I dreamed of a sawdust chandelier
whose crystals were drops of driftwood dredged
from all the world’s shipwrecks: god’s figurehead,
and it swung, as I dreamt, ever closer to my fear,
softly releasing sweet incense into the clear,
black night air, as that great barge carries the dead,
but instead of my death, it passaged my dread
and the water it ploughed comprised of one tear.
Great smouldering barque, your figurehead sings
into the dark, the death song of queens, of kings,
over sea birds that circle like faint rings of smoke,
your floating lamp burns, as a lighthouse brings
death to itself: you are moth and flame both –
so lamp lights my dread of shade, performs two killings.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2019. 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 2019 was Roseanne Watt.
There has apparently been a spike of strange dreams in these last few weeks, so it feels quite fitting to return to the ominous dream at the heart of this sonnet. I was totally enchanted by the central image of a ‘sawdust chandelier’, as well as by the idea of light functioning as something fearful, in the way it holds the power to illuminate that which we dread to see within ourselves. That this plays out within the mythic language of a dream adds an even richer potency to the spell at work within these lines.
’33’ was written in situ at the Talbot Inn, Oundle where architectural features such as the staircase and windows were originally salvaged from the burnt down castle site of Fotheringhay. Composed on the anniversary of Mary Queen of Scots’ execution, 8th February, 1587, ’33 ‘deploys Mary’s preferred form – the Petrarchan – and is inspired by select imagery from her own highly accomplished poetry which was admired by her tutor Ronsard and his literary circle, the Pleiades, for whom the young queen glowed as their dark star. A sonnet was composed for each step Mary descended on that staircase to her brutal beheading; engendering thirty-five in total. These were then chewed up for the fifteen minutes her lips were said to move after decapitation, and realigned in published counterpoint. All the sonnets appear in The Gaelic Garden of the Dead.