The Calton Jail, it used to be.
When I was a boy
a man was hanged there at eight in the morning.
In its place now. – St. Andrew’s House, a papermaking mill of Civil Servants, an ants’ nest of bureaucrats.
My long shanks, pelmeted with short trousers, storked me into the school opposite
where my long head under its plume of hair sucked in words and choked
From a classroom
I looked over a smoky valley and a royal place to a curving cliff: Samson’s Ribs.
Now, today, I stand by Nelson’s monument regarding the ants’ nest of bureaucrats. They don’t interest me.
It’s best to turn round and watch ships
Sliding on the Firth of Forth. I don’t know
where they’ve come from or where they’re going to.
And that makes me think again
of the man, the lost traveller,
who years ago was hanged there at eight in the morning.
All day I’ve been doing that. All my life I’ve been doing that.
Somewhere about me I have the traveller’s permit
given to me by my mother.
The bus halts. Some people get off. I’ll never see them again.
Some people get on.
I move along
To make room for them.
The place I know I’m going to approaches. I move along again, towards the exit.
for Aly Bain
The fiddle bow slides and hops and dances
at a speed that should sound hectic but doesn’t. Down-bow becomes three up-bows in places
I would never have thought of, following
the jags and curves of the tune as though it were helicoptering at a hundred miles an hour
along a drystone dyke on a humpy landscape.
The result – a tune: a witty celebration
of nimbleness and joy, fit to be played
in a tenement room, in a hall, in the lee
of a Shetland peat stack where the Aurora remembers its other name, the Merry Dancers.
It’s acquired a French look – parasols and bikinis and beach balls and
surf boarding and bullying speedboats.
When I was a boy, it was proletarian Scotch – cloth caps, donkeys, Fun City,
the Salvation Army, beery faces
snoring under the Daily Record.
I’d like to make a gesture. Dare I paddle with my trousers rolled up to the knee and my shoes hanging round my neck?
I watch a birdwatcher. He steals
a gull from the air and imprisons it in his binoculars, as I do
with the year 1920.
– And I see my father
six feet two of him; St. Vitus dancing along the cakewalk;
and into my mouth steals the taste
of sand and ice-cream and salty fingers.
I leave the Tollcross traffic and walk by the Meadows between two rows of trees, all looking
as grave as Elders of the Kirk – but
wait till the wind blows.
Dogs are hunting for smells. A few men are practising approach shots
on the dwarfish golf course. Some children are incomprehensibly playing.
And between two heaps of jackets a boy scores a goal –
the best one ever.
Past the Infirmary I go back to the traffic, cross it, and there’s Sandy Bell’s Bar.
Tollcross to Sandy Bell’s Bar
a short walk with a long conclusion.
Assynt and Edinburgh
From the corner of Scotland I know so well
I see Edinburgh sprawling like seven cats
on its seven hills beside the Firth of Forth.
And when I’m in Edinburgh I walk
amongst the mountains and lochs of that corner that looks across the Minch to the Hebrides. Two places I belong to as though I was born
in both of them.
They make every day a birthday,
giving me gifts wrapped in ribbons of memory.
I store them away, greedy as a miser.
THE POEMS OF NORMAN MACCAIG, edited by Ewen MacCaig, is published by Polygon at £25.00.
ISBN: 1904598 26 9
Myself after her death
Move along! the driver shouts. Move along there!
I’m exiled from what used to be my country. It welcomed me
with gifts of peace and of storms, with heights of mountains
and altitudes of joy.
No, says the wall, and I turn back. No, says the mountain
and I sit sad in the valley listening to the river that says Trespasser, trespasser, trespasser. I stubbornly say, All the same
it’s still beautiful.
And I know that’s true
but I know also
why it fails to recognise me.
That boulder beside Loch na Barrack stuck all over with tiny pebbles,
its costume jewellery
– that’s what I’m like.
I have a hardness in me too
of a human kind and -look close and you’ll see
the costume jewellery I’ve stolen from the past,
more precious to me
than opals and diamonds
When she was alive
I had no need for hope.
When she was dying
hope never visited us.
In this cold city snow is falling.
but life works underground and over it
at the endless toil of creation.
Little comfort for me.
But I have blessings; I count them.
They have the names of people.
There are others. But above all
they have the names of people.
They will die, as she did.
They will die, as I will.
And I look at the face of death
and say, I hate you, to destroy such wonders.