Lines composed a few miles from Edinburgh Castle, 1947

‘Forgive me, sister, if my handwriting seems

to have gone astray, for I’ve written this by candlelight,

there being no coal for light for three nights

now, since those among us who care more

for batons, skirls and strangers’ plaudits wrote

to Shinwell offering up what wasn’t theirs to offer:

four nights’ rations of our coal to light up

the Castle walls – four nights if you please!

 

so those arriving at our festival might look upon

illuminated crenellations, meringue battlements,

while we here below are plunged back

into that darkness from whence we only

such a short time ago emerged. Truly, Kathleen,

many among us fear that darkness still

even if the sound of planes above us

no longer brings what’s left of payloads for the Clydebank.

 

No, I tell you, Kathleen, a fine gesture’s

a cross-grained thing.  Shall Auld Reekie

not give them a warm welcome? I was asked by that dafty

tending to his roses on the corner as I passed.  And what,

I should have said, care I for scones and Mr Walter’s

orchestra, such antics of the human spirit, when

I still hear those detonations in marching bands’

bass drums? Does it only take a year or so

for all that was suffered to be replaced

by yet more shouted orders?

 

Lassie, I was accosted at the bread van (the cheek!)

shall we greet our future in the dark?  Or shall it be all the brighter

for burning as one light, and not over my table

and yours?  I held my tongue, straightened my gloves. 

But might have pointed out, had Red Clydeside

Manny not frozen us last winter,

there would have been enough for all our wants.

 

Here, in the silence, the sound a bus makes

as it climbs the hill towards the Castle

interrogates my doubts.  What warm loam

do they tend in cheerful allotments to give them

such confidence that the piper’s worth a candle?

 

Theirs is not an optimism learned from placards

– even now, with those newsreels

still shown in the cinemas, even after all that –

like a haberdasher’s register whose drawer

opens at a pressed key and is then pushed shut

again; not as ancient nobilities prompt a sense

that where a thumb has pressed

into the soft fabric of the world it must spring back,

some by-law that gesture follows gesture as a flag

waved at one end of the long platform is followed

by a gout of steam and a whistle at the other.

 

Do you remember the tinker who came for the dents

in our scuttle and stayed to talk, but went before

we paid him?   The art of something put right.

Not a relinquishment in search of desolate reaches beyond,

but an absorption by the world’s imperfections

planishing the carapace of every day

tending the barn about the bushel.

 

Kathleen, I must admit

I could not see my candle for the brilliance of the lights

upon the walls reflected through my window. 

The darkened city dons its Castle like a hat.

Let us be reconciled to our gifts.’

Australian Catholic University Poetry Prize Chapbook, 2020