It’s raining at the garden centre.
I walk through dripping aisles of potted herbs
in a cool green rinse of aniseed and catmint.
The water falls in diatonic intervals –
each drop calls out its one clear note
as the canopy of leaves sings counterpoint.
I want you here to listen that way you do
with your eyes half-closed and mouth a little tense,
but don’t come and get you. Instead, I rehearse
this trick of solitary listening
against the time you leave, like a beginner
at piano with the practice pedal down
crawling a way through the minor scale
until my fingers have it blind.
But, like listening with one ear sealed,
it misses a dimension, or depth of sound…
the rain taps shallow as a glockenspiel,
an infant music, untutored and unreal.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. 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 2007 was Alan Spence.
Fiona Benson's work is new to me, and it's always exciting to discover such an extraordinary talent. Some of her work is written in a lean, muscular Scots with a faultless ear for the sound and texture of the language, the actual taste and feel of the words in the mouth. Here too, writing in English, the sheer music of it is breathtaking. She moves in that rare space between sense and sound, between the word and the reality invoked. She seems almost to name the unnameable, put into language what you thought could not be expressed. Each little three-line verse is pitch-perfect and the whole thing unfolds like a musical composition. Magical.
The garden centre of the poem is in St Andrews. If you walk along South Street towards the West Port and dip under an archway to your right (just after the greengrocers I think) there is a garden centre set back from the street and the nursery plants and saplings are all lined up in a courtyard. The stony aspect of the streets in St Andrews town centre is quite deceptive – there are all sorts of gardens and courtyards set back from the main streets like this, although most of them are private. The garden centre seemed to me to be an accessible green well at the heart of the town and I liked to go there to look at the plants and also the flop-eared rabbits that lived in a big hutch at the back of the courtyard. And it did rain once when I was there and I remember the smell of the herbs and the sound of the rain. Part of the garden centre has, I think, some kind of corrugated plastic roofing and the water was falling on that and the gravel and the bags of compost and the plants … most of this didn't make it into the poem, but did provide the intense harmonic experience that informed it.
I was listening to a lot of counterpoint at the time – Sweelinck and Schütz mostly – and found the close harmonies very eerie, very lovely, and that particular texture of music also found its way into the poem. And it is, of course, a poem about being a little bit lonely, about not being able to access the one person you would like to. The final rhyme seems very heavy to me now, but I know at the time I meant it to embody the kind of awkward, naïve music the final couplet was trying to describe.