The soldier boys know nothing
of the world but how to end it;
nothing of books but how they burn.
Fire’s another slow reader
to begin with, then it skims,
remembering all it knows already.
Today the town square’s primordial
with mist and smoke, a smeared
flask of new beginnings; flames
well into their stride are strenuous
with cartloads of the mint and foxed
guilty of being on the wrong shelves.
And last of these, the luscious herbals.
Speed-edited for wormholes
and disinformation, they split, spill
their tinted cornucopias; fruit rises
blazing and exotic then descends
to seed the square with purer black.
Better than scandal sheets or almanacs,
agreed, but maybe we’ve seen endings
enough where nothing grows but hunger;
and soldiers with their sooty bayonets,
they’re known to get bored with embers,
to remember other work they have.
So fades the evening’s entertainment.
Pinched streets begin to fill the way
leaves and ashes clog the fountain
where the daft woman will spend her night,
begging for any fruit to spare, begging
the soldiers for her daughter back.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
Perhaps the most complex of the poems I have chosen this year, Alasdair Paterson's 'Pomegranate' makes sparse use of the myth of Persephone which is behind this poem. Instead he explores ideas of book burning in history ('Fire's another slow reader') via a narrative set in an unspecific time. It is a rich poem which rewards time spent with it. Paterson is a poet who has come back to poetry after a long break, his work so far showing this was an about turn well worth making.
'Pomegranate' tells a familiar enough story of soldiers, civilians and book-burning. These are the days we still live in, and the poem is intended to stand on its own feet without historical apparatus or geographical precision. Its origins, however, lie in the French Revolutionary Calendar, with its relatively well-known new months (this poem is from a sequence called Brumaire, after the foggy month) and its almost unknown (because unadopted) re-naming of every day of the year after plants, animals and agricultural tools. Pomegranate was the proposed name for November 9th, the 19th day of Brumaire. Unsurprisingly, the proposal for naming the days afresh never caught on in 1793, but I liked it and tried to find contexts for some of the names. Apart from that, there's a reference to the classical myth of a daughter and her fateful encounter with pomegranate seeds in the underworld.