My mother was mad as mercury,
mad as a silken Disraeli stovepipe hat
hiding a gypsum-white rabbit.
She once told me – the malt talking –
I wasn’t her first born boy;
there had been seminal drafts.
She said being pregnant
was like spinning a bone-china plate
on the thinnest stick inside you –
breakages were bound to occur.
It was a question of which piece
could drop intact and roll around
on a hardwood floor, its rim ringing
with cries. My sister is a wild firing,
an artisan’s multi-coloured plate
still atwirl. I am a white canteen
saucer, ready to be tanned with tea-
slops. A cupped palm for spillage.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. 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 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
Birth is as precarious and as unpredictable as madness, the miracle of being alive dizzying. Magical images vie with the mundane-made-unfamiliar, the speed of gravity, the quickness of mercury.
Although this poem was written in 2010, it appeared in its current form in my pamphlet Spinning Plates in 2012. It was only after collecting my poems together for submission to a publisher that I began to realise that family, heredity, difficult birth and breakage would become the recurring motifs in my work. My poetry tends to use images of china and pottery, from cracked teacups to potsherds. So the idea of inheritance through heirlooms, represented by pottery, becomes a fearfully fragile one.
In ‘Spinning Plates’ I imagine babies (myself included) formed as plates that are being spun on sticks of pure chance and circumstance. I have a strange relationship with this poem, and in a way it scares me. It is the one time I have managed to articulate a sense of the sheer chance and precariousness of that which has brought me into the land of living.
The only way I can talk about the past is via things that have been passed down to me, and in my family good quality china was highly valued, and anyone who misused it was quickly put right. Thus the imagery of ‘Spinning Plates’ is wholly ceramic.