the waves shiver like monks
at their ablutions.
Under high horizontals
of ice-cloud, the sky
scrubbed clean as a dairy.
The train darts north,
hungry as a tongue.
Only the exile longs for
the words to name a country:
either live it or learn,
at a bare table,
ancestral silence, like a rumble
deep in the loch’s throat,
the forgotten song
of the curling-stone,
the snow slipping like white meat
from the bones of the mountain.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. 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 2006 was Janice Galloway.
Landscape, to my surprise. The only poem I chose that directly addresses 'Scottishness' as a condition. Strong, muscular yet with paper-sheer clarity.
'Lightyear' is a journey from January to December, a walk through seasons and weathers. Originally inspired by the Swedish poet Staffan Soderblom's 'Six October Poems', the collection uses six poems a month to track the calendar changes of time and the elements, and to explore the complex links between nature and the body-in-the-landscape. My project was to write outdoors, without any preconceived subject beyond what might arise from the season or the surroundings, so the collection took three whole calendar cycles to complete. The poems were written in the country and the city, in Clissold Park, North London, in Cornwall, Scotland, Greece, Langdale, and the Chamonix valley in the French Alps.
Written on the East Coast line from London to Edinburgh, 'January, 5' reflects the ambiguous feelings of the expatriate towards the home country, which becomes a construct of memory, seen through a child's fearful and enchanted eye... No longer a lived experience, Scotland manifests itself as a sort of Brigadoon of the psyche, but without the saccharine – in fact, through no conscious intention of mine, the poem seems to be haunted by a punitive' you made your bed so you'll lie on it' animus...
The harsh brilliance of the landscape seen from the window of the northbound train invokes memories of winter nights when the loch froze hard enough for curling: starlight and torches, 15 degrees below, and all the village out on the ice. My Lowland grandfather, Grandpa Johnstone, was a tailor in Lochmaben, and a keen curler. I remember how, for years after he died, his curling stones stood flanking the front porch of the house.
The last stanza perhaps reflects the loss I felt when I was 10, and my parents, sister and I had to leave my beloved Highlands and move to my Grandmother's house in the danker, lower landscapes of Dumfriesshire. I was in such a bad state that the local doctor, I'm told, put me on anti-depressants! Sometimes I can't quite believe my own biography. But I think the image also evokes something less personal – that diffuse kind of sadness anyone can feel when the perfect dazzle of the snow gives way to the grey slush of thaw...