I wanted to write an elegy
without flowers. I know they’re a requirement
but I wanted not to think of the way we hid
the new, dark scar your grave was
under pretty coloured flowers
and little messages.
Only, what else could I speak of
In that bitter day?
Trees on the edge of the river
empty, not prepared
to consider spring
and everything we had lost with you
— your bright stare, your serious smile
your dancing –
beyond the last of our hopes’ reach.
I wanted not to think of the way we turned aside
and left you, as we had to
in a place where you had neither leaves or birdsong
for shelter, only
grey grass, still keeping its winter,
and our terrible swathe of flowers.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2017. 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 2017 was Roddy Woomble.
This was a difficult poem to write, and to write about. The subject – the death of a family member at a young age – wouldn’t leave me be, and it demanded a proper, working poem, one that wouldn’t be unworthy of her. After a series of discarded attempts I eventually took an oblique way into it, starting from a radio programme about the conventions of poetic elegy, and as you can see from the poem I displaced at least some of my grief and anger onto the conventions themselves. It seems a bitter poem to me now, but I don’t think it could have been otherwise.
Years ago, when I brought a poem to a workshop that I just could not get to communicate, the workshop leader said, “Maybe there’s another poem you have to write first”. I think “Flowers” is a poem like that. I’ve been writing quite a bit recently about dance: the person in the poem wanted to be a dancer, and I think these are partly poems about her, and a better way to remember her. But I had to write this one first.