Her watch is posted from the south.
Its black box ticks the whole way.
The accident happens, the funeral.
The flowers fade.
Grain in silos shifts with powdery sighs.
Light drifts, changes.
Her smell is gone. The voice of the beloved,
like any old memory, strays.
Her watch, in its dark drawer,
stops at a quarter to eight.
A gale blows loose a bird’s nest
lined with silken gold-red strands,
and when I find it in the wind-wrecked yard
I see her, again – at the window, brushing her hair.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
A mysterious accident, a watch ticking away on its way through the post, the memory of a glimpsed lover at a window. J.L. Williams has produced a poem that is spare but not at all bleak. It’s as if the emotion that flows through every line is being kept just under control, until at the end it spills out with joy and the accompanying sense of terrible loss. Poetry for the heart.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. 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 2013 was David Robinson.
For all its detail, this might seem an almost abstract poem of loss. The accident that has caused the loved one’s death isn’t specified, the funeral passed over without even a verb. All we have is the central image of her watch, ticking away unseen, outliving her, yet finally stopping too. She has died a second time, memories of her having been stilled just as surely as the ticking watch. Only an accident brings her back – a gale blowing a bird’s nest loose, revealing strands that remind the poet of the loved one, brushing her hair. The stillness and restraint of this poem, its avoidance of sentimentality, is what gives it its power, and this is reflected too in its deceptively simple succession of two-line stanzas, slowed down by the spaces between them.
I once heard someone speak of finding a bird’s nest with strands of the beloved’s hair woven in it. I found this idea terribly moving, and wanted to retell that story and to talk about time, memory, loss, but to let the objects carry the weight of the poem’s emotion. I recently read the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, and was similarly moved by her contemplation of the transience of the human creature, how for all our accumulation, our creating and attachment, we cannot make the self stay. The other side of that coin being, of course, the exquisite and peculiar existence of each moment of life. I tried for ages to get the images and words in the poem to line up in such a way that they could convey big emotion and narrative with very little – something I think poetry is especially good at.