Category Archives: Poems

Silence before Speech

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

River Connections, Inverness

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At the end of September I was in Inverness, where I saw a batch of poems I wrote last year about the River Ness and its vast catchment area being installed on the new flood wall. I’d been asked by Mary Bourne to produce the work, which she intended to carve directly onto the wall, but it turned out the stone wasn’t good for carving (a soft sandstone, with hard bits of quartz spread erratically through it), so she had most of the poems etched onto steel and set into the wall. The masons were at work setting them into the coping as we walked along the riverbank in unseasonably warm sunshine.

The poems are mostly on Bank Street, between the Young Street Bridge and the pedestrian bridge, though there are a few beyond that, along Douglas Row towards the Friars Bridge. A further group of texts will be installed on the west bank of the river in the new year, and stones featuring circle poems written by local writers are to be installed at Kessock Road near the mouth of the river shortly.

Seven Miles
Uillte
Loch nan Oighreagan
never freeze
Loch Ness, Columba
immigrants and emigrants

Library Mesostics

Mesostic Interleaved

I visited Edinburgh University Main Library today, open to the public on Doors Open Day. I wanted to see again the mesostic poems, by myself, Alec Finlay and others, that were installed on the bay ends as part of the library refurbishment in 2009. Each is about a particular author whose work is in the collection; an earlier post gives more background.

Curved Stream at Traquair House

Curved Stream

Curved Stream is an exhibition by seven artists and one writer (myself) at Traquair House, near Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Each of the artists has a work in one of the garden pavilions to the rear of the house, and a related work in the main house and / or in the gardens and grounds.

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One of the pavilions has, as its centre-piece, an anonymous ceiling-painting depicting an episode in the story of Diana and Actaeon (told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), just before the transformation of Actaeon into a stag. The survival, intact, of this beautiful artefact, embedded in the fabric of the building, exemplifies many of the special qualities of the site as a whole.

The work I’ve made is called DEA SILVARUM (Goddess of the Woods), as Ovid describes Diana, and is a walk with poems on the theme of hunting in the gardens and grounds of Traquair House. The poems include Ted Hughes’ version of Ovid, plus works by Robert Burns, Edna St Vincent Millay and the great Anon, among others. I led a first walk at the exhibition opening on 5 September, and will lead a second on Saturday 10 October at 2.30pm.

In the pavilion is a printed sheet listing the poems I selected for the walk, typeset by Barrie Tullett, with handwritten annotations featuring extracts from and reflections on the poems, as well as notes as to where I’d planned to read them. The sheet is in a drawer, so you have to open it to read the text – the idea for that was taken from a Victorian Game Book which was (but is not longer) on display in the house, in a glass below a window with a sheet of dark fabric draped over it to protect it from the light. I liked that ‘reveal’, and it seemed to echo the events in Actaeon’s story as well, so the text is hidden in the drawer, until its own ‘reveal’.

If you don’t know the story: Actaeon has been hunting deer with his friends in the woods. After a successful, bloody morning, they pause; Actaeon wanders off alone and stumbles upon a cavern where the goddess Diana, is bathing. Angry that he has seen her naked, she turns him into a stag, and he is hunted down and killed by his own dogs.)

The artists involved are Gordon Brennan, Mark Haddon, Jane Hyslop, Paul Keir, Deirdre Macleod, Andrew Mackenzie and Mary Morrison. There is more information about the exhibition and their work at the Curved Stream website and Facebook page.

Falkland Labyrinth

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In 2014 I was asked to write a poem for the orchard at Falkland Palace in Fife. Sonia, the palace’s head gardener, had just planted a willow labyrinth, with a circular area at its centre. There she planned to install a circular bench, with on it a poem.

Over the summer I ran various events in and around the palace, working with local residents, pupils from the village primary school and from Falkland School, as well as kids from the nursery just up the road. We explored the orchard in blossom time, and again when the branches were heavy with fruit; and a group of us did a circuit up Maspie Den, following the “Yad’s single thread” upstream. I climbed East Lomond, or Falkland Hill, which I’d last done as a teenager, and also West Lomond, a bit further out from the village, which I’d last done more recently as part of The Road North.

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I read about the village’s history: the obscure origin of the name ‘Falkland’; the Pictish stone featuring the image of a bull, “spirited and naturalistically rendered”; the development of the palace as a hunting lodge with an enclosed park around it for the ‘sport’ of the Scottish royals; the locally grown flax which was woven into linen; the now ruined Temple of Decision; and the local flora and fauna, from white ramping fumitory to the soprano pipistrelle.

I was also thinking about the ‘release – receive – return’ principle of the labyrinth: you release what’s you’re carrying with you on the way in; at the centre, the point of stillness, you receive what’s there for you to receive; and as you return, you think how what you’ve received will impact on your life in the future. I knew readers would encounter the poem at the mid-point of their experience of the labyrinth, and at what feels like a central point within Falkland, from that part of the orchard you can see the palace, the town hall, the church and East Lomond.

And I’d to fit all that into a poem which, given the dimensions of the bench and the need to have legible letters, was limited to 185 characters – slightly longer than a single tweet.

Now your steps to here have led
sit within the woven shade

Just outside this pliant wall
crowstep clocktower steeple hill

In the future bear in mind
the twists of labyrinthine time

Willow leaves

On Raasay

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I was on the Isle of Raasay in early June, for the launch of Patterns of Flora | Mapping Seven Raasay Habitats. ATLAS Arts, based on nearby Skye, had commissioned Edinburgh-based ceramicist, Frances Priest to develop a series of handmade, ceramic artworks for permanent installation in Raasay House.

The form and design of the artworks – vases, door knobs, door pushes and pieces for sills – are based on Raasay’s plant life, and in particular seven different habitats that host unique and varying plant species: Bog, Coast, Fresh Water, Limestone, Moor, Mountains and Woodland. Alongside these Frances designed a map, featuring the habitats with associated walks. She collaborated with Raasay-based botanist Stephen Bungard.

(I had worked with Frances several years ago, on Pandora’s Light Box at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, and it was good to catch up with her work in a very different setting.)

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I was there to lead a ‘haiku walk’ on the Saturday afternoon, again working with Stephen. We went to the salt marsh at Oskaig, arriving at a particularly wind- and rain-swept moment, but the weather cleared and there was much to enjoy immediately around us, and looking across the sound to Skye and the Cuillins. I was struck by Stephen’s remark that the four aspen trees we saw were in fact all one, the trunks all sharing a single root.

Back at Raasay House all was notebooks and concentration.

On Sunday, once the morning rain had cleared, I managed a walk with Frances and others on the east coast from Fearns to Hallaig, below the cliffs and into the birchwood the burn runs through. In his poem ‘Hallaig’ Sorley Maclean repeoples the now empty places:

na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe, / dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

the girls a wood of birches, / straight their backs, bent their heads.

there were our own there were the others

Killerton REMEMBRANCE

I spent much of summer 2014 driving the motorways and country lanes of England and Wales with Luke Allan for there were our own there were the others, a project by Alec Finlay for the National Trust to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Luke & I visited 23 properties, all of which had some connection to the war – a family member who served and was perhaps killed; a house used as a hospital, grounds used as a training camp; gardens planted as memorials to the carnage. At each I led a silent memorial walk, bookended by a pair of poems from the past century on the theme of conflict. At most properties we set up a pair of lecterns, on which the poems were presented, and at some the lecterns were placed either end of a sandbag wall, reminiscent of the trenches. At a few we flew a red flag featuring a circular version of project’s title. That phrase is taken from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, about his experiences in the North African desert in the Second World War, but it seemed an apt way of memorialising all the victims of conflict, rather than just those ‘on our side’, as did the large-scale ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London.

This gallery above shows some photos from the tour (all are by me, except Killerton Chapel by Hannah Devereux, and Liverpool, by Luke Allan). The full itinerary is on the website.

After the English and Welsh tours I was able to visit Belgium at the end of September to visit some of the First World War sites near Ypres: graveyards, battlefields, memorials. I also saw the excellent exhibition In Flanders Fields in the Lakenhalle in the centre of Ypres itself, which shows the war from the perspective of the four armies who were fighting there: Belgian, French, British and German. We stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge, a small town which, for most of the war was just far enough behind the front line for it to be fairly safe. Talbot House became a social club for off-duty soldiers, and retains many features of that time.

book of the same title documents and reflects on the project. It includes poems and prose by myself about the walks and the poems, as well as the poem ‘Cloqueliclot’ about my experiences in Belgium. It also features fine photos by Luke and Hannah.

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Orkney

we sail past Stroma’s empty fields
the Maidens grind the sea-gods’ salt
binoculars to scan the scene
the latent power the races hold

the Romans came and saw and left
Vikings named themselves in runes
a hoard of shards the dig unearthed
the sacred grove is made of stone

unfurl your banner to the breeze
starlings wheel across the sky
a spotted orchid in the verge
the wind is in the blades and flags

divers down among the wrecks
I don’t know what it is I’ve found
a haar drifts in across the rocks
the crab’s blue shell fades in the sun

Last autumn I took part in The Written Image, an exhibition organised by Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop and the Scottish Poetry Library. Poets and printmakers were paired, and I worked with Cat Outram. When we met she was just about to visit Orkney for the first time, and I’d visited the previous summer, so that became our theme. We came to settle on four of Cat’s images that seemed to give a good overview of Orkney: FERRY (geography), FARM (economy), BEACH (ecology), and BRODGAR (archaeology). I returned to a notebook I’d kept while there in 2012, and another relating to an unrealised project at John O’Groats; for each image I composed a 4-line stanza, guided by half-rhymes. The order in which the stanzas can be read is interchangeable. ‘The Maidens’ are one of the powerful tidal currents, or ‘races’, in the Pentland Firth.

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