I paint the low hill until I admit
to how the light is on it.
Morning’s coldest – working in thermals
and fleeces and socks in triplicate –
a lugworm, bundled bait
for the sky with the thunder-grey roe.
How is the light on the low hill now?
Blood through skin.
Once or twice a day sun opens the vein and
white is white of seagulls – sour Messiahs!
– then another two hundred
of Tommy’s rainstained fleeces.
I said to Tommy (shifting stone)
whatcha doing and he said
playing at Nelson Mandela
what does it look like?
The layby’s up for it, grips
your car, windows mossed with thin damp.
Headlamps chuck out sticky webs to slide
from the windscreen and your black/bright forehead.
Headlamps – grasses giant
and shrinking – and us knotted in the hill’s hair.
Now you turn the key and the gate’s sudden
red iron – the last moment we’ve netted.
You’ve picked a soundtrack, you want
to say to keep it light, don’t get attached
(‘no angel’) and I want to shock you agreeing
yeh keep it light
and I can carry you a while. For a day or two
I’ll have this cumulus bruise (your passing weather)
on my lower lip.
Up here it turns out it’s less simple
a ewe’s fleece
stained by the season of her last tup.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. 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 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
I don’t know what to say about this, every reading is different – sometimes it seems clear, sometimes more mysterious – and that’s why I like it. It’s hard work but why should it always be easy?
It’s hard to write about a poem that’s two years old. I’m happy that ‘Fratres’ still sounds pretty spoken, to me. I’m happy that reading it takes me acutely back to the times and places of its writing: Glasgow, Kirkwall (Orkney), Swinister (Shetland). As I left Glasgow for Shetland I was pretty worried about people and poetry, the fact that half my conversations were completed in my head. It occurred to me that to live without letting anyone know what I think might not be an enviable achievement.
I spent my days in Shetland grouching about working in the morning and getting my fresh air in the afternoon. I might not speak for three days. The Fratres poem is to do with having a head-full of words interrupted by brief encounters. Perhaps not-speaking for three days, when I did meet people, on the feeder bus down to Lerwick or getting my post from Jean and Tommy, their words would stick in my head for hours. And what’s a poem? Speech that sticks? If I say ‘a ewe’s fleece is stained by the season of her last tup’, I’m not talking about ownership but the intensity of encounters when you live so solitary. Like staring at something and getting a retinal burn. When you live so solitary you’re liable to obsess over the last time you were touched, not the person, the having had hands on you.
The Fratres (Arvo Pärt) tape was one of my soundtracks for Shetland, product of another brief encounter in Glasgow; a recommendation from a customer who came in to buy Brie de Meaux and only Brie de Meaux every Saturday. There was a bit about him in the poem originally. One week he didn’t come in; the next week he was back, grey and thin. I said what happened? He said I know it sounds insane but I was in hospital with the hiccups.
Fratres is a series of instrumental variations on a couple gorgeous themes. It was a directional gift: I’d been trying to write like that, to make a spectacle of something by harping on about it fifteen different ways, to peer at it through a spectrum of filters. If I were more single minded I would write nice tight undistracted poems or perhaps a different poet would be able to work a single poem that could take the pushme pullyou of three different places and one..two..three – I reckon about thirteen metaphors. Instead this loose form emerged, a stack of micropoems on the same theme. Maybe call it an ‘array’. I’m going to work the poem a bit now, cut back hard the bit about the layby on the hill road – now there’s a Pushme Pullyou – split it up and give the images more space. I’d rather the whole poem was longer, more varied, played more with the possibities of repetition and slight alteration.