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