Cowpin the cog at Aist Brae
In the sma oors I stotter hame, fou.
I chap the door. Naebdy aipens.
The ald’s snaggerin’s a hullabaloo.
Oan my steek I tak tent o the watter,
Aye ruin a buddie nae mine.
Whan can I lose mind o this stooshie? –
Daurk nicht, smuith swaws, wund’s pine,
A peedie bait wannerin awa –
Sey, watter, the lave o my wizzen.
By the River
Drinking at East Brae in the early hours of the morning I stagger home, drunk. I knock on the door. Nobody opens it. The boy’s snoring is a loud commotion. Leaning on my walking-stick, I listen to the river, forever regretting a body that does not belong to me. When can I forget this upheaval? — dark night, smooth waves, wasting away of the wind, a small boat drifting off — sea, river, the rest of my life.
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.
I really enjoyed this Scots versioning of ‘The Immortal by the River’ by Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi). The economy of language is beautifully achieved; for instance, where in some English translations of the original poem the line often reads ‘still drunk on waking up’, in Scots we are provided with just a single word: ‘fou’ — literally, ‘full’. The way meaning opens up through the distilling of the images brings a numinous sense of release, akin to that which the speaker finds in turning to those bodies of water in the poem’s final lines.
The poem comes from Strath, the collection of Scots versions of Song Dynasty Chinese poems that followed the earlier volume of Scots versions of Tang Dynasty poems, Chinese Makars. Both books are published by Easel Press in Edinburgh and juxtapose the poems with black-and-white photographs by Norman McBeath. The work is linked to the wider Chinese Makars project that I initiated, and which is detailed on the website of the same name. While these volumes could be described as taking Chinese poetry to its smallest audience, there’s a certain delight in using Scots in a challengingly different context. Ever since my early teens I’ve loved translations of classic Chinese lyrics, and, though most of my poetry is in English, I’ve also written in Scots since the 1980s. The Scots versions of these Chinese lyrics are ‘triangulated’ using online and print English translations, but also draw on some wider reading and discussions, before an advanced draft gets checked by a Chinese native speaker to make sure the poem hasn’t wandered too far from the original. In this case Deng Liping, a former resident of Fife who has now returned to China, checked over the final version.