ELEMENTS OF CHRISTMAS
The elements are always there: water and straw,
beasts with warm noses and ignorant eyes,
shepherds satisfied that they have found
another myth, wise men who trace
to its source whatever bright notion falls
from their Babylonian sky; at the centre rests
the everlasting family set-piece
and in the distance Herod dreams of his enemies´ ghosts.
Here, outside this local
window, little sticks
(like gravestones) mark where under snow
tulip-bulbs save up and nourish
blood-red secrets which at Easter will overflow.
ARRIVING BY TRAIN, DECEMBER
Less familiar miles are quick.
Further north, each mile
thickens and slows. Gorse, rowan,
pine, without seeing them
I recognise the way they lean.
A croft light, one more.
I fill the black space between
with names like Lothbeag or Loth
(public policies) and quick
instants of weather, the bend
of reeds, campions under larch
I know are felled, a raised beach
whose stones never seemed to warm.
Private policies, no doubt.
Father´s waiting shape watches
five strangers alight, one
of whom stops and becomes me.
Our feet make the same sound
creaking home on new snow.
If God had stood there, high-antlered,
eyes jewelled for a second, fearful of
my car´s predatory noise yet giving
cold appraisal from the edge of the flowing road –
(there were white lines to follow, nothing clear
except my own lights exploding forward,
all meaning narrowed between verges) –
if God, would the beast in Him have fled?
THE SWING BRIDGE
The bridge holds because it gives way.
Grey wires, planks weathered white
give to father´s tread, which I try to match.
Crossing alone is worse: my careful step
goes spongy, almost walking-on-air.
And the wet air is loud; even in June
the fresh and hectic water never stops.
Last time I came to find the bridge,
a decade ago, there was none.
Must´ve been quick, I thought, to roll it up
and bundle it off. Its grace was flimsy.
Yet how much space is left, as if
a crowded tenement had been cleared.
And how my feet remember its queasy sway.
AN OLD WOMAN AT THE WINDOW
The thunder has lost its memory
but it goes on mumbling,
fish in their element
leap, an alien light.
Heavy raindrops echo
in a deep well.
Cover the mirror and sit back
THE END OF AN AGE
The chestnut they said had stood for seventy years.
Its whiteness in May, redness in September,
thin scrolls of long fingery twigs,
were things expected of it.
The tree was an obvious landmark, like a hill.
The little people hurrying about the place,
their heads packed with intricacies,
their feet not in the habit of standing still,
slightly envied the tree
for adding such tiny cubits to itself.
At last, for safety´s sake it had to come
and, falling, for the first time became heavy.
A man with an axe sorting it all out
but making slow work
said “A tree´s complicated when it´s down.”
IN MEMORIAM ALBERTO GIACOMETTI
“The more you pare the fatter it becomes” –
by which you meant, I suppose, that leanness
occupies its space exactly.
You pressed matter to vanishing point.
Your fingers restlessly expunged
the most tenuous superfluity.
There is a limit, though, which now you´ve passed:
not to be at all is an extreme.
For us your existences are large,
massive between slender definitions.
IN SPITE OF THE SEASON
(after a story by Yurii Kazakov)
Things have been going too well.
Must hold steady. Don´t
stare at the river-boat.
Arrival´s a precarious thing.
She comes. The river at home
is now a black crack in the ice,
the sea is weighed down with floes.
In summer there we speared bass.
When I left she said “Why?
Going south is going forever.”
Now her White Sea voice
is rough and intimate again.
All night through at the fire.
All morning asleep. Then:
snow – winter has caught up,
the woods of oak and larch are bare.
At my window she waits
while I take the water-can.
White earth, blue air.
Bubbles scamper in the creaking ice.
How bright for a dead season!
Things have been going too well.
Up the soft path I strain
to hold the live and kicking water still.
In the hand, found wanting.
There are more ways to growth
than obeying green cells.
In dreams I throw the stone
and it walks back. In life
I throw it and it stops.
In neither can I lift
what gives the stone its weight:
Ben Griam´s westward scoop,
the wind´s prevailing touch
and the tenacity
of water molecules
working through the peat maze.
A context, outliving.
A subtext, blind, writ large.
My hand, that´s found wanting.
Back to the Old Quad dream:
in the latest version
I´m on the outside of
a tall smooth column, on
a coiling stairway round
black doorless surfaces.
Will all this granite lean
one day, crack and collapse?
It can´t. The Great War slab
of killed names anchors us.
It is dense like a rock
from another planet.
Its weight makes gravity
tighten its hard hand-clasp.
No right angle would dare
to be less than dead right.
WAITING TO CROSS A FJORD
Birches and pines have come down their long slopes.
They are squat and hazy. They swell and shrink.
Underwater stones are too visible.
They don´t give a hint of sunless valleys.
Rain. Small rings hurry into each other.
There are so many of them they die young.
There is much of life in a backwater.
From here the wide fjord surface is opaque
as stone. An assurance. Sea-level is
the safest of places, height- and depth-free.
The ferry rounds a point. Prow and stern high,
a slice of melon shape balancing like
a junk or miniature idea of junk
in an old print, undaunted by ink waves.
I am daunted now, here at sea-level
for the opaque surface turns translucent
and sunlight can be seen losing itself.
The unseen valleys are truly sunless.
Time that has been running and running stops.
Birches and pines have loped to their true heights.
ON DECK AT NIGHT
Finding no moon, no stars, no
Seeing no difference beween
blackness of sea, blackness of sky.
Imagining those few lights
are meagre faltering streetlamps
in a village long ago.
Expecting to hear footsteps
then a knock on a green door
and a voice inside: “It´s open.”
AUGUST EVENING ON DECK
“Native land” is something I keep leaving.
St Mary´s Lighthouse, and the cooling-towers
at Blyth, shrink, vanish, last visible proof
that a land mass exists, grand foundations
and small private sites. Our course is North-East.
This time we leave we´re followed three hours out
by a deep inland warmth, the kind that takes
all day to ripen bounded by flagstone
path and cottage wall both centuries old,
while nasturtium tendrils waver past an edge.
LOW WATT WOULD DO
There must be a window pane
to tell us what´s out, what´s in.
There must be the sound of wind
flowing in at least one tree
without flowing away. One
distant light would do to show
how distances are always
to hand. There must be a light
beside us, low-watt would do,
to show our window is still
inhabited. Given these
we can feel roughly at home
in the universe, is what
we approximately say.
Then there´s the sound of water
the quietest would do, small waves
where a still loch ends in sand.
A bonus, persuading us
time goes round and round, not on.
The TV screens of all Europe show
severe low pressure south of Iceland
drenching Caithness drenching Sutherland
again. Water will be relentless
down smooth backs of family gravestones
and their lettered fronts not often read.
By the River Helmsdale, John Fulton,
father, Margaret Macpherson, mother,
their stones, as stones go, still unweathered.
By the River Thurso, grandfather
Murdo Macpherson, Elizabeth
Macdonald his wife, and his father
Murdoch, Free Presbyterian and
tailor, Joanna Shearer his wife.
By the River Helmsdale, at Kinbrace,
his father, William, Catherine Fraser
his wife, he who was “keeper of the grass”
at Griamochory, reached 89.
And then his father Alexander
who wed Ann Sutherland, 1801.
And the harsh sides of Morven sodden
again with more rain than they can hold:
I had teenage plans to reach the top
and get home perhaps in the one day.
What stopped me was not the gradient
but the unbearable loneliness
that would crowd in on me from the moors
and would stare at me and not say one word.
HEARING THE SEA
Heard my blood say to my ear, “just me,”
and my tinnitus, “I never tire.”
Dreamt that Acker Bilk played a tune called
“Leo Fibonacci on the shore.”
There were many crushed whorls to tread on,
a few perfect to keep and measure.
Does hubris make whelks build such armour
their lives in slime can never outlive?
We give the whelks a pride they can´t feel
and a cruelty that is all ours.
What if a godless dark once huddled
in, died from, the shell of York Minster?
There has been much interpretation
of the not-quite-silence that drowns out
footfalls and voices between such walls.
It´s like the sea we don´t hear in a conch.