Ross Wilson was born in 1978 and raised in Kelty, a former mining village in west Fife. He has written three novels, reviewed for Books in Canada and co-edited Almost an Island: A New Anthology of Fife Writings. He recently worked with a team of writers on The Happy Lands, a feature film, in which he had an acting role. Awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2004, his short stories and poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. A national schoolboy boxing champion and internationalist, he has worked in warehouses, factories, hotels, kitchens and various other places. His first collection, The Heavy Bag, was published in November 2011. It is available from the publisher, Calder Wood Press, at £5 plus postage.
“This collection marks the emergence of a refeshing new voice in poetry. Some of his work explores subjects seldom, if ever, described in poems. He writes with great insight, characteristic honesty and a strong emotional involvement with people and their lives.”
(Amateur Boxing Club)
Wee Barry was first – his first bout.
Three rounds with a twelve year old double.
Mirror images until
the glass shattered like a dream
and reality battered his wee face red.
Barry cried in the changing room:
ma nose hurts like hell!
Only a point in it, Alec said,
ye done well.
Then there was Sean.
Features ghosted with nerves,
Sean flushed vomit and
seconds out, minutes later, was hit
out of time. A wee one asked: did it hurt?
No! The pain
was several inches south of the blow.
Sean didn’t bleed:
blood bloomed his cheeks.
Lanky Colin jabbed and crossed, dangling
danger on the end of two rods,
a smug grin as each jab went in and in.
In the closing seconds a hook sank into
his burger-Coke lined guts. Winded,
he grappled a pummelling desperado, until
the bell sounded, sweet as his girl the night before.
Colin won by a score:
nineteen hits to four.
Next, John. A Scottish champion six years
before nightlife blackened his eyes
darker than any glove ever did.
Body hardened by Saughton’s gym,
arms colourful as an exotic bird’s wings,
rage carried him into the ring, through two
wild rounds into a third. Drained as a
pint glass, a white towel fluttered
to save him from himself.
Dean! Dean always broke the circle training –
facing a mirror as the rest faced one another.
I-pod in ear, unable to hear instruction,
Dean danced and vaulted the ropes!
But a boot snagged and tumbled him
and laughter bellowed around the ring.
It was hell for Dean after that. Pride punctured,
body blows deflated the rest.
And his record fell: four wins, now a loss.
Last: eighteen, unbeaten, Andy sat
one a table staring at boots that run miles
every night they don’t skip rope in a gym.
No one will fight him: too much power, skill.
There are whispers of other countries;
talk of a blue vest.
‘I’ve no passport,’
he told Alec.
‘Your passport’s talent n’ will.’
Weekends Alec drives a transit van full
of bleeding noses, bruised ribs, battered egos.
Sixty years old and so alive his breath
is a winter plume against a darkened windscreen.
Half way cross-country tonight.
Tomorrow: a roof with hammer and slate.
Alec smiles into a mirror full of boys
sleepy with dreams or dreaming awake:
the future is full of girls and fighting.
The Way John Went Out
In memory of John Gray
I had you in my corner a few years,
talking me into, and through, pain.
Weekends, you’d take me into
Edinburgh and Glasgow to train;
mid-week, we worked out in Rosyth.
Days in-between, I ran alone.
We were about the same height then:
Five three, flyweights. I, fourteen, all bone,
you, a trim forty, fitter than anyone
in the gym, until I caught up, like time
caught us, six years later.
A six foot welterweight that day
we met, books tucked under what had been
a left hook, specs on a never broken nose.
I was awoken that day
like a brawler too clumsy to duck
the surprise counter of your news.
The best punches come from nowhere.
This one hit before we could begin.
A doctor stepped between us, waving it all off;
a timekeeper beat the slow count out of days
before a bell could ring.
And it was a daze to stumble into,
like those nights when I’d run alone
in the dark of a wood, no stool to rest on,
and no voice in the corner where I once stood
tired and bloodied with your hand
flying my hand like the kites
we were both high as, walking
down the steps of Meadowbank Stadium, 1993.
You came in with nothing,
you said to me, you went out a champion.
In memory of Alec “Spangles” Hunter (1936 – 1995)
When they found Marciano’s body
strapped in the crashed plane seat,
someone said start counting, he’ll get up.
He always did, when he was down.
I remembered that story the day
Spangles went down.
A sweet tooth behind a bark:
thir’ll be no fuckin’ swearin in this gym!
A face marked by 626 fights.
At 59, he went down refereeing a bout
with no one to replace him to take up a count
that went by so fast we had our doubts
it was over.
That’s anithir season yeh’v wastit!
He’d say when I’d return to the gym
years after my last fight,
and with more appetite
for the atmosphere than the blows
that carved and cut and shaped him
like a pumpkin fired within.
Anithir season wastit
as though he thought I’d be back.
As though to say: he’s just resting.
I was young after all.
Now, I hit harder with the weight
time packs into a punch, and slower,
with energy that saps like the sweat
I watch drip away, wondering
what Spangles would say
about this new club full of women
and bairns and music – attitudes
shaped by the seasons he’s been gone.
His voice plays on – and old record
scratched and scored as his face,
and turning in my memory:
This isnae a fuckin’ youth club!
As if to say: this isn’t a game.
You don’t play boxing.
Months after the old club
was knocked down and out of existence
the headline read:
Final Round for Boxing Legend.
That was 1995.
This is another country, another gym
with the same fighting spirit alive
in twelve year olds I watch spar
and prepare fir anithir season.
The ABC 2
James came and turned
away from a right cross
in pain and walked across
the street for a bottle.
Craig put on two stone of muscle,
boxed a man naturally heavier than him
and discovered the truth in:
there’s nowhere lonelier than the ring.
Stewart had talent but lacked will,
won a few fights, missed nights
training, got a girl pregnant and
no one knows where he went.
Graham went sixteen and two,
won a few district titles, a national,
boxed international and
died inhaling aerosol.
Lesley was a tom-boy lesbo bitch
according to a few folk before
she learned to fight back and
flattened Fat Mary on her back.
Alan wasn’t very good – he got better,
lost a few before he won,
never won much but
All six were in the same year.
James is on the dole now.
Craig is a bouncer.
No one knows where Stewart is.
Graham is in Kirkford Cemetary.
Lesley is at the university.
And Alan runs the local ABC
three nights a week.
from The Heavy Bag (Calder Wood Press, 2011).
Order The Heavy Bag.
Fellow Scots, friends, poets and bloggers Marion McCready and Morgan Downie review and interview each other on their recent poetry collections. Both are published by Calder Wood Press.
Marion McCready was born on the Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll, where she currently lives with her husband and two young children. She studied at Glasgow University and her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Vintage Sea (Calder Wood Press, 2011) is her first pamphlet. Marion blogs at http://sorlily.blogspot.com.
morgan downie is a poet, short story writer, artist and passionate mountain biker. he was not born in orkney but grew up there and describes himself as an orcadian by formation. he has had a long and varied career in healthcare. stone and sea (calder wood press, 2010) is his first full length collection. morgan blogs at
Marion on morgan’s work
stone and sea is a beautiful exploration of land and folk memory written with emotional intensity and precision. Morgan speaks with the confidence of a natural storyteller as he draws the reader gently into the rhythm of lives lived and shaped by the landscape around them. The back cover says his poems are “held together by a clear spiritual feeling for people and places”.
A favourite poem of mine in the collection is ‘the weaver’ with its precise language, simple yet affecting imagery (“a darting fish/ in the half moons/ of her hands”), and a rather wonderful ending where “the fabric/ spills from her /like the tide” which, rather than closing the poem off, opens it out to inhabit the landscape in the reader’s imagination.
Morgan paints serene landscapes succinctly with words: “here a whalebone/ the vertebra/ juts from the sand/ like a sail” (‘beachcombing’). “i slept in the skull/ of a dead boat /the skeletal hull/ splintered into/ the setting sun/ netting dreams” (‘beached’). And from ‘painting the sand at uig’, “cloudscape, the bone memory/ of western sand/ the windblown skeletons of urchins,/ aimless as tumbleweed”.
Morgan and I both have a connection to the Outer Hebrides, I having been born there and Morgan having lived there for a number of years.
Another favourite in the collection is ‘huisinis’ (pronounced hoo-shi-nish). It exhibits Morgan’s instinctual rhythm in language which compliments his preference for short lines, both of which act as a driving energy pushing the reader on through the poem. When I went on holiday to the Outer Hebrides last year I passed by Huisinis, on the Isle of Harris, and thought of Morgan’s poem and how language, place names, can conjure up a familiarity, a connection to a place. I had never been to Huisinis but just seeing the place name and hearing in my head the wonderful, gentle echo of it repeated at the end of this poem made me realise that Morgan’s poem had already connected me to the place.
the language like birds
wind-driven, light boned
white fragments tossed
above the mean glottals
of the exposed schists
softer in the machair
the whispering of grasses
experts at survival
in conditions of desiccation
in summer the corncrake
insistent, sharp as
the incline of the clisham
as desolate, as beautiful
as scarp in blue water
the rhythm of the peat
the blunt bite of spade
down through layers
thick as dictionaries
and out, out
to the empty sea
bare of boats
precentor to echoes
a hundred words
for wave and wind
gone now, songs
sung in the bones
of the whaling station
where is this place
huisinis we say
gentle as a lullaby
to the tired ear
Marion interviews morgan
You bring an intensity to your poems which is partly due your preference for short lines and continuous enjambment. Is this mainly instinctual on your part, or is it, for want of a better phrase, part of a winning writing formula for your work?
i’m not so sure it’s a winning formula – people seem to take issue with ‘long skinny poems’! i had to go back and have a look the poems i wrote in my teens and it seems i’ve always written in something like this format so there must be a strong instinctual element in it. equally though there’s the element of writing what i want to read. i have memories of looking at skinny poems (i wish i could remember which ones) and thinking how uncluttered the page looked, how much precedence the writer was giving to the individual words.
put another way, i remember a musician talking about how he wanted his music to sound like a drum kit falling down stairs. i like that. not only do you have the stave quality of the stairs but there’s that random element of falling and sound. when i’m writing it’s the same. the words go where the words go, the line length is its own form. as a reader i see it as an invitation, like going for a walk. you’re free to make your own interpretations, your own associations. i guess this reflects some of the literary theory i’ve absorbed over the years.
I’d imagine the first thing most people notice about stone and sea is your decision not to use capitalisation and your limited use of punctuation throughout the entire collection. Was this a consciously theoretical/political decision, a rebellion of sorts against the acceptable ‘rules’ of language or current poetry, or is it part of a more personal poetics?
i think the thing, along with the long skinny poem, that most people comment on (almost before they’ve read the poems!) is that i don’t use capitals and i’m scant on the use of punctuation. would it be too prosaic to suggest that when it comes to typing i’m just too lazy to use the shift key?
i did once use capitals (again, it’s great to have notebooks so you can look back in time and wince/see what you did back in the day). i used to use them at the start of every line but i remember getting negative feedback from some magazine many years ago that this was ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘wasn’t done’. maybe that was when it started to change or maybe i just wanted to make the poetry distinct from the prose.
so, from a chronological perspective i suppose it could be viewed as reactionary but for me it seems much more like an aesthetic choice. we take a lot of time thinking about where we put these wee black marks, how we arrange them in the context of one another so it seems that the notion of the negative space around them should be equally important and really, to be honest, fundamental in terms of poetry. the white page is both a framing device and a substrate in terms of its physicality but there’s also that notion of space, space to stop a while, space to think, roll the words around a bit, sound them out loud, a bit like having a seat on a summer’s day, looking out at the landscape and becoming the view.
I know you read a lot of poetry and you read widely but who do you return to again and again as your staple poet and who has had the greatest influence on your work?
in terms of influence i don’t really have many ‘go to’ poets. i would definitely cite various works of non-fiction as a means of thinking my way into an approach. off the top of my head i’d want to be putting my hand on the likes of simon schama’s landscape and memory, anything by marina warner and gaston bachelard’s poetics of space.
i tend to like poems that aren’t written in english, preferably in a bilingual edition so that i can feel the weight of the original on my tongue. german’s great for this, particularly if you’re scottish because you can really get around the sounds. so it’s more particular books than actual writers that have influenced me – i have a feeling there’s some sort of poetic heresy in there!
while my gaelic is atrocious i very much like poetry in gaelic. aonghas macneacail and meg bateman are two names that spring immediately to mind, and the an leabhar mor is a book i wouldn’t like to be without. i was very taken by robert lowell’s imitations, which opened up a whole world of translation/interpretation/ transliteration for me. if i’m stuck i’ll still return to the introduction. whitman, obviously. i went through a verlaine phase for a while and he may well be the only poet i can still manage to recite from memory. homer and the sagas from when i was wee. paul celan’s collected poems (the hamburger translation) would have to be a desert island book. he’s just so fierce, so out there, that reading him is the closest i can get to some form of transcendental experience. henrik nordbrandt it seems to me is someone who doesn’t get read enough. on the home front, and similarly, at least in this country, not widely enough read, is kenneth white, particularly for the concept of the waybook which i think has niggled away in the back of my mind ever since i read travels in the drifting dawn.
You’ve published short stories as well as poetry and your poems, such as your sequence on St. Columba, definitely demonstrate your storytelling ability. What is it about the people in your poems that inspires you to write about them?
when i was wee and living up north i spent a lot of time in myths and sagas whether it was homer or norse folklore. norse folklore had so much relevance because i could physically place the narrative into the landscape. i could go to the beach where magnus was killed. i could go to the pillar in the cathedral where his bones were. the dividing line between story and ‘reality’ was very fine to a boy!
i guess when i’m writing about a particular character or element in a story (stone and sea starts with the western isles myth about god and the jewels) it’s not so much the character or the myth but the experience of being in a moment that could be applicable to a particular character or situation, a phenomenological approach if you like. in that way, talking about the columba poem, i get to not only think a bit about columba but also that notion of being silent in a boat, looking up at the sky, waiting for landfall, all of those things at once.
You use, at times, almost scientific terminology in your poems, I’m thinking of ‘formations’ here. Is this related to your background of studying and working in a medical environment?
for me as a poet this works at a couple of levels. in the first instance i’ve spent a lot of time with a friend who’s a geologist so his interpretation of the landscape, his way of seeing, is very different and that heteroglossality is of primary concern. equally, however, it’s just the language. without wanting to get all heideggerian the idea that the moment of language is what we exist in is fascinating for me. it doesn’t really matter whether it’s geology, medical terminology, painting or whatever i just love using the words. when i use something like monestial turquoise in one of my painting poems for example – it may be the reader doesn’t paint, doesn’t know what that is but once that word-door has been opened there’s no going back. it’s synaesthesic for me, the word as spell. it’s not to ignore the language of men argument just that what i’m interested in using is the language of this man. not to do so, to use the language i live in, would feel like a betrayal.
Not only do you write stories and poems but you also paint and create all sorts of artworks. How do these activities inform your poetry, if at all?
i don’t really see any separation between poetry and the other things i do. it would be easy to make a division, to say that this is creative and that is not, but in truth there’s as much satisfaction for me in making jam from berries i’ve grown in my garden as there is in making a poem or a painting. in fact, in some ways, because of the transitoriness of the jam, it’s superior, it can’t be recaptured.
cycling could be thought of as just some form of physical battering, an acceptable form of self harm, but that’s not to accept the meditative element of it. i think it feeds directly into a creative effort even if it gets tricky to write a haibun in the middle of climbing a hill! what it teaches me is to take the time to stop, to look.
i was very taken with the idea of the temporary autonomous zone back in the day and still have an affection for those notions. i think an open minded approach to different forms of creativity and what constitutes creativity itself is essential. it leads you down different thought paths, evolves different techniques, approaches and reveals previously unknown influences. it’s one of the the reasons i’m always ready to jump into collaborative work, there’s always that element of the magical mystery tour. beyond that i’m really not that bothered, it’s only the work that’s important. everything else is gravy! but i do like that sense of not knowing what comes next, where the path will lead. for me, that’s a joy.
What are your current writing projects?
there’s a photo book coming out, with any luck later this year, the follow up to stone and sea is almost done, there’s a book of short stories and … and … there’s always an and. i’m not brilliant at finishing. part of it is that i don’t much like the editing process and while i’ll easily hold my hand up as a procrastinator of some ability that’s not really it either. i like the feel of being in the midst of something, that there remains a potentiality that mitigates against an end point. i suppose there’s that thing that a completed work is like a child that you have to let go, to let it do its own thing in the world but there’s also that other part in which completion feels like a form of death. i feel this is changing these days, maybe it’s my day job. we feel, too often, that there’s always time but the reality is there really isn’t. to that end i don’t really have any writing projects, any more than i have a breathing project! it seems a wonderful privilege in this short life to put pen to paper, brush in paint, to make something out of less than air. for me that’s what it should be about, weaving stories, patterning words, divining up some sort of magic.
morgan on Marion’s work
i’ve met marion a few times now. i’d hazard a guess that i’d recognise her in a busy street, but these poems – i know them. so i’m happy to not be watching the dauphiné, putting the tv off and welcoming these upon my eyes like someone i’ve been waiting to visit and take into my house. i can’t remember the last time i read a pamphlet from cover to cover but i did with this, a wee smile with each recognised face.
i don’t know these places, who or what is burnie mackinnon, the gantocks or the captayannis and, to be honest, i don’t care. i like their shapes, the feel of them as i say their names – if nothing else this is a collection that deserves to be read out loud by somebody scottish! – and i love the fine detail, the small changes where i can see that marion has (finally!) decided this is the finished article. yes, i say, i see what you did there.
from my own perspective i like the later poems. not that there’s any indication of which these are but i know and for me these are where i find marion’s voice at her most confident and, collected like this, they give me a great sense of anticipation for what she does next (sad that it’s always about what comes next!). there is great language here and when i read it i get the same sensation as i do when i look up words in foreign language dictionaries, taking the familiar and transforming it on my tongue. i can’t be doing much with questions of meaning, it’s all about the feel and vintage sea feels great.
Autumn trees are effigies
burning in the streets.
They lose their leaves, their wings,
into every corner, crevice,
These falling prayers,
these harvest psalms.
The bloodied skins of them
shirring the ground.
Harbingers. Little deaths,
they harp at my feet
words begging to be said,
words begging to be freed:
two men shall be in a field,
one shall be taken, the other one left
morgan interviews Marion
you’ve just completed a close reading of sylvia plath. how much do you find she influences you and has the process of close reading affected your approach to writing, technical or otherwise?
In a sense I’ve never not closely read Sylvia Plath’s work. Plath’s Collected Poems was the first poetry collection I ever purchased by an individual poet and her imagery, intensity of language and surprising juxtapositions make her a constant inspiration to me of how language can be forged to create experiences in themselves rather than simply be the recording or the re-telling of an experience. I guess this is something I aim towards achieving, in my own way, in my poems.
we’ve both recently expressed a liking for the ‘darksome browns’ of gerald manley hopkins. for you, what comes first, the image or the words?
The image, definitely. When first reading a poem I tend to skim the words and focus on the images. It takes a few readings for me to focus on what the poem is actually about. I’m a very image-orientated reader. It’s not uncommon for me to wonder which film a picture in my mind comes from only to remember that it comes from a book. One of the things I love most about poetry is how condensed language can create a series of powerful, impacting images in such a short space. For me, it’s normally an image and the symbolism that it entails that sparks the inspiration for a poem.
as i read vintage sea i’m struck by the notion of you walking, being engaged with your local environment. how important is the notion of locality to you?
That’s exactly how many of the Vintage Sea poems came to be written. Because I can’t drive I do a lot of walking and many of the images in my poems are drawn from my local landscape. Locality is important to me only in the sense that writing about the specific is the only way to write genuinely about the universal, although this sounds contradictory. It’s also a case of write what you know. I remember reading somewhere that until you conquer your own landscape in writing you can’t hope to write about anywhere else. It’s a thought that’s always stuck with me.
i described the environment in your poems as a ‘transformational landscape’. to what extent do story/myth and myth-making form part of your writing process? (i’m thinking here about the likes of ‘brenhilda’ or ‘captayannis’)
Myth, and in many ways nature, are for me vehicles for exploring and to some extent de-personalising experiences in order to write about them. In ‘Captayannis’ for instance I write about a miscarriage I had a number of years ago. I found I could only objectify it and therefore write about it using the shipwreck as a distancing mechanism. Ted Hughes wrote “a feeling is always looking for a metaphor of itself in which it can reveal itself unrecognised” (Letters of Ted Hughes). I use myth and local stories in this sense as metaphors for exploring my own feelings and experiences.
initially i recall your reluctance with regard to publicly reading your poetry. now that you’re getting into it do you find it has changed the way you look at the vintage sea poems and has it affected your approach to writing new poems?
The awareness that comes with reading poetry aloud and in public came before I wrote the Vintage Sea poems and had a fairly large impact on the writing of these poems even though I myself hadn’t read publicly until last year. I think in some ways the poems I’m writing now have a less obvious emphasis on sound though sonic qualities are, and always will be, an integral driving part of the writing process for me. I’m interested in pushing other poetry ‘tools’ to the fore in order to expand my writing.
Read, read, read. I’ve currently banned myself from reading my old favourite poets – Plath, Eliot and Akhmatova – in order to read other poetry wider and deeper. I’ve noticed how easy it is to slip into the comfort of reading and re-reading favourite poets and poems. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved with my Vintage Sea poems but I’m also ready to move on from them and hopefully improve and expand my writing. Part of the pleasure of writing poetry for me is the continual intellectual and emotional challenge. I’m hoping that focusing on some different poets for a lengthy period will open up my writing to new influences and expand and challenge it. This of course means lots of experimentation and inevitable failure which is always a little intimidating! At the moment I’m focusing mainly on the poetry of Durs Grünbein and Claire Crowther and thoroughly enjoying it.
Order Vintage Sea and stone and sea from Calder Wood Press.
Visit Marion’s blog.
Visit Morgan’s blog.
Marion McCready was born on the Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll, where she currently lives with her husband and two young children. She studied at Glasgow University and her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Vintage Sea (Calder Wood Press, 2011) is her first collection.
“It is rare these days to read a first pamphlet in a voice so sure and well formed and rooted in local knowledge as Marion McCready’s, whose poems come to us drenched in the waves and mists of the Firth of Clyde and the islands off the west coast of Scotland, and yet never fail to remain responsive to the tidal surges of the universal. Whether writing of the natural world of her beloved seashore and rivers, or of the equal mysteries and deeps of love and motherhood, McCready’s poems are always both aware of the spirit and grounded in the here-and-now of a pleasurably physical sense of language as music and of the poem as a shaped and shapely object. Setting out for the islands, McCready advises that we will be able to find her “in another life/ among the kittiwakes, the sea pinks,/ cormorants feeding their young in my ribcage”, and we, already persuaded, are eager to follow.”
– James Owens
“to read marion mccready’s poetry is to enter a transformational landscape where the act of seeing is ecstatic and filled with meaning. it is not magical realism but a realism that becomes magical. i highly recommend it.”
– morgan downie
“Marion McCready lives on an island which seems to be one giant metaphor. From seascapes and landscapes she creates dreamy, often startling, images, sometimes making a pithy point, sometimes nudging the reader beyond the here and now to a place more mythological and elemental. This is the first collection from a very individual voice.”
– Hugh McMillan
The river-sun whitens the birch wood trunks.
I lie as foreign as coloured glass amidst the mossy greens,
shadows of birds flying across my skin.
Shushing leaves fill the sky with the rush of the sea,
and above my closed eyes
the clouds become boats filled with Nessmen
as they sail to the gannet skerry
where they’ll find me, in another life,
among the kittiwakes, the sea pinks,
cormorants feeding their young in my ribcage.
The Herring Girl
Under a cloud of shoals she lies.
The peaty moon
rising from her knees,
sailing the length of her curves.
Her herring bone hands
hang by her side.
The cry of her oilskin tongue,
lost to the wind.
Across the loch
the false men shimmer
their glitter of quartz,
They talk amongst themselves.
Cailleach of the moors,
she slits throats in her sleep.
Though she lies inland,
her body is a work of the sea.
She follows the seasons
in the ports of her mind.
The Cockle Picker’s Wife
She hangs her blacks
on a washing line at the back
of a washed up beach.
The tide has left its mark
on the promenade:
offerings of seaweed,
cracked mussels, softened glass.
Gulls feed from her hands,
oystercatchers land on her head.
She keeps cockles
in her bed,
picks them by night under moonlight.
At her call the heart-shape shells
rise from sands.
Their rib mouths yawn,
part under her touch.
Her home is a haven for molluscs.
Daily she fills, from the Firth,
a bath and lies with them, skin
smooth as pebbles.
A black rock under green waves;
the waters flow over her head.
the unruly spheres,
plants them in her pocket,
her bag, seeds them
between her toes.
She knows one day she too
will lose her fruits
to the wind.
We Met by a Charm of Crossbills
The blood-birds kiss the air
as they fall from cone to cone,
their warp of mandibles
freeing the fruits, shucking the shells.
Below them, the sky is flecked
with drifting scales.
You whisper ‘crossbills’
and a bird rises in my throat.
You taste of rust and nails.
The Douglas-firs hold up the fiery bells,
their thick bull-necks, their forked-tails.
My skin is a spectrogram of your breath.
You spell words with symbols on my neck.
The blood-bird song is a warning in our heads.
We met by a charm of crossbills.
from Vintage Sea (Calder Wood Press, 2011).
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When living in Madrid between 1959 and 1960 on a postgraduate scholarship, Lyn Moir spent many sessions in the Prado, alone in the room with Las Meninas, before the crowds arrived. Some 45 years later, she felt impelled to write in the voices of the inhabitants of that painting, and when she discovered that in 1957, in his villa La Californie, Picasso had painted his variations on a theme, her cup was full. She entered their world …
Veláquez’s Las Meninas: an Inventory
Paintings, assorted, on back wall, three,
in dark oak frames, plus one
in which, for reason unexplained, glass
either plain or mirrored, has been installed.
On right wall, four at least, not possible
to catalogue or mark in any way: side view
of necessity only shows frames.
Item, on ceiling, two light fittings, chandeliers
missing from same. (Note: inquire
as to whereabouts. Check palace inventory
and other Court paintings. Insurance claim?)
Walls themselves in need
of fresh distemper. Ditto ceiling.
Strong evidence of stains. (Query cause:
fumes from charcoal in braseros?
simple breathing? turpentine?)
Item, living beings, humans, nine, one dog.
Five women: one faceless duenna
behind the luminous princess
flanked by protectors, ladies of the court
pendant on her every royal whim,
and the dwarf whose body,
achondroplastic, marks her as foil
for the iridescent beauty of the girl.
Four men: one in door, coming or going
or simply standing there; one anonymous
guardadamas, the only unknown in the pack;
one pituitary dwarf, delicate as a child;
the painter himself, towering above the rest.
The dog, honest, sound in temperament.
Taking up entire left foreground,
floor almost to ceiling, one easel
complete with canvas, subject unknown.
Veláquez by Veláquez
A looming figure, in whose hands
the whole illusion rests,
he lures us in, he pulls the strings
of those we see and those we must
with the power to position
unwitting performers at the point
of maximum tension,
he also is the star, the bill-topper
the hero of the hour who makes us gasp
at his audacity and skill
in wire-walking. He makes us feel that we
have some effect upon the scene,
that if we breathe too hard, too short,
we might disturb the balance of the court.
Veláquez, In His Painting Las Meninas, Observes Picasso
He comes and goes, dressed
like a sailor, short, monkey-faced,
staring into this room
with obsidian eyes. He thinks
he’s a painter, carries a palette,
flashes the brushes, swears
in a comical mixture
of Castilian and French.
Does he spy for the Bourbons?
It’s a cunning disguise,
he’s bizarre in his manner
and a child in his art. Is he mad,
some poor bastard
let loose from the madhouse
as clown for the grandees
and others at court?
He’ll bear watching, whatever
he’s doing. The others don’t seem
to see him, as yet, save perhaps
for the dwarf. She’s a deep one,
too smart for those wittering girls
at the princess’s side, knows
the answers to questions
that haven’t been asked.
The Boy in Red – Picasso Gives a Young Dwarf a Life
The boy in red’s mysteriously acquired
an upright piano, ebony black:
candelabra, vase with roses, all the gear.
He plays honky-tonk, he plays jazz
in a bordello just down the road
from his regular job. He fears
recognition, so covers his face
with a mask. He wears gloves,
pounding the keys
with a passion he isn’t allowed
in the palace, sex out of his orbit,
forbidden to him and his kind.
Here in the half-light of illicit loving,
he plays his heart’s longing:
here he’s the heart of the scene,
the powerhouse engine
controlling the rhythms
of all of the players. Daylight
creeps in, revealing the grime.
The girls have gone home, the room
smells of sour Valdepeñas,
the dog rolls his eyes, the candles
are guttering. Nicolasito plays on.
Veláquez on Picasso’s Pigeons
That man, that manic clown, he’s painting pigeons!
He excuses himself, to be sure, with the claim
it’s the view from my windows. ¡Ojalá fuera!
If only it were – it’s a view calls to mind
my native Sevilla, or the coastline at Cádiz,
expanses of water and waving pine trees,
birds on the balcony, a fresh summer breeze
instead of this arid Castilian plain,
pine-cloaked Guadarrama range sawing the sky,
league after league of boulders and rock
weighing us down, we arse-lickers at court.
If there were a pigeon-loft around my windows,
one of two things: her highness would be cooing,
handling their feathers, laughing, smiling, playing
like a child in any village watching living creatures grow;
or, more sinister, more likely, the courtiers
would pluck them from their nesting boxes, eat them,
that is, if his good majesty had not had them first.
I fear a game bird’s life at Philip’s court is short.
Eat or be eaten, crawl and curry favour. Simple rules
to keep oneself alive in a world of fools.
I the King
Some mock my cousin’s vanity. They say
the cross of Santiago on his chest
was painted long before the king
had honoured him. Yet others claim
the royal hand inscribed the sign
after Diego’s death.
I do not know who put it there,
though modern tests have proved
the scarlet cipher’s in another hand
than his: the brushwork indicates
a different artist. If you press
me to name names, I must suspect
Eliminate the king. Our Philip is not known
for painterly pursuits. The hunt’s his sport,
for stag or wolf, or woman. Intellect
is not his thing: he reads the paperwork
of state, but literature? And art? Others
do that for his aggrandisement. Hard to compare
his pen-strokes with the swirling scarlet cross:
his written words are few. He signs decrees
with arrogant disdain, in sprawling script:
yo el rey.
from Veláquez’s Riddle (Calder Wood Press, 2011).
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Read more of Lyn’s work at poetry p f.
Eddie Gibbons is the author of four poetry collections and two collaborative books. His latest full collection is What They Say About You (Leamington Books, Edinburgh). A prize-winner in the inaugural Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition 2008, he has been widely published in magazines, including Quadrant Magazine, Australia. His work has appeared on radio and television, including ‘Soccer AM’ on Sky TV. He had his own ‘Poetry Cabaret’ show at StAnza 2010. Why She Flew To Barcelona was published by Calder Wood Press in 2010.
A Terraceful of Marilyns
This isn’t Opera. No cosy fans will flutter
unless it’s a version of The Flying Dutchman
with Marco Polo Van Basten ghosting in
for a shipload of goals.
This isn’t Ballet. No fouettés in Capezio canvas,
unless it’s a score by Prokoviev, where Nureyev
dazzles: a blur of Cruyff turns from wing to wing.
This isn’t a Broadway play. No dresser will deal
with scuffed shoes, unless Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
is proof Cantona ran hotfoot from Old Trafford.
This isn’t Modern Art. No nancy boys will cry
for MOMA, unless the referee is blowing the whistle
of a train hurtling from the goalmouth, and a terraceful
of Marilyn Monroe’s are shouting: this is not a pipe
No-one wears a Tuxedo. None arrive at the turnstiles
in limousines zebra striped by neon lights.
People won’t scream for encores and authors.
There will be no bows from the orchestra.
Only, here and there, twin strikers, seemingly asleep
in their boots, crouch like tigers in red leather.
My voice, my speech, are tanged with salt
air. My throat is coated with estuary winds
which whirled down Water Street to bluster
over the Goree Piazza, tripping the bronze-
sculpted buckets to tip their freight of Mersey
brine unspooling into sloop-shaped pools.
The dustings from the grist of mills accentuates
my accent: my coal-caked vocal chords vibrate
and resonate in the tonal range of tugs sluicing
silt from Ellesmere Port to Bromborough Dock.
All gutturals and glottal stops, all aitches dropped,
the lilt of which will warm or warn.
Know me by the sounds I utter – the guttersnipe
whine, scallywag snarl, knavish slaver, or sugar-
coated sibilants: clue in to the tremolo, tremor,
the whoop or whimper. Gather the gist from
an open hand, a closed fist, the pitch:
there, there; fuck you; I do.
I’m More Th>n
More Lada than Prada
More NYPL than DKNY
More Vague than Vogue
More Ball Boy than Balmain
More Lager Lout than Lagerfeld
More Mascherano than Moschino
More Villanelle than Coco Chanel
More Vest Vest Vest than Est Est Est
More Harvey Smith than Harvey Nicks
More Charity Store than Christian Dior
More Kev and Tosh than Becks and Posh
More Stella Artois than Stella McCartney
More Anna Karenina than Donna Karan
More Aphra Behn than Oprah Winfrey
More Red Adair than Fred Astair
More Eastwood than Westwood
More Berryman than Burberry
More Belafonte than Beyonce
More Syllable than Sellable
More Pub than Published
More Owing than Ode
from Why She Flew to Barcelona (Calder Wood Press, 2010).
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