Taboo

Taboo
You want to look on the lea-side
in winter, the swamp thickening
like the uterine wall,
popping its puffballs
and creaming its butterwort,
folding in the sundew and squill,
putting out the eyebrights.

You ask what they do
for accommodation – 
try high pools
in the red hills
of winter,
hind-paws slapping up flares
of red rain –
look for their niche
of collapsing peat.

Pilgrims of such
an ascetic order
don’t even own
the spectral colours
of snow.

No, that’s the white flag
at Amen Corner.

That’s your heart going
nineteen-
to-the-dozen.

That’s just the cold water
stilling itself
in the form
of your throat.
Jen Hadfield

published in Edinburgh Review, 133  (2011)

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Jen Hadfield

Jen Hadfield's second collection, Nigh-No-Place, won the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. With family in Canada and England and a deep love of her adopted home in Shetland,  it is perhaps no surprise that her writing is often drawn to the contradictions of travel and home, the music of voices, and the importance of land and place. Her third collection, Byssus, was published by Picador in 2014.

Read more about this poet
About Taboo

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.

Editor's comment:

After some time away from poetry, working on other things, Jen Hadfield has returned, her poems as ever, surprising and fresh, her words, as a friend said to me, appearing to be in an order no one had considered until now (and none but her might consider). This short poem is about hares (the form at the end is the giveaway) in winter. With the hare comes caution, and this intriguing and elusive poem ricochets against both its addressee and its reader with its hint of menace.

Author's note:

‘Taboo’ is a sort of a riddle. It’s a simple premise, basically: it’s a riddle about an animal; you have to guess what the animal is. That’s the only reason it’s called ‘Taboo’. Now I think about it, I’m not sure it’s a very good title: all it does is describe the form. Anyway I’m quite into riddles at the moment. There’s something I want to explore in the parallels between the historical game of the riddle with its once-high stakes (a domestic game apparently still current in Shetland as ‘guddicks’ – more Viking influence?) and the heightened anxiety that poetry often excites in our culture: the folks’ fear of ‘not getting it’. I think I want to explore them because I hardly ever ‘get’ riddles and I still worry about ‘getting’ poems.

A poet friend and I hashed over this one recently. I had a problem with an instability in the voice, and she had a problem with the obscurity of the imagery. She lives in London; I hadn’t really worked out that the farther from the wild-scape you stay, the harder the poem might be. I sort of agreed with her. I really don’t like the thought of my poems being ‘difficult’. (I think they are often ‘difficult’ when they’re not working.) I really do want to communicate. But when I tried to make things a bit more transparent, my editing deranged the rhythm and the life went out of it. So I’m working towards a new version of this now. I’m trying out some hirpling two-line stanzas with plenty of breath between them. I’m taking out the extended description of the bog. I’m hoping that there’s a difference in dissolving the meaning from a concretion of words and in apprehending something from their rhythm and chime, and I’m hoping that, when I’m done, the poem will flush up a live animal with strong hind-paws, to hurtle up through the body of the reader...