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Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland


Featured Poet


Elizabeth Burns





Elizabeth Burns’ fourth collection of poetry is Held (Polygon, 2010). She has also published several pamphlets with the Glasgow-based Galdragon Press, most recently The Shortest Days which won the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets in 2009. Elizabeth’s work has appeared in many anthologies, including Modern ScottishWomen Poets (Canongate, 2003), 100 Favourite Scottish Love Poems (Luath, 2007) and the award-winning The Thing that Mattered Most: Poems for Children (Black and White Publishing 2006). After living for many years in Scotland, Elizabeth now lives in Lancaster, and teaches creative writing.







‘Poems of painterly clarity graced by flawless craftsmanship and beauty of language.’ Stewart Conn


‘Elizabeth Burns is a poet of delicate detail and paints small rooms and huge skies with an equally sure hand.’ The Orcadian


‘Her perception of the world is both precise and tender.’ The Herald






One year old, and he’s discovering the river,

dropping stones in at the edge, retrieving them.


He loves containers, says his mother,

then wonders, is a river a container?


The riverbed is: it curves its way from Roeburndale

down through these woods of wild garlic and bluebells,


letting the winding stony vessel of itself be filled

with springwater, meltwater, rainwater,


water which also contains things – you can plop

a stone into it, take it out again,


and here are glints of fish and floating twigs,

silt, insects, air-bubbles, ducklings –


and if the river’s a container, so’s a song,

holding words and tune; an eggshell


holds a bird, the atmosphere

enfolds the planet; everything is like a basket


says the basketmaker, the earth contains us,

we contain bones, blood, air, our hearts.


We are baskets and makers of baskets,

and fresh from the hold of the womb


the boy-child’s discovering how things

are held by other things: milk in a cup,


food in a bowl, a ball in his hands,

a stone in water, water in a nest of stones.


from Held (Polygon, 2010)



The brightest star


Henrietta Swan Leavitt, 1868–1921



Is it because she can hear nothing that she strains her eyes

to see the farthest stars? Her ears blur sound

but her eyes look through the thirteen lenses

layered inside this telescope she’s invented;

her eyes see all the known stars of the universe

and she’s the one who starts recording them.


Her mind – the brightest one in Harvard, so they say –

works out a way of knowing how far away

a star is from the earth: by calculating brightness,

she can measure distance. Because of this,

they start to map out space: to calibrate

how big the Milky Way is, how old the universe.


She finds new stars – novae that suddenly

shine bright, then fade away. Cancer eclipses her.

By the time they think of her for the Nobel, she’s dead.

Instead they name a crater on the moon for her.

The maps of galaxies go on and on expanding.

She’s watching from a soundless place, light years ahead.


from Held (Polygon, 2010)



 Poem for an elective mute



for a child who has already learned the power

of silence, and folds it round her like a cloak


who lives in quietude

as does a Quaker or an angler or a nun


who knows there is too much

clamour and chatter in the world


and to whom I offer

images of things which are moving


yet so silent that only the pipistrelle

might hear them:


the baby hovering in the womb,

snowfall, or the flight of swallows


a new moon, not yet visible

once called the silent moon


the artist in her studio – I can’t talk

when I paint and it’s very quiet


the petals of the white rose as they open

and as they fall; and all the words


which fly around her head, not ready

to alight yet on her tongue –


from Held (Polygon, 2010)





Song for Claudia



It is Easter morning, and raining, but the table

is bright with flowers and blown eggs,

their gold paint glinting in candlelight

and we are eating Easter bread,

the oval loaf you’ve sent us from Germany,

bread that you make every year

from your grandmother’s recipe

so that the kneading reminds you of her

and of your mother, who also made it,

piercing the dough as Christ was pierced,

filling the holes with egg yolk and sugar

so the loaf is studded with spots of yellow

like little suns. Tucked in the parcel,

a letter, your memories of my father.

The biscuits you sent us at Christmas

arrived the day that he died, and we ate them

crumbly and almondy, with hot milk or tea

on those bitterly cold afternoons.


There was a winter morning years ago – our first

shared birthday – when we breakfasted together,

the table full of bread and flowers, the day

not yet light, snow falling at the window.

‘Star sisters’ you call us, born the same day of the year,

the day that we phone, or send letters and cards;

one year, a lantern you’d made from waxed paper,

its candle each Christmas casting a pattern of stars

round our room, as your own lantern does

on the pale golden walls of your flat in Berlin.


It is Easter morning, and raining, and the children

will hunt a wet garden for eggs, and we’ll come in

to coffee, and more of your yellow-flecked bread,

warm in our mouths with the promise of spring.


from Held (Polygon, 2010)






carries the guid Scots tongue in her heid

all the way to London


where it becomes like the kitchen china

worn and cracked with use


kept in the press with the girdle and the spurtle,

the ashet and the jeelie pan.


The good china of English

is what you bring out for visitors:


kept in the credenza

with the key in its lock.


Lift it carefully onto the silver-plated tray.

Remember which language


you’re speaking in. Dinnae –

Dinnae forget.


from The Lantern Bearers (Shoestring, 2007)








Even when she moved

five hundred miles away

telepathy was alive between them

and love as strong as ever


She sends in the post

pressed tulip petals

slivers of shell from the day at the beach

wrapped in tissue paper


She, a book of stories

golden earrings


and she, the painting of a windy day

the daffodil bowl


Even before the letter

saying, between the lines, ‘come’,

she is on her way


from Ophelia and other poems (Polygon, 1991)




At Barra airport



We’ve wandered all morning on the runway,

dabbling in seawater for shells,

looking out to Eriskay

and the blue Uists.


Reaching the airport, we go in for coffee,

windswept, sand on our shoes.

The phone rings but no on answers it.

All the chairs are turned towards the view.


Out again, with the ocean

humming in our ears,

we sit down to picnic on the dunes

and up snuggles the airport cat.


People begin to gather: porters,

the post bus, an ambulance,

a man with cameras.

Everyone eyes the horizon.


And here it comes now, out of the clouds,

dipping over water, skimming with white wings.

Fragile as a dragonfly,

it lands, on tiptoes, on the cocklestrand.


A bustle of luggage and hugging.

News arriving: letters and papers.

Trucks scrawling tyremarks on the sand,

the cat hissing at a sheepdog.


The air hostess struggles with high heels

and the wind flapping at her kilt.

The pilot stops for a moment,

bends down, picks up a shell.


from The Gift of Light (Diehard, 1999)





after Edwin Morgan


Were there ever strawberries like the ones

bought on a sunny morning in early June

from a cream-painted greengrocer’s shop

in the market square of a Devon town

and eaten that afternoon in a birchwood

with a soft wind shimmering the leaves

and the sunlight making dappled shadows

on the little cousins as they reach into the punnets

for the fruit, so warm and sweet, its ruby juice

alreadyglistening on their fingers and their chins?



All poems on this page are the copyright © of Elizabeth Burns












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