Category Archives: Poems

Gaelic Birdsong (1)

As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…

I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.

Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.

Benyellary OS Sheet 13

Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)

“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill

Cairnywellan Head OS Sheet 31

Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls

Drumadryland OS Sheet 11

Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens

The OS information can be found at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

StAnza schools

In February and March I ran schools workshops for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. I worked with lower secondary pupils at Madras Academy, Waid Academy and St Leonard’s School, as well as with a group of home-schooled pupils from Lothian and Borders.

We looked at three poems as starting points: Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Journey to Kraków’ (which I’d used with Edinburgh secondary schools last autumn), and two poems about birds – Alastair Reid’s ‘Daedalus’ and Alexander Hutchison’s ‘Gavia Stellata’. ‘Journey to Krakow’, written in the 1950s, describes a scene on a train in which ‘a boy / with a book on his knees’ responds to a stranger’s interest in his reading with brief comments on books he’s read, expressing both ‘rapture and condemnation’. I asked the pupils to reflect on their own reading – and watching and listening – preferences, and to present their work as bookmarks. The voice of ‘Daedalus’ is a father describing his son who ‘has birds in his head’, while ‘Gavia Stellata’ describes the red-throated diver by way of elaborate questions and simple answers. I used both poems to suggest ways the pupils could write about birds using both knowledge and imagination.

The sessions with the Madras pupils took place before StAnza, which took place in St Andrews from 6 to 10 March. During the festival their poems were displayed inside and outside the Byre Theatre, as well as in the garden of the Preservation Trust Museum.

I worked with the home-schooled group in the Japanese garden at Lauriston Castle. We read some haiku and mesostics, went for a walk, wrote poems on labels and made a temporary anthology on a small pine.

My thanks to all the teachers and pupils involved, and to StAnza for making the sessions possible.

Gleann Badraig

Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of poems about the Isle of Jura, for a book by the photographer Charles March. Charles contacted me out of the blue, thanks in part, I think, to a poem I’d written many years before about the island.

I visited Jura at the start of February, and was taken by boat to Glenbatrick on the west coast, where Charles had taken his photographs over the previous four or five years. Above the beach, and the rugged coastline either side of it, are a number of raised beaches, created by the land gradually rising after the glaciers melted. Looking inland, the Paps of Jura dominate the skyline – Beinn na Oir, Beinn Siantidh and Beinn Chaolias.

In May and June, Charles’ photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, where a sample copy of the book was on display.

I received copies of the book just this week – I’d forgotten how large it was. The images are beautifully reproduced, catching the shifting and subtle colours of the Hebrides.

Gleann Badraig is published by Distanz Verlag, Berlin.
390 × 275 mm
96 pages, 60 color images, hardcover with linen
ISBN 978-3-95476-248-4
June 2018
€58.00

I have a few copies for sale – contact me if you’re interested in buying a copy.

Floating the Woods

Floating the Woods 02

Last week I had my first sighting of Floating the Woods, a new collection of poems published by and available from Luath Press, and launched on Thursday 29 March at the Scottish Poetry Library.

The cover blurb reads, “the places in Floating the Woods are mainly Scottish, stretching from the Borders to Orkney, taking in Edinburgh, the Tay estuary and the River Ness. Through these landscapes move figures from the past – real, legendary and imagined – as the routes of Romans, Vikings and Celtic saints are followed by later figures such as Wordsworth, James Hogg and John Muir. Further afield the First World War casts a long, dark shadow over otherwise idyllic English and Belgian scenes. There are alphabet, calendar, list and found poems, dealing with imaginary shades of blue and the imponderables of etiquette.”

Floating the Woods 03

I am grateful to Jen Webb, editor of the Australian journal Meniscus, for her text which also appears on the cover. “List the things that matter, and what is likely to appear are stories, and buildings, the birds that fly between them, the hills and streams and skies that surround them, the ordinary stuff of everyday life lived alongside the felt presence of ancient recent history. Ken Cockburn’s new collection captures all this, in the lyrical lists, shape poems and sound poems filled with sharp yet tender observations of the world through which he moves. In a gloriously demotic voice that remains deeply immersed in the long traditions of poetry, he paints space, and place; and in his hands, language finds a mouth.”

Cockburn FtW 2018 2

Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters_Collage

A Hanover bourgeois, Kurt Schwitters,
Grew tired of painting his sitters.
In sentences terse
He declared all art Merz
And made poems from sneezes and titters.

A limerick for Kurt Schwitters on 8 January 2018, the 70th anniversary of his death.

Below are some photos from a visit in 2014 to Cylinders in the Lake District, where Schwitters made his last Merzbau in the 1940s (the barn he made it was recently in the news again), and there is a bench with extracts from his ‘Ursonate’ (to hear an extract performed by Florian Kaplick click here).

Cylinders_Merzbarn

Apples and Pears (reprise)

A brief follow-up to last year’s post about Crailing Community Orchard. I wrote short poems about the apple and pear varieties growing there, which were printed onto botanical labels. Earlier this year these were installed by the respective trees in the orchard. Here is a selection. Happy eating!

 

ASHMEADS KERNEL 2Ashmead’s Kernel

BEURRE HARDY 2
Beurré Hardy, raised c.1820, was named after a M. Hardy, then director of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.

CATILLAC 2Catillac is an old pear variety which has been given many different names, including Monstreuse de Landes, Grand Monarque and Grand Mogol, though its current English name derives from the place-name Cadillac in the Gironde area of France. CONCORDE 1
The Concorde pear combines the Conference and Comice pear varieties, the former popular in Europe, the latter in the USA. DOYENNE DU COMICE 3Doyenné du Comice

EARLY JULYAN 1
Early Julyan

JARGONELLE 4
Jargonelle

LOUISE BONNE 2
Louise Bonne of Jersey was raised c.1780 in Normandy, and was later introduced to England via the Channel Islands. PEASGOOD 2
Peasgood NonesuchWHITE MELROSE 4White Melrose was probably introduced to Scotland by the monks of Melrose Abbey, who as Cistercians wore white robes, to distinguish themselves from the black-robed Benedictines.

WILLIAMS BC 2
Williams Bon ChrétienYELLOW INGESTRIE 2Yellow Ingestrie

 

 

Haiku in Hamburg

I visited planten un blomen, Hamburg’s botanic gardens, in mid-September, and ran a haiku workshop in the Japanese garden, which has a teahouse beside a pond lined with maples, pines and bamboo.

I’d visited the garden before, in late spring, but it seemed to be more itself in autumn – leaves reddening, a few of which had dropped visible in the clear water; pine needles fallen onto rocks; a more muted light suggesting both distance and enclosure.

For the workshop I selected some lines from German versions of Japanese haiku, and we used these as starting points for our own work. Here are some the poems written on the day, with my English translations.

Teehaus_Gruppe

Bauschen die Wolken
lausche ich dem Herbstwind und
halte die Luft an.
[Christine]

Clouds pile up
I listen to the autumn wind and
hold my breath

*

Der Herbst beginnt schon
noch blühen die Sonnenblumen
welch ein schönes Gelb.
[Petra]

*

Autumn has begun
still the sunflowers bloom
a wonderful yellow

*

Plötzlich donnert es –
das Geräusch des Wassers bleibt
ununterbrochen
[KC]

Sudden thunder –
the sound of water continues
uninterrupted

*

Geräusch des Wassers
taube Ohren des Herbstes
nach dem Sonnenklang
[Simon]

The sound of water
autumn’s deaf ears
after sunchords

*

Zwei Ameisen sah’n
Altona Amerika
Erlangen Weisheit.
[Sidney]

Two ants saw
Altona America
Gained wisdom.

This is a playful take on an already playful poem, ‘Die Ameisen’ (’The Ants’) by Joachim Ringelnatz (1883-1934) known to anyone who lives in or grew up in Hamburg. I append a literal translation below. The district of Altona lies immediately west of central Hamburg.

In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen,
die wollten nach Australien reisen.
Bei Altona, auf der Chaussee,
da taten ihnen die Beine weh,
und da verzichteten sie weise
dann auf den letzten Teil der Reise.

In Hamburg there lived two ants,
who wanted to travel to Australia.
In Altona, on the street,
their legs started hurting,
so wisely they gave up
the last part of their journey.

JapaneseGarden13

 

 

Silence before Speech

sbs-bog-cotton-jm  sbs-im-neil-christie  sbs-time-and-tide-kc
Silence before Speech is a new publication in memory of Neil Christie, a friend who died on Christmas eve three years ago. It’s a boxed set of 16 poem-cards, each featuring a poem by myself or Jane MacKie, and a painting by Dina Campbell. The portfolio was designed by Mary Asiedu.

sbs-barra-kc

We all knew Neil; he had a gift for friendship, and for bringing people together. One of his favourite tricks was to arrange a meeting to which he invited people from different parts of his life, and then cry off at the last moment, leaving us to get to know each other.

sbs-coast-jm

He worked as a graphic designer, and occasional publisher; Reading the Streets was made for his Duende Press, when he linked myself and illustrator Libby Walker. Latterly he lived down by the river at Cramond, and I’ve fond memories of eating fish soup in his small cottage there, packed with books and CDs, before emerging for a riverside stroll.

sbs-winter-solstice-kc

Jane and I both wrote to Dina’s images, and their titles. My poems all came out as unpunctuated six-liners; Jane allowed herself more scope, in length and stanza form.

The cards measure 195 x 94 mm. A set costs £15 – please contact me if you’d like to buy a set.

 

Apples & Pears


This summer I visited Crailing Community Orchard, near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, and wrote a set of short poems about the apple and pear trees it contains. Each poem has the tree name as a title, and a verse of 3 lines. The poems were engraved on botanical labels (white text on a black background) by Sheen Botanical Labels, and the photos below were taken at Harestanes Countryside Visitor Centre, when the poems sat alongside their fruit as part of Apple Day in early October. Soon they will be attached to trees in the orchard, serving in part as practical identity labels, while also articulating something of the tree’s particularities.


CATHERINE is an apple first grown in Combs, Suffolk, outside a pub called Live and Let Live. — CATILLAC is an old pear variety which has been given many different names, including Monstreuse de Landes, Grand Monarque and Grand Mogol. Its current English name derives from the place-name Cadillac in the Gironde area of France.


DISCOVERY was raised c.1949 by a Mr Dummer of Essex, who raised several seedlings from Worcester Pearmain pips and decided to plant the best one in front garden. Having only one arm he needed his wife’s help, but she slipped and broke her ankle, so the unplanted tree remained outdoors during frosts. It survived, indeed thrived, and was later popularised by a Mr Matthews of Suffolk. — HESSLE is named for the Yorkshire village where it was first found. “It [succeeds] in almost every situation and part… the Hessle pear trees in Herefordshire were laden with fruit in the year 1880, when almost all other varieties failed.” (Herefordshire Pomona)


WHITE MELROSE was probably introduced to Scotland by the monks of Melrose Abbey, who as Cistercians wore white robes, to distinguish themselves from the black-robed Benedictines.

The poems were also printed as a set of cards, designed by Lise Bratton.

crailing-cards
GLOUCESTER MORCEAU is a pear originally raised by Abbé Nicolas Hardenpont in Wallonia in the 18th century, and named after him Beurré d’Hardenpont. However “in the environs of Mons… [it] was more often called the Glout Morceau, converted afterwards by the French, when M. Noisette brought it from Belgium in 1806, into Goulu Morceau. The word ‘glout’ in Walloon signifies dainty or delicate and thus ‘glou morceau’ means daintybit : ‘goulu’ on the contrary, signifies greedy, or great eater; the the Beurré d’Hardenpont has become, through this starnge alteration in name by the Fench, a gluttonous eater, instead of a fruit worthy of being eaten.” (HP) Presumably ‘Gloucester’ derives from a similar ‘translation’ of sound rather than meaning. — RED DEVIL is an apple variety which failed at Crailing.

I drew much of the poems’s content from information found in The New Book of Apples (ed. Richards and Morgan,1993), A Handbook of Hardy Fruits: Apples and Pears (EA Bunyard, 1920), and Herefordshire Pomona (Hogg and Bull,1876–85).

Art in Aden

I made What is a tree? for the Midsummer Arts Festival at Aden Country Park, near Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, on Sunday 19 June. It’s a set of poems on botanical labels attached to trees around the park. The poems aim, as in a riddle, to provide an initially puzzling, but also recognisably accurate, description of the tree in question.

Below are some notes about the ideas behind the poems.

(1) Recognisable by its black buds, the ash is one of the last trees to leaf in spring.

(2) The beech’s smooth bark has made it a favourite for inscriptions over the centuries; these expand as the tree grows.

(3) Their branches used for besoms in the past, birches create an environment favoured by many plants, fungi, moths and birds.

(4) To encounter a cherry was considered auspicious and fateful.

(5) The elder’s branches don’t burn well; its flowers don’t have a very pleasant smell, but make a fine drink.

(6) The horse-chestnut is easily recognisable at different times of year.

(7) Lime flowers attract bees in numbers.

(8) Planted outside houses to fend off evil spirits, the rowan’s red berries worn as a necklace were considered protective.

(9) The water-resistant resin in the wood of the Scots pine makes it good for boat-building; rosin (a residue from pine wood) is used for treating the bows of stringed instruments.

(10) Spruce wood was used in early aircraft construction, including the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk.

(11) A non-native tree, it’s unclear when the sycamore first arrived in Scotland. Its wood produces much heat when burned, while trees that show a ‘flame’ patterning in the wood are favoured by violin makers.

(12) Yews are often found in churchyards. The middle two lines are taken from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Yew Trees’.

With thanks to the Friends of Aden Country Park for commissioning this work.