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
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
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
– Windflower, Elgar called her.
Ah, those rosebud lips.
And things all ‘wild & headstrong’ –
‘dreaming of a greatness...by 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 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
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
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
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
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
you’d stand and die with, live for in
commitment, be determined by.
The bare trees
strain the sunlight in the sky.