Sixth Ten

Holding the Red Mask

I’ve seen you dancing
Yes, I’ve seen you
Among beams of light and twisting columns of smoke
And I know you can move yourself and I know you’re strong
I’d not bargain with my chances if
I came face-to-face with you
But you’ve called me out and I’ve come.

I can see you’re the strongest man that ever sweated
And you are the strongest man that ever came walking barefoot on knives
The strongest man that ever chewed ivy or drank palm wine
Your eyes are soft like a woman’s with their long black lashes
And your fingertips are gentle
Soothing the gash in a wild boar’s side
I’m claiming you, I’m taking hold
Of you by the hairs on your backside
You’re a devil with your fancy clothes and your peacock feathers
And you’re leading the people around, you’ve
Left them no responsibility
And you’ve called me out and I’ve come.

You can’t fool me with your evil temper and your loud jokes
And your psychadelic hallucinations
And you can’t fool me with your torment and your epilepsy
I’m setting you up before me like an idol
Like a guru like a demagogue on the road to destruction
And I’ll not scorn to kneel and sing primitive chants to you
And I’ll not disdain to break down your pedestal
To throw you in the mud and stone you
And then patch up your flaked paint and set you up again
I think you’ll reckon with me, but I don’t doubt
That you’ll have the last laugh and crush me
Like a grain of corn between granite rollers
And then throw back your head and laugh
Till the clouds rain back echoes on
The desolate forests and deserted towns.
But notwithstanding
You’ve called me out: I’ve come.

Pyromaniac to Surgeon

When I was under, doctor, and you were
Doing what you had to do to help me
I had the strangest thing. I rose above
My body, and looked down on you all there
Around my head. A silver line
Attached me there, I knew I was safe. And so rose
Up through the ceiling, through clouds,
On and on, into the black scattered
With such fires; and with the line taut
Came at last before the throne of God.

He smiled on me his glorious smile
And asked me who I was and
All I had suffered. But you see
I could not tell him. I knew it all
But I was weightless, transcendental; all I ever felt was
Far below, without power to fire me;
All the work of my life, lacking commitment, an
Intellectual argument, like an existence
From behind lace curtains, in a suburban third person,
Nothing I had experienced.

I thought, could this be what the leucotomy is like?
But suddenly you tugged the line and I
Was back, and but for a small inconveniences
As you tell me feeling fine and without need for cares again.
I’m glad to have come back to earth, and have you
To guide me through feelings I can hardly master. And
Since you ask me, I’ll tell you: I would dearly like
To set another fire; but if it would mean being
Like that before God’s throne again and having you
At work in my head, I promise you
Nothing will make me set another fire.

Salome Transposed

I was on Carran Hill taking snatches of hare-path and deer-path and what
Other language in all that soaking heather? seeking
Employment in the grooves between the startled hills. Glenfiddich
Glendullan Glenlivet. Unpromising uncompromising. And so silence and that
Deepened by a breeze in the rowan-harp, a drumming
Water on clay. And in the silence a cry, incalculable,
I thought it first a fenced beast, but no farms near and
Beast or human shape with that voice in agony or
Exultation at such distance would be mountain-size:
And there Ben Rinnes was sharp secure, his flanks reckoned by the fathom, in the rucked skirts
Distilleries by the handful. But the moaning earth wound back
On Corsemaul the nearer and less adamant, and there the wind stirred
And there was a giant head on its tip
With eyes that were blind with clay and a mouth that muttered.

But in the cry there was a name – nearer centre garden vineyard of
The world than these cold rough edges – Salome! (so the echoes
Shaped words into my startled ears): You dancing on the emerald floor,
Give me your wish and have done, you are inflaming
Me with the touch of your light feet on the massive ground,
Oh I will build you cities, fashion you grainfields like
Golden dishes, full of crows, only name your wish and let me rest
But on Corsemaul the nearer and less adamant the blind
Head rose over water cutting its way through peat and clay
Exposing clean out on the bank I watched from
Three grey-green stones man-size piled criss-cross (so
One watches the sky, one gazes downstream, one takes in worm, toad, the dun mud
All three declaiming a bright silence); while
The blind head looked away down over birch and alder by Fiddich Water

But in the cry there was the name: Salome! – and then the echoes: I
Am disabused, and all these jewels arranged
To insinuate the moist groove between your silver thighs
Are water or if real are all put on
To symbolise power persuasion self-reflection but not beauty;
And to ask me for that head severed out of the red heather
For furtherance you seek is more than I can achieve

But the blind head on Corsemaul lay in the ground
Unfathomable and smiled down on water like shaken silver, as if
It were the freest gift of the world, out of granite
Over peat down through the round-bellied clay hills, down
Clouding in a gruel mixed out with sullen gold of the fields
Mash wash fire and copper; from where I watch it is all secret
But out of the wood it comes again drinkable gold

But in the cry there was the ejaculation: Salome! and
Clouds of crows went swirling up at the meaningless din
While a white worm coiled down into the water at my feet.
I could not see her, I held the air, and beside me
The reflection of the forked birches trembled on
And on. So then it was too late. I looked to see the crown blown off
Ben Rinnes, but he stood acute as always and around the charged golden fields went stretching out

Where is she? I could have watched, on and on, as the sun made
Indecipherable flame of all those jewels: Salome dancing
In the wet heather…. But it has all gone, there are only echoes
Of the human voice in my ears…. Now the blind
Eyelids are weighted down, sink back into the startled clay;
The deer are running over the empty brow
The hare is nesting in the prophetic skull.

Working on a Red Mask

Anne, I’ve killed and buried you
Killed you and tumbled you into the ground
Smoothed your white belly one last time
Listened to the silence
And buried you and smeared your blood
Over my hands and face
Over you put a heavy stone
Now only I know the place you’re in.

The others think they see and hear you
They speak with you and
Your lovers make promises
But only with me they’d find
The warmth of your fine hands
And your skin like cream and honey
The musk of your breath
The deep night in your grey eyes.

I promise myself nothing from Easter morning
Even with the daffodils
Making a golden fanfare and
The curlews making blue arcs of sound:
Not until your blood, Anne,
Has dried into my skin
Making my face a brown mask
Like the clay you’re buried in.

The Lord Protector on the Golden Age

You ask who was the scar-faced man
Who lopped off the King’s head. Well, it was me.
My ugliness fairly granted
All honest folk agree that that old cock
Had perpetrated outworn stock
A century too long. He’d scratched and scrawked
For his people’s good, but thanklessly
And he was altogether out of time.

Quite knowingly he came to me
Hedging with staves and billhook, pointing how
There’s always one among the ranks
Waiting like boiling lava in a fault;
With that I donned the dragon mask
And raced through stinking-guttered streets
In our great city’s night, yelling “Blood! Blood!”
And “Freedom!” the people took up the cry.

For freedom’s been the people’s cry
Since slavery and freedom sprang, a sad
Twin-headed freak, from Saturn’s grave
Hedged round by the orderly ideas
Of the war-caste bully-boys. They’d seen
To Saturn’s pruning, their slaves did the rest.
The killing of a cock’s no news:
It has a reverential history.

But his was a true nobility, he
Was a kingly old bird. And when I saw
That neck stretched out on the coarse wood
And the eye glaring up at me, there was
A great peace mingling with the hate
As if the two warred in the one domain
In play. He was a willing victim.
Yet the mask is black, scarred, pitted with age.

Each day at work in my peaceful fields
I first salute the sun and then the roar
Of comfortable menace from
The Royal Air Force’s morning fly-past. Once
Devils, I’d mutter, as I watched
The scattering and skittering of flocks
At the din, trembling and sweat, abortion,
Milk running sour or dry. But that’s long since:

I’ve the wit now to christen it
A balancing of forces and to know
That any worthwhile thing will flourish
Under that canopy, where one evil
Penetrates the other – and even those
First enemies, the scheming war-caste thugs
Can wear a smiling face now. It is
Long, long since I put on the dragon mask.

And wheeling over our dark city
Screaming “Freedom!” and “Freedom!” the good folk
Taking up the cry, riven from their fields
By stealth, set at odds with nothing they knew.
I smile, beneath these clots of skin
Setting that nine days’ liberty against
The centuries to come the slavery
To new ideas mud from an old well.

I brood on England, from a high eminence.
Consider how a Seat-of-Mars can be
At the same time an Other-Eden.
Consider it done, sir, I told the King.
And with that. Twenty thousand men,
Fully-armed, all singing hymns is a most
Remarkable sight. A canopy of green
Still hinders my seeing things as they are.

Homage to Shakespeare

Cruising among the wizards’ isles, we spied
Prospero’s isle over the dragon prow.
No landfall there, of course: we’d been well fed
On boasts of his immortal worth and how
No other art could ever stand beside
His mirror to nature – we were free now.
Yet passing, I saluted the great sage
Who prophesied the downfall of the King
And wept over the coming barren age
And greeted Scotland with a grim warning
And saw the mass drag the great heritage
Down to the level of a boxing ring.
And gazing on, questioned: would such winds blow
Again, as brought the wrecks to Prospero?

From A Year of Undoing

Poem No.7

The children are playing bait the bear
In front of the cave. The old one

Snarls, though he does them no hurt.
And you come, with your halter of words,

And lead him softly away.
The children even ride on his back.

What am I to do
With this old monster? Come time

You’ll talk the roe-deer out of the wood,
You’ll talk the lotus open.

Could you charm the bigness out of me
And let me scramble on too?

Poem No.8

The hard frost of evening descends again.
My cap is of violet, trimmed pale opal
Edged kingcup yellow.

The dusk-laden walls are like embers.
Through a yellow-lit kitchen door
A girl and her stepmother, quarrelling.

“I feel bad,” you said,
The double-edged words
Reverberating among the pans

A cold silence descends between the two
There are the voices of lost children
Scraping at walls of chocolate and candy

My cap is of ermine.
How slow the diminution
Of this veil of light

Till the thin dark is pierced
By jewel-like stars:
The keyholes of heaven.

Give Me Back

The Kings sits with his stone-eyed eagle;
The courtesan smoothes her soiled satin;
The Miller goes out to appraise the granary;
The satirist sharpens his needles:
The sea sends clouds to feed the mountains
And the rivers feed the sea
They all say that each one serves the other
Creating harmony.
But I say give back to my children
Before the gales can tear them apart;
Plough me into my heart’s-ground again;
Give me back to my people.

A stern old hermit lives with his housekeeper,
She dusts his books and he teaches her Latin;
The Alpine mountains glow rose-coloured,
New-dug from the earth’s wrapping.
A thousand miles into the desert
Lie the bones of a soft-lipped queen;
She says the arid sun has taught her
What it means to be clean:
But I say, give me back to my children
Before the storms can tear them apart;
Plough me into my heart’s ground again;
Give me back to my people.

On every side the people are famished;
In every valley the sheep run witless;
At stations and crossroads, young children soliciting,
While the fields lie sodden and blackened.
The Kings sits in a salt-scoured cabin
In a ship foundered on sand;
He says he will come in a hundred years
To rule with a diamond hand:
But I say, give me back to my children
Before the hurricane tears them apart;
Plough me into my heart’s ground now;
Give me back my people.

Christmas 1985 – Approach of Halley’s Comet

With the snow when it was, and the rain when it was
And the frost and the gales when they were
It was a year of catastrophe
The year when the comet was approaching
And the word was we’d see it at Christmas in our skies.

Plenty of us had heard about it
But few blamed the weather or the catastrophe
Of emotions on it; but in many places
The soil was pounded and washed away
And not a few hidden stones uncovered.

Such stones stood proud in a waste of mine
In the place where the Christmas child was hatched
The child with the dragon eyes
And the golden spiral that ran from his tail
To the crown of his head was set in motion.

He is like nothing I’ve seen before;
Often I would think, at Christmas,
Watching the snow, the fire and candlelight
And rosy faces and hearing Christendom
Singing down the centuries, and feeling secure:

How would it be if we were all mistaken
And the year was set alight with dragon-fire
And how would it be, if
The weight of our forgetfulness could quench it
Our warmth, our heartiness, our company….

His eyes are cold and golden; he is the serpent;
He is the keeper of what other folk throw away;
He is a weaver, he is nothing certain –
They stretched out on a wooden frame,
Dried him in the sun, but he would not die

And I’m scared to think what we might become
When his coils enmesh us;
But it’s worse to think of turning to friends
Causes, lover or family, shutting him out,
Once you know he’s there and at the window

And the angel that startled the shepherds
As they huddled for warmth in the rocks
Was a dragon spinning down the north wind
And in the clash of his tail and
The beating of his golden wings they were sent running.

And as for me, well I’ve no choice:
I’m sent running out, seeking the source
Poking in the damp ground with a stick
Higher and higher my search takes me
Into the wind, while the sun sets and the stars come out

Till at last there’s one more field, uncut, uncropped,
Mocked by the weather, and then the rough hill begins;
There the land opens around me and everything
Suddenly comes alive, as if its features
Hid a movement that went spinning round this very hill

An eminence on a dragon-path, and all around
The giants come striding up, many-faceted,
If there was one before now there are twelve,
I see their heads slowly cresting the ridges
All around in the crystal twilight.

And in the quietness of the giant’s eye
I see the cold eye of the Comet,
Compassion and rage joined hand-in-hand,
Love without emotion, and in the bright spray
Of its tail the sheep run panic-stricken.

And I think back to the time before
As the people ran witless and laughing
– It was the eve of the shattering of Christendom –
While the back arched till the whiplash crack rang out
With the echo of a shot in Sarajevo.


On Koriakin’s rail a grey pigeon crouches,
An old grey thing he painted and brought alive,
Then as his powers failed let go again.
Still through frost and sunshine it hangs on there.

Robin, as he bobs around my barrow
Flutters up and perches on the sad head;
I find its overseeing not unbenign
Though the truth is it has no life of its own.

Through all the sullen years of my entrapment
I’ve given thought to the perceived needs
Of those dear to me, never noticing how
A mocking smile played round Koriakin’s lips

Now they’ve been met, I grow uneasy, I wander
From room to room in my house and the birds look in
From trees, from grass, as if waiting, yet for what is
The brainteaser: I’m not as nimble as them.

Out from the trees hops red-targeted Robin:
I knew him, or perhaps his father, in the year before
(The life is new, the vestment remains the same,
A quiver full of arrows that each flies once).

At his investiture the Prince has promised
To protect the wild creatures and the dens where they hide;
They look out from the shadows, in the flicker of an eye,
And his robes of office cover him like forest leaves.

The hawk watches from the top of the high gable
As I labour, it sets my dull thoughts to work;
It is the sign of my deliverance
But the mystery is how that could come about.

The Prince shoots and hits with his untouched arrow;
Decayed Koriakin’s house crumbles to dust;
I gawp at it from the lawn, with Robin at my feet,
And the lindens round the garden fill with singing birds.

One response to “Sixth Ten

  1. We used to think the bit in ‘Holding the Red Mask’ about “taking hold of you by the hairs on your backside” was so funny and rude when we were wee – I remember us standing giggling by the radio waiting for the line when you read it out on Radio 4(?) once

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