Where are you taking us, sir?
the crew needed to know;
but since by the final day
my guiding star,
instinct and purpose both, had strayed so far
off the monitor – I found I couldn’t stay
for fear of the answer.
To tell the truth
I had given up on youth; would only stew
in the chemical toilet, the door half-
open, a ‘cry for help’, till out of the blue
a nurse ducked
from the cockpit holding you, and I
was face to face with my pilot!
In the weeks before you were born
the head did warn
me not to give over the stage at once
to baby talk: and so we stood our ground
when from among your breathings-out were told
two voluntary sounds,
a rudimentary yes and no.
But now, when all the words
we care about are yours, I have to tender
our deep surrender;
as in a suit of dungarees you go
groping your way to sense
like Milton, blind before he felt
the wall’s resistance.
Already you discern what the artist meant
in an old poster of mine, the ‘Mars’
of Velazquez: the war god in his afterprime
released too soon
from that perpetual service; sat
in his demob nakedness and gloom,
only his helmet on, almost
a souvenir, muscles smoking away,
until you up and say
– Poor tin soldier man!
He’s thinking about things!
My right hand is Nessie’s head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur? Forty
or fifty million years.
Can the dinosaur sing? No,
too old; but likes to be soothed
by others singing.
I open her thumb–
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
‘Take me to your leader!’
– to which you instantly,
I haven’t got any leader.
What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Darling – ‘little’ – Mädchen – the same
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.
Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such,
that we can spend an age without
a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean
prophetics of a closed book.
Of course, it was not allowed to show
or we to know
that you were coming all the time,
my perfect rhyme;
how you would seize the reins, Iona,
riding my shoulders over the hill
or rarely sitting still,
your hands spread on my knees, my jeans
the sidelines of your throne.
Succession is easy: first it was them,
then me for a bit; and now it’s you.
Granted your repertoire
has lumps in it,
of Shrek and Cinderella;
but there’s prodigious poetry too,
a magic spring
in the sweet Cordelia thing
you once undid me with –
Let’s laugh through all the days, till the water
comes over our eyes …
or, which is more my line – not
mawkish, I think, or maudlin:
In Oxford Church, there are two Marys;
one of them has got a baby
and one of them hasn’t got a baby.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
Not the island, but a baby. And a bold poem. Talking of a new-born child, it’s a triumph to get away with lines like this, thinking of the toddler in dungarees – ‘groping your way to sense / like Milton, blind before he felt / the wall’s resistance.’ Mick Imlah does it with gusto, and when he writes that, it’s not mawkish or maudlin at the end of the poem to shift to a spiritual image in church, he’s right. An achievement.
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.
This poem’s quite distinct in Mick Imlah’s Selected Poems by dint of its gentleness. For all Imlah’s wrought and faceted flash in the first stanza, from dwelling ‘so much/sometimes, on self and such…’ a gradual relaxation follows, his willing and complete surrender to his daughter, which brings transparency and an opening out of rhythm.
It’s hard to read ‘Iona’ without Imlah’s biography making itself felt. Lines could make your heart ache, in the light of it: ‘Succession is easy: first it was them,/ then me for a bit; and now it’s you.’
The Lost Leader (its title gestures towards Bonnie Prince Charlie) came as a revelation, showing just how much he had accomplished. Running the gamut of Scottish literature and history, the poems confidently yet often elegiacally re-imagine material from Columban Iona to modern times. […] They reveal fully Imlah’s gifts of irony as well as plain-speaking, lyricism fused with layered craftsmanship.
Robert Crawford, Scotsman obituary (21 January 2009)