in from the riverside
where the putter of boat engines dulls
you practise scales
by a low pool among trees
long slow notes climb up your flute
as rain drops ring
young sad notes
almost as still as the leaves
sweet green notes
tugging at the sleeves of ghosts
pulling over the water
like a kind of grieving
reeling us in
to stand in the rain
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.
Mandy Haggith is yet another poet new to me, and another influenced by eastern sensibilities. This has all the delicacy of a Chinese scroll-painting - you can imagine it rendered as calligraphy trailing down the silk alongside a watercolour brush-drawing of trees, the river with the boat moored, its occupants reeled in by the flute player. It’s a moment of perfect stillness, attentiveness, rain falling on the leaves, on the pool, and we as readers are also reeled in to stand there, listening.
Yichang is the Chinese city just downstream from the enormous dam being built on the Yangtse River. It is a port for huge cruise boats, plying what is left of the Three Gorges, and also for all manner of river freight. These are the engines whose putter is left behind at the start of the poem, as we follow the sound of a flautist playing slow scales in a park.
I went to Yichang as part of a long journey in 2006 researching the global paper industry. China represents extremes in the world of paper, having both ancient traditions of beautiful hand-made sheets and a fast-growing and horribly polluting modern pulp industry. The Yangtse dam is an icon of Chinese industrialisation, creating a reservoir that has led so far to the displacement of more than a million people. Thousands of farms, grave sites, historic monuments and sacred places have been drowned. The melancholy tone of this poem is a response to this loss.
Raindrops on still water and the simple, haunting flute music stand in direct contrast to the hubbub of the river and its industry. I think it is important for poetry to listen to and convey the quietness that lies behind the noise of public places.
I hope to show the slow notes of the musical scale through resonant single syllable words. There are lots of 'ing' words, to give a sense of the raindrop rings. It's an oral poem, intended to be read out, slowly, allowing all the rhymes to chime. At its heart, 'leaves' and 'sleeves' lead to 'grieving'.
This poem is in the third section of Castings, called 'Casting Adrift', the poems in which are the result of travels all over the world. It is the first of several about the Yangtse. The other two sections are from closer to home: 'Casting Off' is all about the River Kelvin in Glasgow, while 'Casting Ashore' is a bunch of poems about my home in Assynt.