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Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland


Featured Poet


Alan Riach



Born in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, educated at Cambridge and Glasgow, Alan Riach went to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, in 1986. He returned to Scotland in 2001 as Reader in the Department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, where he is now Professor and currently Head of Department.

He is the author of works of criticism on the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, editor of MacDiarmid's collected works from Carcanet Press, and has published five collections of poetry: This Folding Map (AUP, 1990), An Open Return (Untold Books, 1991), First & Last Songs (Chapman, 1995) and Clearances (Scottish Cultural Press, 2001), Homecoming (Luath Press 2009)









for James



The clouds go over

singly, or in fleets, trailing

raggedly back, against a sky

where looming vaults of rain

come over too. Then the sky lets loose:

the shades of grey become uncountable,

the rain comes down on everything, diagonal, banks:

the windows, roof, the wooden deck,

the trees around, the green slopes run

with mud, the fields below are soaked and fill;

the road becomes a grey and moving river.


The baby hasn’t heard this sound before: the heavy rain

on the iron roof, and cries himself

to sleep, at last, as the downpour

eases off. It must be time to leave.

The weather is an actual farewell.


I used to think the old Gaels of Ireland,

or the west of Scotland, knew

so little of our modern world.

It seemed they were a pastoral people

and burdened with a culture of conservatism.

But clearances are always strong in the mind,

the images recurrent, the rubble of the ruined homes,

the ghosts of children, animals, and men

and women helpless in the face of the event.


Farewells and birth, there are some things

no clues or forms of knowledge alter

in themselves. I won’t say they can’t help.

They knew about departure, those old people,

and the kinds of life we deal with here

require that inherited wisdom. Now

the heavy showers have passed, but different shades of grey

reflect, refract unnumbered tones of light.

It’s time to pack what we have and can carry.

It’s time to take what we can, and go. The boy

will not remember this, the landscape

of his parents, unless we do.





I have to try to make some sense

of this strange place. It is as if translation

had been made, in language I can’t emulate

or describe; but remember it

like this:

   I pulled the van over, on the gravel

by the sideroad, switched off the engine;

Jim and I got out. The sudden interruption

of movement, machine, the sharp metallic

edge of the van-doors shutting, key grating the lock,

released us into sunlight, afternoon, a loose but close assembly

of trees, leaves silver, green and whispering. The breeze was shifting

through them in directions, unpredicted. It was warm.

We walked across the road, down a yellow grass bank

to the flat triangle of field, beside the Powsail burn,

running there beside us towards the Tweed, which

we couldn’t see, lower in a cut in the valley

ahead of us, where we could see the shadow

and the dark walls of trees beyond, on

the other side of the river.

   Shadows seemed to move among the leaves

and slowly, the perceptible audible context

was changed. We could hear

no more the rustling sound of leaves; we could hear

instead, an actual conversation, taking place.

You know how it is when your mind’s half-focused,

your ears and eyes in a crowd and

what you hear and what you see are indistinct,

but certain, present, there? This was

like that. An actual conversation, voices, more

than two, a crowd, as if,

a party, talking, murmuring too low

to hear exactly what or what

their speech was of. Unobtrusive, unbelievable,

we looked around, and then at each other:

‘Can you hear – ’


A silent smile; another. No

explanation possible, then or now. No-one else nearby

at all, for miles. We waited in the middle of the voices

as they spoke (not to us exactly; for us?

Certainly, we overheard or heard what was

within their world, as it was ours), then turned and

walked away from there.

               More than twenty years,

from then to this. Maybe I decided

long ago, there are some things

no answers help.

               I’ve heard of fearful

ghosts, but this was something warming, good,

a kind of shared acknowledgement, unexplained, a strange

translation, a mass of living language from beyond

whatever it was we could see, so clearly.



The Jungle Books


For Edwin Morgan at 80



Dear Eddie,


I wish you continuity and love, and since what is to come comes on

so many different valencies, remember what has been works that way too.


The garden of the room at 4 o’clock. Details: a brazen Chinese dragon on the hearth,

a chitzy coffee table-top, an ash tray, box of matches, Russian wooden cigarette-box,

books. An underwater atmosphere of watchfulness and silence, as if that old rock

python Kaa were snoozing, one eye open, just nearby. Your words have been heard!


While Norman’s smoking endlessly with Caliban, you’re

flying through the dark frost-scented air, Ariel-free over pines and lochs and sleeping

like our 5-year old, away before Adam, ‘curled up in a nest of twigs and boughs’

dropping himself on the Persian rug, on his clasped hands on a pillow, under  a

blanket, like that, into another world that takes him back, a self-determined astronaut,

to Scotland’s Arabian nights. What happens when Bach hears the sound of the sea?


Remember those trees, last and first men, first raising an arm and a hand to a branch

the atavism, swinging into languages like Tarzan, lonely in adventures and coincidences

multiplied; meeting the creatures in all their strange colours and sizes;

populations, frontiers;  gliding low and fast across those miles and miles and miles of old


like Fen around Cam.  Take off from Bridges!  Fly!

               That drumlin runway called Great Western Road!

An endless flight and a fine resolve, like Carson on Venus, lost in the forests of Amtor,

or like MacKenna’s gold, knowing the map to miracles and earthquakes –

‘There is no map,’ MacKenna said. But there was. There is. It happens.

These things good men believe in, affinities of mind and mortal memory.


Or the man with the harmonica (‘He not only plays, he can shoot too…’)

Or Doughty come back from the desert and dawn. Yol. That’s the way.

Or riding like the rain-god Shalako, for eight days in the summer

of 1882, hearing no sound but the hooves of the horse,

the creak of the saddle, the wind in the mountains and

dusty dry arroyos. Or undersea with Nemo and Ned Land, that

thick-calved harpooner, Nautilian in battle: to overthrow the righteous, not the damned!

If it’s Blake or the Establishment, I’ll side with you.

As London said, Go on, be scared, we mean to do it all! Hwæt!


Riffled childhood reading, and when I skim back I can see —

you were there already, in seas and cities, deserts, Cathkin Braes and Strathaven,

old and new, in Lanarkshire, in Glasgow and in words, leaving no trace but everywhere

encouragement. Now I know, you’re 80 and I’m half that, but

as old J.B.Y. to young J.B.Y., ‘If you want to do anything really worth while, some

part of you must never, ever, ever grow up.’


— All charts of the lunar seas,

All maps of the stellar oceans, Stravinsky’s

King of the Stars is singing for you.



On the Malvern Hills


And the sky’s breath lifted both of them,

the blue, the red, two men in harness, strapped and

corded to their pelmets as the air curved them out,

shields in the azure, quilted with this

substantial occupation: the rising thermal currents

making movement of them, human points

and mechanisms, the sounds as unheard

as the streams appeared invisible, in air.


Like reeds, lifted by the wind, over salt hay

by the river’s side, loosened and taken,

spiralled by the rising breath and turned

in lengthening loops and figures, arabesques,

the strain borne even by

the hands upon the cords, the pressures bringing down

or over, out, away to one side or high above

the steeply sloping hillsides, the curving downs below.


On the ridge of the Malvern Hills, David runs ahead,

his seven years of appetite lead quickly to the hill beyond.

Our walking’s easy, the pace in the heat of the summery day

unhurried. We crest the second summit, see David now

a tiny figure standing on the third, shoulders and arms turned back to us

and then – the paragliders cresting the horizon, sweeping up above him,

sliding down the currents of the col, close to his small shape.


He’s looking up at them as they glide by. His breath’s intake

I can feel from here. It’s like the child whose arms upstretch

to the full moon in the ancient sky, so full of natural want, for

the unattainable.

Windflower, Elgar called her.

Ah, those rosebud lips.

And things all ‘wild & headstrong’ –

‘dreaming of a the sedge reeds by the riverside...’

Looking back at the hill-fort of Caractacus, his little army always

facing impossible odds, but standing even now

unchanged on this ‘illimitable plain’…

For all the empires of the world have risen to be washed away,

in light-like movement, solid,

weighty in the drift of its proximity

                           and David’s risen gaze –

That unreachable things can be seen

and heard as they move in the air.



Melville in Glasgow


Consider it a sketch:  charcoal on grain, white paper, black ash,

clouds and the Necropolis, the perfect size and shape of that Cathedral,

to see it from the south side of the Clyde and think of modesty and reach,

the country all around;  to think of what was there, and what

that man was looking for, a past that might say more than all the risk

he’d known before he stepped up on that quay:  what did he want?

A family?  A line?  A net?  A country?  A link in a chain he couldn’t put down,

to haul up something far too deeply rusted out of sight;  yet not too far:

he knew it was there, went looking for it, crossed the country, walked and rode and

came back in to Glasgow:  his place, his port.  The first and last he saw, of some-

thing then he must have thought ancestral, real as all the things he knew had happened

to him, in the South Pacific, visceral, in blood and muscle, yielding to delight,

yet also always fictional:  build on that.  On what?  Where was he then?

What strength and what uncertainty, and what desire to know, dared push that pen?



The Blues


The lights are on all over Hamilton.

The sky is dark, blue

as a stained glass window in an unfrequented church

say, by Chagall, with grand and glorious chinks

of pinks and purples,

glittering jewels on those glass fronted buildings

where the lifts are all descending

and the doors are

being closed.

              You’re out there somewhere,

going to a concert in wide company or maybe

sitting somewhere weaving a carpet

like a giant tapestry, colored grey,

pale brown, weaving the wool

back in at the edges of the frame, your

fingers deft as they turn the wool in tight and

gentle curves.

              Or somewhere else.

              What do I do

              except imagine you?

              The river I keep crossing

              keeps going north. The trains

              in the night cross it too.

              Their silver carriages are blue.



The Viaduct, Millheugh


There is no higher iron bridge in Scotland

this viaduct of spars and beams and rivets

the forest rises thick on either side

the river runs from white falls to a broad brown stream below

rare birds can be seen there


Once some thought of dynamite

— children might have fallen, anyway it’s ugly;

   now it is preserved by order

Trains have long ago abandoned it

and grass grows on the pebbles by the sleepers

but it’s strong and stands untrembling

high in the clear winter air

   an undistracted image of attachment

bank to bank and wood to wood


   I’ve crossed it slowly, back and forth

so many times —

               unfrequented, still assured

there is a way

   so high



Lanarkshire, January


low sun –

late winter afternoon –

the shadows stroll and stretch themselves across

                           the green fields and the iron earth –

the widescreen light is cold and clarifies on paths white with frost, all

the lengthening day,

   from Loudon Hill to Tinto

from Darvel to Drumclog.

The spires of village churches sharpen

themselves, pointing up.  Branches click like blades

or needles in the breeze.


Covenanter land: a hard terrain

of outdoor congregations, sheer

determination, beliefs

you’d stand and die with, live for in

commitment, be determined by.


               The bare trees

strain the sunlight in the sky.



All poems on this page are the copyright © of Alan Riach













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