After 60 years my gums are not so good.
I dental-floss them in the one-sex toilet.
Returning, clamber over wife and daughter
And look down five miles to the Hindu Kush.
You can see how India thrusts into Eurasia:
Flat plates and frills of mountain rear and crumble
Far as the eye sees through this luminous ocean
On which our plane is riding, almost motionless,
Almost without a tremble, as it eats
The abstract kilometres. In front of me,
A computer geek in glasses has not raised
His blind since Kuala Lumpur. On the monitors
The arrow pointing to Mecca has rotated
To almost along the wing. Two countries away
Across this lion-coloured world a war
Is brewing. I imagine
Our air-conditioned bubble dropping bombs
On the tiny square of village far below us,
Less than a camel’s foot-print. I get dizzy,
Peering directly down. No bombs are dropped.
Nor would they be if I were captain here
Over this fragile, integrated planet,
Spinning unscripted. Our bubble carries us,
Deep in computer solitaire or sleeping,
Safe, I can hardly say that, but for this moment
Warm in the thin air and the killing cold.
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.
Black to my mind is a seriously underrated poet. There are all sorts of things going on here, conveyed simply and with clarity: ageing, the fragility of life, responsibility, public/private life.
I write poems for many reasons. This one I have entitled simply 'January 2003', and I think of it as like a diary entry, or, better, like a sketch made rapidly on the spot – an attempt to capture from life a certain mood and moment.
We didn't know, and yet we half-knew, that two months later the American and British governments would launch a cynical and deeply worrying war on Iraq; 'coming events cast their shadow before' and thoughtful people were already aware that something very disturbing was beginning to enter the picture. In this poem I was trying to catch some of the elements of that mood, which was still not quite definable but inescapable. The poem was written more or less entirely in the circumstances it describes, with minimal tweaking or revising afterwards.
I think the situation will be clear enough, a long-haul flight across the length of Asia, most of the passengers in a state of torpor. The only detail that may be surprising is the 'arrow pointing to Mecca' – this was a facility provided by Malaysian Airlines to let Muslim passengers know the direction they should pray in.
As the poem continues, almost accidentally, a further symbolism creeps in: the fragile security of a passenger plane in the high atmosphere resembles the frail security of Planet Earth itself, spinning in space. From that height, the unity of the earth and the artificiality of national boundaries are unmistakable. These thoughts, not fully spelt out, contribute to the mood of precariousness.
The poem is written in rather loose iambic pentameters, an easily accessible metre, ideal for sketches of this sort.