I wanted bed, roast beef and rain,
to wear the clothes I’d left behind
and have them make me think again
steadily, with a civil mind.
There were my trousers, leather belts,
my ironed shirts and rank of shoes.
Those things I heard and saw and smelt
were over there, beyond the news.
I had hot water, stuff to buy
and, when I checked, the groove impressed
around my head and over my eyes
by armour borne so long was less.
On orange nights I stood outside
and listened to the city roar.
I liked the way peace brutalised
yet no one asked what peace was for.
If they had, I wouldn’t have said,
though not because I didn’t know:
sheep and shearing, cows and sheds,
honeybees and hives of gold –
on desert time I’d read old books
while sand blew through and sagged the tent.
But back here all those combs and crooks
no longer meant what they had meant,
as if the words I strove to taste
through dust were sweeter for their age
only when being bordered waste.
I’d shake my torch for one more page
and when it died into the dark
I’d lie awake inside the hiss
until my waking came apart
and aimless dreams undid my fists.
Home: I’d thought I’d held the place
through firestorm and sneak attack
while all the time I’d fought to lose
any hope of coming back.
My mind made home somewhere else,
and so my strangeness strikes me down
while wearing clothes I’d left on shelves
for some return far from my own.
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.
Meted out in quiet rhymes, like his guttering torch, the narrator's tentative re-assessment of the literary and domestic totems that have carried him through 'desert time'; what home and peace might mean.
This poem, perhaps surprisingly, sprang from a project about an old grocer’s shop. The shop premises were extraordinary: years of receipts, letters, order books, boxes, tins, games, tools, and goodness-knows-what-else, had been kept. It wasn’t quite the case that time had stood still here, but rather that time had sped on, levying its slow, estranging tax on all this still stuff. I also found out that throughout its history the shop had often employed returned servicemen. This fact, along with the unchanged, yet oddly transfigured, shop premises, got me thinking about home and change, and what it might mean to want desperately to return home, or to return home utterly changed, or to put home so far from the heart and mind that, in a desperate act of self-preservation, one might put oneself beyond the very idea of it forever.