Parts 3, 4, 5
Howl’ on to your horses for the death of sweet
Jesus, he almost said, almost overpowered,
sensing her sniping behind him, the sweetmeat
stains of her apron caked in buttermilk and flour,
mouth tight shut as a crow’s arse, while she looked
down on his backside, his head in the flowers,
where he’d seen a green bloom that he mistook
for a rose for a moment. Once she’d groused and grutched
back indoors he snuck to the barn and took
out the clippers to snick around the edge
of the house, but she stooked her head out
and blared: Don’t make a big barney balls of that hedge!,
then went back to griddling hot potato bread
asking where’s his mind? what is his head?
He dreamed she was a cloud, frayed at the seams,
bits of her floating hither, others thither,
edges wisped, funnelled, whispered and curled,
tentacles feeling for the way the four winds
were blowing. In the evening she would turn
hyacinth, rose, japonica and orange
blossom on a flasket of lemon and blue.
On her best days a big hole would open
in her head and a stairway to marvels
might spotlight through. But mostly she’d be
degged grey, gathering her bits together
in a bloated, grimaced, grave-bellied swell
fit to split open a black harvest of grain,
head-hung children who would forbear her rain.
Clegged boots by the door, heavy hair dredged,
battered and bowed by the gravel-hard rain,
sullen and speechless, swilling the dregs
of his tea, she thought him feck-brained,
his head on the table, engrossed with weevils
creeping over fried crumbs and egg-stains
on his thick clacked plate. Why in the name
of the devil’s good Da did you go and do a daft
thing like that? she asked, once she’d weaselled
that he’d signed on the straight line of his draft
papers to leave her to the dootering cows –
to leave in his wake a trail of boot-shaped rifts
in the ground: sumped and tumid shrouds
of silt and glit, with his head in the clouds.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2010. 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 2010 was Jen Hadfield.
I'm fascinated by this sequence. The tropes that recur in Gillis' poem sequences are often some natural thing we usually expect to be picturesque, and therefore subject to emotional bleaching. But without the chemistry of imagist metaphor Gillis does something both archaic and original, he sets his cloud-shapes, wrens and wildflowers in an unsentimental and ornate mappa mundi, 'silt and glit' and all. It takes him the full scale of this sonnet sequence to do an extraordinary thing: show how we must be explorers when we want to try and understand each other, as mysterious to each other as we are familiar.
'The Green Rose' is made up of eight sonnets. It’s a poem about a daydreamer with a sharp-tongued wife. In the fifth sonnet, here, we learn that he has signed-up and is leaving her. The first line of the next sonnet reads: 'After he died in July 1916'… I wanted the historical setting to be a surprise midway through. Also, the sonnets you read here emphasise the couple’s antagonisms. But by the end, hopefully, what comes through is a deeper sense of love, and then loss. I was inspired by the mother in Patrick Kavanagh’s novel Tarry Flynn, and her relationship with her apparently feckless son. Her language, her demeanour, seemed a direct likeness of my own mother and many country aunts. So, among other things, this poem’s an odd maternal homage. As far as I'm aware, there’s no such thing as a green rose. But one feels there should be.