for Don Paterson
A flight of loose stairs off the street into a high succession
of empty rooms, prolapsed chairs and a memory of women
perfumed with hand-oil and Artemisia absinthium:
wormwood to me, and to the sappy Russian sailors, chernobyl.
The scooped-back ballroom gown
shows the tell-tale bra-strap, red and tired.
‘Leave it,’ my maths master used to say at a dropped pencil,
‘it can’t fall any further.’ Well, I couldn’t, and neither could she.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. 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 2006 was Janice Galloway.
Gorgeous. A whole brace of things are going on at once here, inseparably, and the coup of the close is masterful. Erotic, insidious, seedy, precipitous, this is a poem with a real slow burn that reads new every time.
‘Wormwood’ sits bleakly amongst a small group of similarly unhappy pieces in my current collection, Swithering. All of the poems in this loose suite are urban, which is unusual for me, and variously deal in betrayal, misinterpretation, deracination, transgression and failure – with a cheery binding theme of loneliness. None is autobiographical, I’m pleased to say.
During the preparation of the book for press, Don Paterson – my exact and exacting editor at Picador – rashly mentioned that he enjoyed ‘Wormwood’. So, in return for all his diligence, tact and frank scrutiny of the work, I presented him with the toxic chalice of a dedication. That’s the last compliment I’ll get from him.