a fine day in the open
spring on its way, brand new green on the heather
small birds rioting through the young pines
you were out there
free as a bird yourself in the clear
we know it
not from your footprints – those the rain, snow
wind-blown dust, young grasses and weeds
have long since covered –
and you took a pride in
never being the kind of passer-through
who carves their name on anything
but the two square inches of cellophane you let fall
tells us you lunched on ham and tomato
on malted bread
use-by date the following Monday, nearly twenty years ago
and the place can’t help itself
clear away your traces
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2022. 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 2022 was Ifor ap Glyn.
I like poems that are politically engaged, though that’s not immediately apparent in this piece – the sting comes in the tail and is all the more effective for it. And yet there are hints from the outset that the idyllic scenery is too good to be true – the green on the heather is ‘brand new’ the small birds are ‘rioting’.
The poem makes clever use of the pronouns ‘you’, and ‘we’. The mysterious walker is ‘you’. At first that could be taken to mean ourselves the readers, but then ‘we’ are grouped with the poet, ‘we know it’, she says; ‘we know’ the walker was out on the mountain, although we don’t yet know how. And then the reveal – the walker has betrayed himself/ herself by dropped cellophane packaging, its mundane detail serving only to show how slowly plastic breaks down, even after ‘nearly twenty years’.
The crisp simple diction complements the simplicity of the verse: ‘the place can’t help itself clear away your traces’. I like what was unsaid, but implied; and how the poem has skilfully positioned ‘us’ to not be like ‘you’. Unlike the mountainside, ‘we’ have agency.
It’s often the small things – details, traces left behind – that give a poem its first foothold, and this one started from a news item I saw on the BBC website, about a litter-picking exercise on the Mar Lodge Estate. There was a picture of one of the items they had found: a piece of sandwich-wrapper, still legible, with a use-by date of 23.3.92. It had been lying out in the open for well over 20 years without biodegrading. I checked the date out of curiosity and it was a Monday, which suggested the wrapper was dropped on a weekend expedition, and I began to imagine the person who had dropped it sitting there with their packed lunch, appreciating the scenery and the open air, and oblivious to the harm they were doing to the place they were enjoying so much. And the poem followed from that.