kullervo’s Return to the Foster-Folk
  3. Drowning a Forest (for Peter Humfrey)
  4. Highland Holiday
  5. Wrong About Rose
  6. Anniversary
  7. Two Girls, Tarvit Hill
  8. Birth of Gudrun Ashton Roy, October 28 1998
  9. Grandparenthood
  10. Composing a Messiah

Wood Anemones, Craighall Den

Still growling of brats and vandals
she eases herself out the car.
A green haze, a twilght around the trunks of maples,
is everywhere.

Her furious cheeks and baleful glare
soften. Soft sun comes spilling through.
She has come to see that the anemones have opened this year
as they always do.

You say you don’t understand
how eighty times is not too many
to see the same tiny fists stretch to this selfsame bland
star-pointed array:

You can’t, and nor can I.
Accept it. See how the laced leaves flutter
awaiting inspection, stick prodding critically,
begrudging mutter.

Don’t tug. The search goes on.
We can’t help. The sunshafts are solid
as tree-roots to her, to be crossed with like suspicion
slow and sideward.

Auntie Mary’s politer
than plain Mary. Why? Just say it,
indulge our stupidity; run round and help her
stay on her feet.

I’ll tell you about our games,
ruses, escapes from aunties,
cathedrals of echo stretched, empires of sunbeams
under these arched branches.

Auntie Mary goes a mile
with every step. Wait patiently –
the anemone-host on the old lime-spoil pile
is the very acme.

She must be counting every stick, every nut –
but the worst is the family likeness she
bears like an accusing banner, or with a decrepit
kind of glee.

You tell me I’m much straighter than she,
but I’ve forty years to go
before I have that repetitiousness on me
and slow –

You’ll know, when you can see pain
in a comfrey-spear thrust through mole-grit,
deep comfort mossed on a stone that in Napoleon’s reign
was new-set,

Menace in the chaos of the rookery’s
chalky dibs and dabs,
loss in brown maple-leaves spread like armies
of harmless crabs –

Perhaps by then you’ll be counting the white stars,
anemone by anemone, just so –
we always laugh how our mouth twists and slurs
to make foe….

Just don’t get yourself caught up between two such mighty
tug-of-war contenders
as I have, here checking every time your flighty
tongue wanders,

There choosing the path my eye scans
like a trained scout, to have measured and fixed
where her wretched old dithering lime-crusted bones
might stumble next.

And now, after all her struggle
and all our lather, she turns without a pause,
heads home and leaves her angels, with a curt ritual
grunt, to their glories.

No: may you live frank and equable as these flowers;
may you have no doubt what to feel; and preserve poise
when I’m bent-up – when Mary’s long conceded in her wars
with village boys.

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*      *      *

Kullervo’s Return to the Foster-Folk

You see the smoke rising
beyond the peat flats,
out beyond the pasture
where the wild forest gapes?

You know the meaning, sisters,
you know it’s time. Take the Sunday
bonnets from their dusty wraps;
draw the curtains, leave the houses
dark and quiet, leave the embers
to collapse.

You see the smoke rising
by the stubble-field?
Come quickly, cousins, it means
the messages failed.

Idle whisperings, he called them,
nothing but gossip,
lies, to let justice
give him the slip.

You see the smoke rising
and his voice, high-pitched and merry,
duets with lark and plover –
Run now, children, seek the protection
of the heather.

Shall we beg him? No, we won’t beg him;
make no requests:
we’ll promenade, sisters, quietly
in our Sunday best.

Let him look us in the eye
if he dares,
recall that men’s deeds are not those
of sisters and mothers.
Did we not calm him
with our cradle-songs,
not fondle and nourish him,
make him strong?

Ourselves not provide
him work fit for giants,
nurture his self-respect
with our reliance?

Was it our fault he built fences
with entire forest-trees?
our fault he must prove himself
so disproportionately?

We did all we could to make amends
to the poor chick;
but there’s no magic can make growth
from a broken stick.

Blame the men, the butchers,
who torched his village;
our fools of men, who rescued
his mother from the wreckage.

Blame the men, who decreed
prison, hanging, drowning –
blame the weakness that let him escape,
their whingeing gut bent secretly
on atoning.

A shadow-thing squats,
sister, on your shoulder,
a guilt-monster made of smoke
from the first of our rafters.

Now he squeals for justice
with his fire and sword
do we beg him? No, we won’t beg him,
not a word:

We’ll toss our heads, sisters,
in their pert hats
at the sound of the fire crackling
in our weedy thatch;

We’ll raise a simper, cousins,
subtle and sweet
when we hear the soft pattering
of blood on our hard street.

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*      *      *

Drowning a Forest

Fishermen on the mud-flats
for some reason one day
loaded a wooden pile aboard
almost to capsizing;

Rocked and shouted and heaved,
swore, perhaps even laughed
and sank it, God knows how,
into the mud, rock-solid..

Beleaguered as they were,
harassed from the forest
and driven against the shore
why they did it’s clear,

But how did they ever wash up
on such a possibility?
Someone must have dreamed for years
over see-saw timbers, frame’s rigidity.

It takes some team to drown a forest;
perhaps there have always been
the three in the one cockle-boat:
poet, engineer, and Lady Luck.

What of the crowds that mooch
gawping at the glories of Venice?
Have they ever been fishermen
beleaguered by silences?

Someone else has given them
this vision, their mouths are stoppered;
confections and superstructures block re-form
of images into words.

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*      *      *

Highland Holiday (for C. Roy)

Here’s Rilke’s plush feet startled in mid-stride,
“exposed out on the mountains of the heart”;
here’s hell-bent Saint Paul, vision-struck, tongue-tied;
there King Wen, when the wheels burst on his cart….
This is our country: its heart, maybe,
we keep little in mind, until some shock –
perhaps you betrayed by your woman, he
by his father’s suicide – sends us back

pelting off into the mist, where the whole
casually-named clutch of Red or White
or Great Bens, Black Craigs or Black Corries wait.
And is your heart set on exposing all
on the Grey Meadow, on the Forge, the Spear
– to stare down askance with Am Bodach’s stare?

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*      *      *

Wrong about Rose

Thorn Rose got her thumb to the spindle, said
ouch, pushed more – it was still not hard enough –
and saw the blood was proper Freudian red
and sign of all manner of naughty stuff….

Thorn Rose pushed harder till, all at a clap
the thing went right through her; and there she stood
skewered like a sweet succulent kebab
(oh mother, she moaned, and I was so good)….

If I had piety like Thorn Rose’s
I’d bring you home a whole compendium
of gems both like, and saucier than, this:

Cynic I, I thought the girl’s hurt thumb
and shocked sleep signs of how, into our mess
of flesh, roused intellect, huge spirit, come.

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*      *      *


Clear the board. Then place plates on the scrubbed grain:
cool and dense, white disks on the dark wood.
From glazed clay down to the floor’s unglazed stone
follow the grain: it’s a connecting rod
and proof these thirteen ghostly moons don’t swim
in mid-air; and proof of density is brought
when leg churs flag with faint xylophone hum,
with faint ring when base rocks on a raised knot.

A shaft of sun. A fly’s nagging buzz grows,
fades, like an echo of a stolid wish
for one year free from deceits and devices…..
Sun fades. On silence complete balances
expectation of the unearthly clash
of the steel tools and the contentious voices.

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*      *      *

Two Girls, Tarvit Hill

Lonely there, the little black-and-red kite;
Abby, discarded-looking at the string-
end, declares next time we should bring a tight-
rope-walker to dance up the tugging thing.
Rosie, below, runs her fool-on-the-hill
routine, stretches arms up, arms wide, throws in
some sensuous postures I find suit her ill
lacking, as she still does, that second skin
she’ll soon wear covering her uniform
humanity. Both of them do. Both will.
I watch both: the upstretched, the outstretched, arm;
beckoning finger at the end of one;
one with taut string and lonely bobbing kite
and shadowy rogue skipping up to the sun.

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*      *      *

Birth of Gudrun Ashton Roy, October 28 1998

I think I must have been travelling
on the point of a unicorn’s horn:
I could as easily have saddled him –
stubborn, stubborn man.

It’s time I tried to blurt out some words,
for once, in celebration;
surely honouring a creature so small, human-grub,
would not break faith.

Those of us who wandered with you
down that starlit valley
and arrived, in the first frosts of winter,
at your cottage in Glencorrie

And watched, little bat, while you fluttered
aimlessly between the two hills,
firelight flickering on your skinny buttocks
– your family, that is –

We can’t hold out much hope that an even
path will be your destiny:
just look round, the whole bunch of us
born with our heels dug in.

But you, little owl, now come like the herald
of a new possibility:
I know I can’t stop them beating their heads
on the walls of their wilfulness

But for me, who they now call grand, there’s a seat
with a different outlook,
a quiet seat, maybe unnoticed, while you on your summits
take root and suck

Where I’ll wait, and be ready to follow,
rosy-back, little kestrel,
some dewy dawn, you leading where you know
a path of sweetness –

As if the muddy stone-track down Glencorrie
to Auchindoun could whiten
to the lane of diamonds and sugar-frosting
we caught a glimpse of that same night

As somewhere into the small hours came
the rising of the old moon
with your father and me, well blasted now, hollering
praises in the direction;

And if the darkness in these eyes could prove
nothing but mist of ignorance,
if the lance of understanding could be enough,
little wild-goose, little swan,

Why then I’d need only sit there, viewing
through transformations of clouds,
the tousled old moon resurgent, unicorns
prancing between her points,

The soft-backed, silk-fleshed creatures
of ancient embroidery
that wingless fly and without food nourish,
without pain bleed.

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*      *      *


The afterbirth is what slips out
just as we’re distracted
by the high point of joy;
shadow-like, it slithers away
into a dish, out of it,
down some hole, and nobody
asks any more about it.

I daresay when we’ve brought into the world
whatever we entered it to bring
we’ll go on to wherever
we go on to next, in much the same way.
I wonder if it’ll be
thrashing down the rapids
of a gurgling drain,
bubble-and-squeak in the violence
of some incinerator

Or a slipping-away unnoticed,
smiling, half-reluctant,
from the party. The only thing
that isn’t on is to cause pain:
that’s the job of the boneful, joy-bringing

Little buggers. The ladies don’t want
to have to holler and thrash
over nourishing, discarded,
formless, ungraspable

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*      *      *

Composing a Messiah

I would set George Friedrich Handel
out on a hillside, a crook in his hand,
rough dog to heel, and only the brash
wind of Martinmas to wrap him round
and then we’d see
if he’d get that Messiah sound.

Time passes, and my hands
are itching for the heather
to part its yielding brushes
all in the stinging April weather
and seek out the lost well again.

I know where it lay
at the half-way point of the slope
from where you could see equally
the arms of the hills spread out
and the arms of the sea spread
and the flowers nod in the breeze
that atone for the dead men and their killers

And I would drink a draught
shocking me with cold
and remember the sheep of Culloden
bare-rumped buffoons who stood
gaping at the cannons.

The ballad of Saint Martin:
Saint Martin, as the story goes,
went out into the wind and froze;
a shivering old vagrant bloke
relieved him of his soldier’s cloak.

So there was this Pope,
he’d the charge of conflating rascals
into saints, for the good of the flock –
and what a work of God was that,
lighting torches for the ignorant!
And that was how Martinmas
came about, with its winds of legend.

So then there was a King, and a Prince,
and their soldiers, who howled
at each other across the moor
and here’s George the perfect doorman
at the approaching tread
of the Conquering Hero bowing
till the livery split on his bare back.

If I had a king like that one
I’d always write well-measured lines,
cadences radiant with good thoughts,
emotions comprehensible, straight ways,
courtly finery, incense and roast leg
would never choke me, if I were not

Scrabbling in the dark
shelterless in bog and thorn
too much the good companion to accept
the grasp of a hand broken
and slippery with its blood, too little the dog
to lick and soothe its wounds.

By Martinmas we had made it
and leaning at the bar
ready to tell our stories;
and this itching old pedlar
challenged me, seeing
I made such verses for a living
to unwrap, let’s see what you’re made of,
and write him a grand refrain,

So I repeated over
how I’d set George Friedrich Handel
up on the hill, with the crooks, dogs
and wind, so we could see
if he’d compose a Messiah

So the dogs were baying in the night
and the sheep huddling in their wool
and we set our backs to the draught
and drink set our brains on fire
and nothing disturbed us till Easter
came stealing up the Firth, with its usual
reminders and papal bull.

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3 responses to “Second Ten

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