A punk thistle with mauve mohican
nods to its own beat and the riff of leaves,
traffic, sirens and sea-gulls.
Buccleugh Parish School is boarded up
but a rowan tree bursts out from the architrave,
berries red as STOP THE WAR on the wall.
Stevie, the janitor, his hair gelled in spikes,
leans against the door and tells me
‘I write poetry too – funky rock and soul.’
The paws of invisible dogs
taking a short cut to the meadows
run for ever in concrete under the arch.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. 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 2005 was Richard Price.
The last image of ‘invisible dogs’ caught in concrete seems to stand for the stilled visual intensity of this poem as a whole, the poem itself is a telling imprint of a rich, dynamic experience. I like the underemphasised correspondence between the hairdo of the thistle and the janitor’s spikes, and the surely blood red correlation between STOP THE WAR and the folkloric rowan berries. This poem has a relaxed rhythm appropriate to its title, with lines of various stresses and lengths and only the last line in the first three stanzas bringing each sentence back down to the ‘L’ sound of the last word; the last stanza doesn’t observe even that kind of grounding – we’re off with the invisible dogs under the arch.
The poem arose out of a workshop exercise set by Vicki Feaver and Ken Cockburn on a University of Edinburgh/Office of Lifelong Learning course I attended in September 2003. The brief was to take notes whilst walking around outside and to see if a pattern of images emerged. (Hence ‘Meadow Lane’ which is behind the OLL building.)
The first object that caught my eye was a splendid giant thistle. It seemed too obviously a Scottish symbol to use, but as I watched it nodding in the breeze and its shock of mauve petals made me think of punk, I thought perhaps I could do something new with it.
On studying my notes, I realised I had a common theme of rebellion, which fitted my punk thistle. My images included a street light on in the day-time (which seemed peculiarly appropriate outside the offices of ‘Sleep Scotland’ – who try to help insomniac children up all night and asleep in the day); a sliced Beetle car was doing its own thing by climbing up a wall outside the Volkswagon garage; the delinquent dogs’ paws imprinted on a pavement slab whilst the concrete was wet; a rowan seedling which had chosen to sprout in the unexpected place of a roof gutter and the anti-war graffitti on the wall: a silent shout of protest.
Since the poem was based on what I actually observed and experienced, I wanted the poem to be a ‘found’ poem like the collages of Kurt Schwitters. Slogans should go in verbatim e.g. the anti-war grafitti, ‘STOP THE WAR’ also, ‘We like to keep your Beetle jumpin’ slogan of the garage (sadly deleted for reasons I will explain later) and also the actual words spoken by Stevie, the janitor, in my encounter with him.
I also wanted to express the cacophony of city sounds (the punk thistle’s riff, the seagulls and sirens) which, with my semi-related series of images, reminded me of the improvisatory variations of jazz. My meeting with Stevie the janitor was a bit of serendipity and I included it since the lyrics of his jazz/blues band is a form of urban poetry and clinched the main theme of the poem for me: urban jazz.
Several drafts later, when I submitted it to The Red Wheelbarrow, the editors suggested the poem would be tighter without my street lamp and Beetle car and on reflection, I agreed, so out they went. I did agonize over this, as I was particularly fond of my delinquents (lamp and car) but the elements which remained cohered better. The theme of rebellion remained – but now my second theme, that of urban jazz, became more focused. You might say jazz is a form of rebellion too, so the two themes reflected each other and the poem clicked into place.