12 Graham’s Landing
‘The ear says more
Than any tongue’
I thought I spoke the language
asking what the matter was, the wrong.
I only wanted to know your history
framed in the window of our time.
Which of us should have first say?
One who inhaled the long firth,
one who seemed a slow-island-Joe,
one who clambered the bare scree up –
The house put on its afternoon disguise,
wrong way round and inside out.
Language was an unreliable hidey-hole
for two social beasts in harness:
me, losing track of the unreliable words
called bait and purchase, you
dangling them in the cold blue sound
that wandered past the window
About this poem
'Graham's Landing', part 12 of a thirty-poem sequence based on my year as trainee GP in Galloway in 1993, is a tribute both to an admired elder poet who lived (for) his poetry as completely as it was possible to do in the late 20th century and a patient, who - it may well be suspected - is at least a hobby fisherman, word-shy but motive-sly. In fact, it's not clear whether doctor or patient is 'dangling' the hooked lines here. Both are harassed, somewhat awkward, possibly failing to recognise the other fully in the clinical encounter. I can recall my younger sekf twenty years ago looking out over a patient's shoulder through 'the window of our time' at the light effects on Luce Bay and recalling how W.S Graham allows the sea to surge and swell in his lines - sometimes playful, ivariably punning - in a way that is both compelling and mysterious.
The way technologies uncouple the senses has always intrigued me, not least by dint of the fact that technical acumen in medicine is now so overwhelmingly sighted (and occupies an ever increasing share of the 'clinical gaze') while the face-to-face of the clinical encounter is archaic, always allied to hearing: in this sense, language is closer to an odour or perfume, circulating beyond its origins in unforseen and ungovernable ways. Religion and rhetoric are coupled to what the mouth says;in medicine, by contrast, attending properly to a patient reverses the power roles and allows Graham's witty phrase to develop its full meaning: 'the ear says more/Than any tongue.'
And the title is, after all, 'Graham's Landing': the hints dropped by feeling ('bait and purchase') do get taken up in spite of language's artful attempts to conceil its wants.
This poem is included in the second edition of Tools of the Trade: Poems for new doctors (Scottish Poetry Library, 2016). The anthology was edited by Kate Hendry; Dr Lesley Morrison, GP; Dr John Gillies, GP and Chair, Royal College of GPs in Scotland (2010-2014); Revd Ali Newell, and Lilias Fraser. A copy of the first edition was given to all graduating doctors in Scotland in 2014 and 2015, and with support from RCGPS and the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland, to all graduating doctors in 2016, 2017 and 2018. We are very grateful for the individual donations which funded the cost of this anthology, and to the Deans of the Scottish medical schools who made it possible to give the books to their graduating students.