As spiders haul their thread from stem
to stem to weave the light, what do they care
if all that skilful labour’s lost when
wind unravels it, unpicking all their
careful artistry? As birds weave leaf
and stalk into their nests, abandoning
them to decay when fledglings leave,
only to build them back again in spring –
so Angus haunts the woodland hour on hour,
labouring under branches, quiet, unseen,
pulls buttercup, vetch, clovers – winding flowers
like wild embroidery into cloths of green;
makes mufflers, tailored jackets, sprouting hats,
garments for a giant or a king
to stalk the hills and sport the finery that
he has wrought from his imaginings,
and then forgets – so all this fine attire
is left to rot and compost in the rain.
He watches gardeners rake them on a pyre
of autumn leaves, then crafts them all again
because he must. Watches their ashes wind
up towers of smoke, soaring like elegies
to distant landscapes of the mind, making
of these most precious gifts, a sacrifice.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. 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 editors in 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
Part of a series of poems about outside artist Angus MacPhee, ‘weaver of grass’, this brings us up close to the communion of man and nature. Angus ‘haunts the woodland hour on hour’, making and releasing, making and releasing; aware perhaps that to every season there is a time, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
The Burning is from my eleven poem sequence ‘Weaver of Grass i.m. Angus MacPhee’ about the ‘outsider’ artist from South Uist who spent 50 years in a mental institution on the mainland where, using the traditional craft of the island, he wove extraordinary garments out of grass. Angus’ work has caught the imagination of many writers, poets and film makers, but for me it was the act of sharing in its destruction at the end of each summer that caught mine, calling into question the compulsion of all artists to do what we do – regardless of ‘ambition or bread’. Thanks to the determination of art therapist Joyce Laing, at least some of Angus’ work survives. Iconic. Wonderful, imaginative creations. Biodegradable and magnificent. Reminding us all of the transience of things. In the resonant words of one reviewer, ‘ I don’t know what this work means, but I know I am richer for having seen it’.