Little gets past the blue-eyed
collie who never sleeps: wired, rigid,
head turned by instinct, all her being
tensed to the instant where the car flies nearest
(one day she'll take the plunge
and take the impulse with her.)
No, but she can tell: could taste it on the air
before a match was ever struck.
So too, the barnacle geese: lifting with their crash of
seats abandoned in a fleapit theatre.
Our scorched earth policy hardly
favours all the animals--
for the grouse's nibbles there are others
left with nose (or beak) out of joint.
The ribbon road: like a child's depiction of such,
past the dip haunted by the otter,
a feather-turn of radio matching
waveform of verge and fence
to the ebb of whispering Bob's lament,
then seeing Hellisay—on fire, arcs and spirals
of red showing her muirburn's leading edge.
His home well mothballed, carpetless, slot-scored
Bell's bottle full of coppers by the doormat.
Thumb on chest he called himself The Wreck of the Hesperus;
smelling the muirburn on my clothes
he remarked on it as I went about my work.
Given whisky for our efforts: 'A smoor,' he said,
offering no water to put out the fire.
Returning on the ribbon road, it was late enough
for the shipping forecast: song of the nightingale
translated for sky and sea, Hebrides as ever
covering all bases with good, occasionally poor.
For the hell of it, on my own gowk's errand,
I climbed Ben Eoligarry, sat in anticipation of dawn.
There, on the horizon, Hellisay burned on,
sending up a plaintive banner of cloud for the geese--
and for that blue-eyed collie, who would not sleep
until the sun came to kill the flame.
Published in Stand 197.
Sent to flap about the washing, we tried
to stay good. But what's a kid to do? Bored by
the slimy scent of bins, by the oppressive
woodsmoke air of Avonbridge, which in its vale
wears a cap of smog in all but summer, we spied--
her window. Next to my gran's, Mrs Craw's:
the crone who dressed in black, like her namesake,
over selfsame spindling legs. So, what to do?
We peered in. Her scullery, empty; a yawning sink
like my gran's, ragged lino, Belling cooker.
And there, beneath her open window—soup-pot,
primed with tatties, carrots, split peas, for putting
on later. I ask you, what were we to do? Then
the laughing thought of it made us mad: it was all
we could do to stop ourselves from throwing in
stones and dirt from her back path. Which we did.
When her bad drunken son came home later,
to find no soup for his tea, he hammered her.
What could we do? We listened through the wall.
His roars detonated in my dreams; I crammed an ear
to the rubber sheet to drown them out; and her
emptied face—seen as we idled in the back court
by her door next morning—haunts me still.
Now, when I take a fill of my own mother's soup,
as much as it is good and warm and tasting
of all the consolations of childhood, still a part of
me expects one day to break my teeth on a stone:
or find the dregs of muck we left her with.
Published by Northwords Now.
Not knowing how the rain came next day.
Probably hearing the arrival of the siren.
Never having a beard, or a paunch, or lunch
in Venice or any other city you never saw.
Knowing your iwi, your whānau, your hapū.
Not believing in Father Christmas until the bike.
Eating whitebait fried straight off the point and
knowing nothing could ever taste as good.
Sensing the shift of air, yet not feeling your skin
dead as we had to split your sides for breath.
Not knowing that the blackened nub of your nose
collapsed as your mother tried to hold you.
Hearing a cautionary tale somewhere about
matches. Not knowing how it ended.
Published in The Rialto 73.
My dad was a great speaker of Lallans Scots. Some of his words reminded me of the German I was taught at school: dochter (tochter) for daughter; kirk (kirche) for church, and so on. Other words I've come to realize were more Scandinavian: flit (move house) and braw (great) and bairn (child) similar to the Swedish flytta, bra and barn, for example.
Still other words he used were maybe pure Lallans: bow-hough'd (bow-legged), and slew-e'en (squint-eyed) were favourites of his I never heard used by anyone else.
And so too, dirl: to vibrate, or tingle, and listed in the dictionary as being used in Scotland and the north of England. The sonnet below records, I guess, the last time I remember him using it.
When we broke up the patio, that last good summer,
you tried to hide your smile as I swung my pick
and the earth kicked back. Dirling, you called it:
arms pranged, handle made so illogically hot
I had to drop it. Later, you used the same word
for treatments turning hands and feet opaque:
after you'd lost bulk, grown wings in back, absurd
hollows at neck, face. That day you surveyed
the patio's brute rectangle, took a brush and swept
dust to its edges. I joked at the housekeeping:
Stoor absorbs shock, you said. I swept, in the end.
You wedged, undermined with sticks too thin.
Tap it there, you said. And the solid concrete split
like dropped chalk. In an hour, a field of rubble.
Published in Magma 53.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.