The speaking stones
These stones speak a level language,
murmured word by word,
a speech pocked and porous with loss,
redressed by the slow hungers of weathering.
And there, in the broken choir, children
are all raised voice, loving the play of outline
and absence where the dissembled god
has shared his shape and homed us.
At the end of the nave, the east front stands
Both altered and unchanged,
its arch guttural and uvular.
and what comes across, half-said
into all that space, is that it’s enough
to love the air we move through.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. 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 2007 was Alan Spence.
Rachael Boast is another poet whose work I hadn't read before. There's a lovely confident ease of movement to this one, an inherent musicality that doesn't descend into over-obvious sonority, empty onomatopoeia for its own sake. It's a fourteen-liner, flirts with the sonnet form without being limited by its too-tight constraints - it lets the content shape the form instead of the other way about. The final couplet is pitch-perfect, moves through to a note of quiet grateful acceptance, ending with love, echoing the earlier line about the children loving the play…
The poem was written in the first couple of months after moving from Bristol to St Andrews. Having soaked up the atmosphere of the Evensong services at Bristol Cathedral, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that the Cathedral at St Andrews was in ruins. After being informed that it had fallen down twice before the stones were eventually carted away to build homes and hearths, I began to see the grounds very differently. Already I'd had a sense of something vivid concealed in the ruined appearance of the place but only began to touch on what that might be when the poem in its various stages started to draw me in.
What the stones had to say about the relationship between matter and spirit, Kirk and worship, came down to a sense that a state of brokenness or ruin can be a preliminary for a deeper generosity, or Caritas; and, more specifically, that (in a poetic sense) the Cathedral only found its culmination of purpose in its collapse. Not all places of worship can embody paradox at that level. To say this is, of course, to subvert the idea of the intended use of an ecclesiastical building; to pull away from matter, towards spirit, or spaciousness of viewpoint. I'd also had in mind a recent discovery that the name 'Jesus' derives from a Hebrew root that denotes 'to be spacious'.
As for the 'half-said', I figured that often a poem can only communicate through 'half-saying' which, as the old Irish poets knew, functions as a form of protection of the subject being described and testifies to its ultimate sacredness. It also entails incompletion, of something not of this world which nevertheless is happy to leave a scent or trace of itself for us to follow.