The gravestones still weigh the same.
No-one has altered the dates.
No-one asks why I’ve come back
again. To see not graves but
that wedge in the river-bank
where the green boat leaned. My years
at home had boulders on them.
The keel never touched water.
My years tugged at weight
no longer there. The ribs now
gave their atoms slowly back.
The boat is no longer boat.
Its ghosts set out at high tide.
Its wake is a coiling script
whose fluency the words trapped
on granite could well envy.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. 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 editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
As we grow older the past becomes more elusive and more imperative. Perhaps this is why poets cannot resist returning to it, given its shifting nature. In ‘Setting Out’, Robin Fulton, who was born on Arran, appears to return to the island, which he may physically have left long ago but which he can never forget even if he was inclined. His poem is very personal but, like all good poems, it resonates beyond the personal, becoming universal, philosophical, poetic, beautiful.
I can’t “explain” the last few lines of the poem without using the words I’ve already used there, but I can describe the mundane background. In 1948 father moved us to Helmsdale in the east of Sutherland, where he came to serve as Church of Scotland minister for nearly thirty years. Telford’s fine old bridge was then the only route across the river: at low tide I looked down and saw the stones on the bed, but at high tide the water swelled up, opaque and smooth and frightening. If you look up-river from the bridge you see the graveyard, embraced in a gentle curve of the river: both my parents are buried there as well as not a few people I once regarded as “old.” Just down-river from the graveyard, in a groove cut into the bank, a rowing-boat had been drawn up, apparently abandoned. It lay there year after year after year, part of the landscape and looking as permanent as the gravestones. Eventually it began to decay and on one of my visits I saw that it had vanished. It had become a non-boat but in its absence still seemed present, still an immovable part of that landscape. At the same time I imagined the spirit of the boat to be free now: could move wherever it wanted on the face of the waters.