It is light past seven when the door bell rings.
In no time ago we went
plucking cherries under the stacking planes
the two girls on their tiptoes daring
plunged for the highest cluster
and anyone elsewhere was sanctioned to hoop
while the colander parties jammed and pruned
blocking the ring-road and corso.
And into the shadows you went to gather
their younger voices erased from the tape
when the hollows under the foam were rewired
and their blouses at shoulder-height blued.
The sun has burned all the dormouse day
you have only the swifts above
the metallic alarm of a mothering blackbird
in your ear. Of what do the decades consist?
If no one asks me I know: a digger up to its oxters
in roses, the woodpigeon’s clap on the arc
the spill as of sand and the red berries passing
the double-slit of your eyes, Mnemosyne:
queen of the patterns on a darkening wall.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. 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 2005 was Richard Price.
A summery poem about memory. There is a kind of distortion in the telling of the cherry-pickers which seems absolutely in keeping with the nature of memories, and I especially liked the image of ‘a digger up to its oxters / in roses’.
Inspiration for the cherries? Why, nine ladies in red cagoules I met coming down by the Horsehoof Burn on the slopes of Beinn Helicoinnich, near the village of Arrochar (in the older Scottish script: Áσκρα) – or thereabouts.
Poets have been telling tall tales about poems for as long as poetry has been written. Hesiod tells us the nine Muses taught him ‘fine singing’ on Helicon, because that was where he ‘tended his lambs’. There is nothing harder to define. I go about my works and days hoping for an answer (continuity at last?). There are days when the view of the Beinn is surprisingly clear across the Rhine, but only if no one asks me … The North African Neo-Platonist Augustine said something similar about Time, and the dimension of poetry is surely no less elusive. If I knew what a poem was “about”, or where it was ‘coming from’, I would never write it. The imponderables are the core of the poem, not its ponderables; its truth is no less concrete for that.
Okay, if I wanted to distinguish this one from any other, I might say it was the poem about cherry-picking with my daughters, or about the double-slit experiment (which the physicist Richard Feynman has described as ‘In reality, the only mystery’), or about Mnemosyne (Memory, mother of the Muses). But these are incidental. The digger may have got into the poem because I saw it from my kitchen window. Or maybe not. After all, there are many things visible from my kitchen window (some of them turn up in other poems). I do remember going cherry picking. So what if I was living on a building site at the time?
And the triadic structure? The poem had a longer, almost epic reach before I slashed it to size. I met a surgeon in Freiburg once who had me diagnosed as the ‘gall-bladder type’ before I had even told him my complaint; he could see what was going on inside a person by looking at their skin. There’s always something like that if you look at the form a poem makes – it’s the poem makes it, after all, not the poet. It’s been a while since I wrote it, but to judge by the dust on its feet and the hues of its skin (it was Pierre Reverdy who wrote of the form of a poem as its ‘skin’) ‘Cherry Time’ has been on a long journey, and, for reasons best known to itself, has, in passing, come in to tell us the tale. The moment it got here it latched on to all these unlikely pointers and starters – a host of jumbled shapes and sounds (phew! I almost said daffodils) it seemed to know from elsewhere. There was something else it wanted: it wanted these words precisely, then to be off and away … Another journey? It has stopped giving me dreams. In that sense it came, took what it wanted and left.