Shines like frost quartz hard is worked with difficulty.
Perdurable. A source of pride in character and action
is that glittering obduracy of mind formidable
as Annie Davidson – a relative 16 years dead
and not far removed who left service
as a lady’s maid by plaiting her employer’s braids
into the back of the bedroom chair and slapped her face
carefully had six children (and five survived).
Her life’s pride was always to have managed.
But if endurance is a virtue it makes us accomplice
to suffering and its verity a convenient motto
for the merchant fathers who made more hose
out of less wool by observing what the girls wasted
at the end of the factory day and stopping it.
For the men who built grace into Grecian banks
and baronial hotels and for the owners in their time
and elders of the steam trawler in quiet houses
with sweet gardens risen from the fish
the stink of the catch silver on rusted plating
dredged out of the North sea cold blooded teeming
the coin of that round and ruptured eye bright as mica
exploding in the pan brought in by the ton
on deck with frozen hands split raw salt flesh
weeks out for days in town drinking spending
sick as a cat in the lavvie – and out for more
two suits on the door Sunday shoes under the bed.
For fish does not last at all and ripeness counts
and people have to manage and damned if they don’t.
Little virtue then in such prideful exercise of grip
and scorn for what doesn’t hold and little ease
in the hard word. Nevertheless I value true things
by their difficulty – a resistance to the will –
and celebrate this desperate intransigence in all creation
for at the last I cannot credit grace
among accomplishments in place of what is here and endures
nor deny the stern fathers the merchant men
their inheritance without accepting too
that ecstasy of opposition which is how the son begins.
Defined by indirection I am here
in the blossom of Cambridge and away from home mostly.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. 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 2009 was Andrew Greig.
This seems to be the year of Aberdeen, possibly our most quintessential East Coast town. This poem does a lot more than conjure up that city – it interrogates it, and by implication the qualities of that cast of mind. The poem feels at once a deeply personal argument and a social and historical pondering. The ending is wonderfully understated – in a manner appropriately Aberdonian.
An eclogue is a pastoral and this not very pastoral poem on Aberdeen was written when I was studying in Cambridge, a place that is very distant, in every sense, from my home city. Something of who we are has to do with where we come from (geographically and culturally) as we stand in the shadow of our fathers. This is not always a comfortable thought, but such things loom closer when you’re living away from home. ‘Granite City Eclogue’ first appeared in the collection True History on the Walls whose poems dealt with history and family and what is carried forward from the past and what isn’t. It explores my own mixed feelings then (and now, for that matter) in a kind of love poem about Scotland and granite, and stoic grip. I’m proud of the family story in the poem, which is true. Is endurance enough? What is grace?