Iona

Iona
Where are you taking us, sir?
the crew needed to know;
but since by the final day
      my guiding star,
instinct and purpose both, had strayed so far
off the monitor – I found I couldn't stay
      for fear of the answer.

      To tell the truth
I had given up on youth; would only stew
in the chemical toilet, the door half-
open, a 'cry for help', till out of the blue
      a nurse ducked
from the cockpit holding you, and I
was face to face with my pilot!

            *

In the weeks before you were born
      the head did warn
me not to give over the stage at once
to baby talk: and so we stood our ground
when from among your breathings-out were told
      two voluntary sounds, 
a rudimentary yes and no.

But now, when all the words
we care about are yours, I have to tender
       our deep surrender;
as in a suit of dungarees you go
      groping your way to sense 
like Milton, blind before he felt
      the wall's resistance.

            *

Already you discern what the artist meant
in an old poster of mine, the 'Mars'
of Velazquez: the war god in his afterprime
      released too soon
from that perpetual service; sat
in his demob nakedness and gloom,
only his helmet on, almost
a souvenir, muscles smoking away,
      until you up and say
– Poor tin soldier man! 
He's thinking about things!

            *

My right hand is Nessie's head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur? Forty 
      or fifty million years.
Can the dinosaur sing? No, 
too old; but likes to be soothed
      by others singing.

I open her thumb–
      and-finger beak
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
'Take me to your leader!'
– to which you instantly,
      I haven't got any leader.

            *

What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Darling – 'little' – Mädchen – the same 
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.

            *

Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such, 
that we can spend an age without
      a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean 
prophetics of a closed book.

Of course, it was not allowed to show
      or we to know
that you were coming all the time, 
      my perfect rhyme;
how you would seize the reins, Iona,
riding my shoulders over the hill
      or rarely sitting still,
your hands spread on my knees, my jeans
      the sidelines of your throne. 
Succession is easy: first it was them,
then me for a bit; and now it's you.

            *

Granted your repertoire
      has lumps in it,
of Shrek and Cinderella;
but there’s prodigious poetry too,
      a magic spring
in the sweet Cordelia thing
you once undid me with –

Let’s laugh through all the days, till the water
      comes over our eyes …
or, which is more my line – not  
mawkish, I think, or maudlin:
In Oxford Church, there are two Marys;
     one of them has got a baby
and one of them hasn’t got a baby.
Mick Imlah

from Selected Poems edited by Mark Ford (London: Faber, 2010)

Mick Imlah

Mick Imlah was born in Aberdeen in 1956 and spent his early years in Milngavie before the family moved to Kent. He graduated from Oxford with a First in English in 1979 and, still in his twenties, became editor of Poetry Review. His first collection, Birthmarks (Chatto & Windus, 1988) was followed by individual poems and a pamphlet but it was not until 2008 that his second collection, The Lost Leader, was published by Faber & Faber. It won the Forward Prize. Meanwhile Imlah had succeeded Andrew Motion as poetry editor at Chatto, leaving in 1993 to become poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He remained there until his untimely death from motor neurone disease in 2009.

Read more about this poet
About Iona

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2010. 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 2010 was Jen Hadfield.

Editor's comment: 
This poem's quite distinct in Mick Imlah's Selected Poems by dint of its gentleness. For all Imlah's wrought and faceted flash in the first stanza, from dwelling 'so much/sometimes, on self and such…' a gradual relaxation follows, his willing and complete surrender to his daughter, which brings transparency and an opening out of rhythm.

It's hard to read 'Iona' without Imlah's biography making itself felt. Lines could make your heart ache, in the light of it: 'Succession is easy: first it was them,/ then me for a bit; and now it's you.'

Critical note: 
The Lost Leader (its title gestures towards Bonnie Prince Charlie) came as a revelation, showing just how much he had accomplished. Running the gamut of Scottish literature and history, the poems confidently yet often elegiacally re-imagine material from Columban Iona to modern times. […] They reveal fully Imlah's gifts of irony as well as plain-speaking, lyricism fused with layered craftsmanship.
Robert Crawford, Scotsman obituary (21 January 2009)