It was one of those last swarms, a blood-red immolation of ladybirds so thick the air appeared pixellated. Traffic stopped. My mother grasped my hand, and together we picked a path across hot tarmac decorated with appliqué wing-cases. They buckled like molten plastic, stuck to the bottom of our sandals – mottled chitin, black gravel. I looked up and saw tears on my mother's chin. Quaking, she led me past the stationary cars, their engines overheated. All the time more dazed ladybirds gathered in her golden hair as if she guaranteed safe passage or could halt the insect blizzard. Looking up, I saw a Hawthorn Queen, her crown alive with crawling berries.
Jane McKie's first two collections of poetry were Morocco Rococo (Cinnamon Press), which won the Sundial/Scottish Arts Council award for best first book of 2007, and When the Sun Turns Green (Polygon, 2009). In 2011, Jane won the Edwin Morgan poetry prize and published a pamphlet, Garden of Bedsteads, with Mariscat Press, a PBS Choice. Her most recent collection is Kitsune (Cinnamon Press, 2015). She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
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About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. 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 2009 was Andrew Greig.
One of many striking poems in her collection, this is the one that most stays with me. There's a quiet, unsettling force lying behind the observation. Read the others in the calm environment of the Scottish Poetry Library – or, better still, buy the collection!
'The Hawthorn Queen' is from my second collection, When the Sun Turns Green, in which I mix reminiscence about family with meditations on the natural world. The Queen of the title is my mother, and the poem is founded on a vivid recollection of a ladybird swarm in 1976, an exceptionally hot summer in Britain, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit at their peak. At nine years old, I would have been enjoying one of those golden endless school holidays. I was the only child of a single parent and spent a lot of time in her company; she was a great friend. I idolised her. Her beautiful deep-set eyes and long blonde plaits made me think of the princesses in Russian fairytales. Like them, she was resourceful, too: we didn't have a car, cycled everywhere, and lived frugally. When the ladybirds came it really was biblical, astonishing – they carpeted the world before dying. I was so upset at their destruction, and my mother consoled me, as she always did.