Saturday, 22 December 2012

Brodgar



Derelict

Bone becomes stone. Here where the sun neither rises nor sets; beyond where light will not reach, where gravity gives way to pressure. Creatures of the deep slide through darkness with grotesque elegance, with their own blind beauty. Eyeless, some cast a futile glow on sterile grit, a circle of radiance into which particles of death slowly fall. The only motion here is downward.

Lagan

A thin wind ruffles the sea’s surface. Hardly a breath. The sky’s reflection is hidden in the loose waves, darker now, a captive. A rolling race of tide comes in, carrying the last memories of long-blown storms. Under the curved sky, the energy of the wide ocean rushes to shore.

Jetsam

Tide rises. A long swell approaching land lifts the kelp forests and comes lightly to shore. The breadth of sky-reflecting water and the wind’s last energy hide the sea-world from our own. Piece by piece, fragments of each fall or rise and, on the rippled surface, drift to rock and stone beaches, to pebble-shallows and bright pools of mermaid’s hair.

Flotsam

Like a ghost, I rose in the water and the sea turned me upside down. I felt so insubstantial that the tumbling water seemed to run through me, while the waves breaking above my head brought me inevitably to shore. Carried by the swell, I lay among the worn beach boulders. The push and pull of tide rocked me, like a baby, back to sleep. I resisted and stared at the high mackerel sky, at the folded clouds where the sun was hiding.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Inheritance

Something hides
Between the belly and the heart,
A low sensation thrust
Under the sternum
Like life or death
Or compromise.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Uncle Ronnie

Uncle Ronnie cut the last stones.
Alone on the rock, the last mason,
He put a year under his chisel
Until the work was done.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Word Formation

Wind under a sky
With no shape
Blows in tomorrow's dust
An advance of rain.

Words cannot frame
The scant origin of cloud.
Nor moisture turn sense
Into utterance.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Earthbound
















What I write
In the pages of this place
As if on the walls of a prison
Is simply a poem
Or an epitaph.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Another Shot of Workahol

In a dream I once had, I stumbled into a bar. The chairs and tables were a sad off-white colour and I remember feeling heavy…

‘Gimme another workahol!’ I cried to the bartender.

He fixed me with a steely eye as he wiped a non-existent beer glass. ‘Nope, bub, you’ve had enough,’ he said.

I leaned against the wood-panelled counter. ‘I gotta have another shot of workahol: my wife don’t understand…’

‘Don’t understand what, sir?’

‘Why I gotta do this, ‘ I screeched, waving my workaholic beverage tankard at him, ‘Why I work-work-work all day an’ all night!’

The bar-keep leaned closer. I knew that, if I could gain his confidence, he’d soon have me fixed up. He glanced once to each side of him, checking for spies. ‘No-one,’ he whispered, ‘but no-one, understands…’

‘Aw, gimme just a little one - one for the road – hey!’ I laughed. ‘You don’t understand either. I mean, why should you? You’re a dispenser of the wonder-drug, Overwork, purveyor of the Protestant Ethic. Why should you worry about a little old geezer like me, high on Overtime, strung out on Time Management?’

I paused for breath. The bartender smiled.

‘I was like you once.’ A faraway look came into his eyes. ‘I was up on downers. Way back. Up on downers till I was down on my uppers.’

‘The hard stuff,’ I gasped.

Again, he laughed. ‘The hard stuff! Look at yourself, my friend, your eyes are shot red with years in front of a computer, your hair’s thinning with financial worry and personal over-exposure at interminable board meetings. The rose tint has worn off your spectacles after years of polishing them in moments of crisis. Am I right?’

I nodded.

‘And you want more. You can’t live without the pressure. But, I’m not your boss. Look, I was like you: a slave to the machine. It made me wretched. What’s worse, I was married then; to a beautiful girl. At first we were happy. I threw myself into my work as a turf accountant. Life was sweet, or so I thought.

‘But I began to spend more time at the office. I chained myself to that desk. I told myself I was doing the right thing, that I was doing it for her.

‘But you know, don’t you, how wrong I was. You know I was only escaping the responsibility of being close to someone, anyone, myself even. I was on the run and I didn’t know it.’

I kept on nodding for fear of interrupting him in his passion. He went on, barely pausing to breathe.

‘I would go to meetings all over the world, at any hour of the day or night. Work was its own justification. I felt I could do anything. Whatever I did, work excused it. 

‘I was never knowingly cruel. But I lived for nothing but work and the rest of my life was swallowed up by creeping neglect. I neglected my wife. I had children. At least I think I did. They appeared at breakfast one day: two teenage boys. They called me father, so I assumed they were mine.

‘My wife seemed to accept all this until, one day, at a meeting, I opened my briefcase and found a pound of courgettes, a tin of Bonio and three fish-paste vol-a-vents instead of the usual paperwork. My wife had snapped, you see. When I came home that evening, late, I found she had gone. The kids too, whoever they were. There was a sort of note. It said:
“Darling, you love your work more than me. I hate the way your eyes sparkle when you talk of odds and form. They never sparkle when you look at me. I have taken the children with me. Don’t try to find me. I have left you for a younger man with large biceps and no job. Your dinner is in the recipe book. I hope you can remember what the kitchen looks like. Don’t come after me. 
Yours sincerely,
Edith.”
‘I was devastated. I gave up bookmaking at once. Of course, I never found out where she went. I went from bad to worse, found myself in the gutter eventually, begging for every scrap of workahol I could get. That was all I had left. I threw away my last shreds of self-respect trying to find the pressure of work on street corners.

‘In the end, I came here to this workaholics’ speakeasy, where tired old businessmen and middle managers come to talk shop and have people hassle them. Oh, I know I serve the stuff. Lots of do this now! and what about those sales targets, Smith? But I see myself as a kind of saviour too. Sometimes there are those I can help. Turn them away before it’s too late…’

He seemed to run out of steam. A wistful look crossed his face as he twisted his dishcloth in his hands.

‘Gee,’ I said, ‘What about another…?’

‘Go home. Bub!’ he cried. ‘Save yourself. It’s not too late for you. Have you heard anything I said? All you get here are bogus deadlines, ersatz orders and meaningless shop-talk. It’s all phoney. Half the faces beside you tonight will be dead of heart failure in ten years – or else managing their own workaholism programme. Go home!’

I stood up and cried with a drunk’s resolve: ‘I will. Yes, I will…’ I felt myself falling, dragged down by that incredible weight.

I woke with my face embedded in a pile of shredded computer paper. I had, as I thought, been dreaming. Well, I’d not thought I was dreaming while I was dreaming, rather, that realisation came through with my abrupt awakening.

I had fallen asleep while working late at the office again. I rubbed my eyes and looked at my watch. Only ten o’clock, I mused. Still time to finish that quarterly report.

© BH 1990, 2012

I can't for the life of me remember what I was doing in 1990 that prompted this. I have a vision of a basement bar in Bridge Street, Aberdeen. Why? I couldn't say. I suppose I had the archetype of the 'my wife don't understand me…' conversation between drinker and barman, that, and the paradoxical coinage of 'workaholic'. I could never get the '-aholic' suffix. I mean, as if a drinker could be addicted to 'alc'… Then it just got kind of surreal.

Mind you it only just predates the first version of the European Working Times Directive. Prescient, or what?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Spiral Bell

Metal turns.
A hollow pipe
Sounds along its length.

A tone struck,
Echoes clarity.

Standing waves 
In tubular space
Sustain.

Music
Born of confinement
Escapes it,
Runs across air’s 
Vast distance,
Free at last
To die away.

© BH 2012

I started to write about freedom and remembered a fragment from an earlier poem: 'the spiral bell of freedom'. For whatever reason those few words sparked this, something at the same time literal and metaphysical. That's my excuse, at least. Otherwise words fail me.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Navvy


Tarmacadam
Turned my sleep
Black and pungent.

I put my hands on a shovel
In a dream
To scrape and scoop
Gravel to the tar.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Dundee Law


A cold curtain of rain drew down its own grey light. The city lay, pitifully small, under its monochrome. This photograph, this graven image, this still-born thing: what place is this? And the wind barely picks up at all. And the clouds scowl lower and lower until the monument stands topless behind me. And the sky-reflecting streets throw back the last fogbound hints of daylight.

Time. I have one point upon which I stand. Hard standing. A point of vantage. This is one location where I might, as a god, look down. What I see is a world stripped of its essence. I mean, this place has no heart, for all its engineering. All this shape is just design. So here I stand above a cosmetic cosmos, a unilateral universe, on a promontory that is haunted by lovers, wet with the passing clouds, obscured by the way the world rotates with me outside it. Here I stand and wait, for whatever it is: whatever my bones and soul and streaming blood are crying out for. 

Nothing. Two people walk from there to there, a man and a woman. Hand-held and eyes-for-you-only, they walk away in the mist. For them this is romance: it tells their story, sings their tune in each drip of the rain-wet stones, in the far away snake’s-hiss of traffic. 

Aloneness is not the same as loneliness. And, God knows, there is enough of that in a city like this. You can feel it in the closes and in the dark pends. This place is full of people struggling with their lack of connection: broken, dislocated people bending under the yoke of being just themselves. Over there, behind the rain cloud, half hidden in the folds of it are high-rises filled with pockets of human bleakness. These were meant to be a great solution for urban living. But no matter how close to heaven these peoples’ souls are lifted the great grey boxes shut them off from God and each other. 

I slip myself out from behind this pillar of the Law tower, into the proper rain, and the feeble wind that slopes the wet in a single direction: from the North. I am walking with a military bearing. I have my hands clasped behind me, like a soldier, like some veteran or the lovers who are now gone. Between earth and sky, there is only the monument and me, the fallen and the waking dead. I am myself both loved and lover but, whereas the mass of beings in the street- and tenement-scapes below me are crippled by their loneliness, I am merely alone. Solitary, I have no sense of anything else.

© BH 2011

Don't recall where that came from. It had been 20 years since I'd stood on Dundee Law. Then the jets scudded over the city on their way to Leuchars or, was it, Libya? Dundee Law is a place where sky and rain meet and the ground is an irrelevance. People become sociopathic by just standing there.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Les Frères Lupis

It can only be an imagined interior. I never saw such a thing, never was in it. Only hearsay, gossip and rumour brought the brothers to me. Should you ever look for them, assuming that they are still above ground, you’ll find them on a downward sloping Scottish hillside. Halfway between Pettifoggit and Shougle, somewhere in the trees where they made their living.

Word was that they were brothers but who knows the truth of that? Neither were they young men. It seemed that they were old and as grim as oldness deserves. If they had womenfolk, none were ever mentioned.

There were times when I had occasion to drive over the hill and, on the northward descent, I’d think of them, their existence advertised by empty buckets hung from the trees. I don’t know if this was a kind of superstition, a way to propitiate some pagan beings, or tree spirits. Perhaps they were hung that way to put them beyond the use of witches. Much in the same way as you crack a hole in bottom of a boiled egg so that witches can’t use them for boats.

I thought about them in passing. After all, I had my own peculiar and modern life to lead. Passing the lichen-hung woods in which they wandered, I was still given to wonder. Fantasies of their lives came easily enough. Flashing past the sloping woods on some summer day, I’d be struck by impressions of stony-faced old men in overalls tending chickens, sheep, a solitary cow. It seemed like a vision of the world held back, a time-shifted tableau, another epoch visible through a hole in ancient woodland.

By all accounts they did not welcome outsiders. Diffident and set in their ways, it would seem you’d get short shrift in any encounter. Hence the speculation, I suppose. In a moment’s conjecture you could imagine bizarre practices, dark and hidden secrets. As if we who drove by in a haze of exhaust fumes, a flash of windscreen reflection, were apparently normal. We gave it no more thought, maybe a joke when visiting or over a drink, but no more thought. 

We christened them Les Frères Lupis. The mad brothers. And there it lies, in a little-known backwater in the annals of local colour. 

Years later I passed that way again. Twenty of them easily had been laid to rest. A long interval of other strangenesses, the usual, stuff, the world progressively, as ever, going mad.

These old men would be dead by now. If not dead, then, propped up in some kind of institutional decay. Seated patiently, or not, in God’s waiting room. The truth of those earlier days, perhaps, was more like this. These two old men, old even then, set in their ways, had been struggling to survive. Who knows what sacrifices they had made to keep their furrows straight in that dismal place? How little they may have wanted to be there and how hard escape may have been.

If there was superstition behind the holed buckets, if warding off evil was the purpose, probably that evil lived in a world that was changing around them. Old practices becoming slowly useless, obsolete, while all they had were two heads full of pointless tricks and totems with which they shored up their crumbling lives.

Of course they were grim and cantankerous. That was the least of it. Maybe they hated each other. Maybe they hated the world. In its turn, the world didn’t care; cast them in outlandish roles as ragged-arsed misfits. Left them to dwindle in some wooden shack or a tumbledown cottar house.

Goodbye, Frères Lupis, you mad brothers, whoever you were. Yours was the tough choice. The world has moved on even as it was moving for you then. It is no more sane. Spring is coming again in the woods where you used to live. The lichen is grey-green, bearding every birch and rowan. In the sunshine, the woodland seems just as haunted, more so, where your memory is in it. The slope still falls away from the road. Your buckets have all gone. Taken by witches, who will soon be the only ones who remember.

© BH 2012

Some truth, some embellishment. There were two old men, and buckets.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Knot























Hand-held,
Limp cloth swings in grey folds,
As thin as air.

No motion but wind-eddies
In a still room
Dust-motes shaken by the tiny hands of atoms
And the beat of human blood
Along thumb and finger.

To tie a knot
Brings purpose
And energy
Runs an end through a loop
Like a beginning trapped in process
Like termination turned back upon itself.

Tightening,
Small muscles flex,
Transform fabric into movement,
Make of gravity
And its perpetual falling to earth,
Curvature.

In one moment, listless,
In another, bound.
Like spiral time,
Space, light and shadow,
Combine and rebalance.

Knotted substance,
Brings all its attenuated,
Infinite threads to touch:
Twisted, one through another,
The sweep of the hand tying,
The warp and weft of fate.

© BH 2012

Yet another response poem. This time it's for a painting by Alison Dunlop. She posted an image on facebook and I wrote this. Simple really. Sometimes the words just come out. Nice painting too, by the way.

The illustration is another of Alison's paintings on the same theme. 

Welcome to My Life, Tattoo

In the wide mirror I sat, a chain around my wrist, as blue as the sky, on my arm, a net, running up the skin, reticulated. Over time, my eyes had become watery and ill-defined, just as the tattooed skin had blurred, decade by decade. So, too, the memories they stood for, feathered at the edges, merging. Tattoos: moments scratched beneath the surface. As if memory alone was not enough.

I put my shirt back on, covered up my illustrated past. Most days I lived without it bothering me. But today was St Valentine’s and I remembered. The first cut is the deepest. Like the song.

I actually claimed the Who inspired my first tattoo, from their song of the same name. It was almost a complete lie. No, I did it for love. Unrequited, as it turned out. Unacknowledged. I pulled up the sleeve on my left arm. On the inside, just above the elbow, where I could keep it hidden: tattoo, my secret love.

Going on seventeen to my eighteen, she was pretty, fair, and I was, what, still a boy? I longed for her at a distance. I decided to have her name embroidered on my flesh, in a heart, with a crude lighting bolt, my indelible love, just out of sight, just short of painful.

It would have remained secret, but for a word from someone else. She confided, ‘Anne really likes you. She’s just shy, that’s all…’ Encouraged, I walked on air and my tattoo throbbed with the memory of its bloody making.

Valentine’s Day came. I had a card. Just the one. In the café that evening, Baz, Anne’s brother sat across from me. Pure chance. Out of the blue, he said, ‘I’m heading back to the house. Anne’ll be there… You don’t mind?’ On the way, he added, ‘I’ll drop you off, then I’ve to get Lynn. Catch you later.’

Alone with Anne, conversation circled the unsaid. Courage was hard to find. But I found it. I got the words out. ‘Did you send me a Valentine card?’

‘No’ she replied.

All the things I could have said, all the things I could think of now, escaped my stupid tongue. Where was, ‘I think you did…’? Where, the lie, ‘I sent you one…’? Where, even, ‘I wish you had.’? No, ‘I love you’. No, ‘See me, feel me, touch me… heal me’. ‘Oh’ I said.

Baz and his girlfriend came back to find us sitting in unimaginable silence. Quizzical glances, shrugs. Love was history so I had to leave. In time, ‘Anne’ became ‘Mary-Anne’ across the tattooed heart. Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hand, another song by the Who. Another lie.

In the mirror after so long, I remembered it. I remembered all the tattoos that followed and the life they led me. In the blue glass, the bluer haze of my skin was a mist, like the past. I buttoned my shirt up to cover everything. My own hands were shaking.
© BH 2012



I wrote this as contribution to Andrew McCallum Crawford's Lovers season on his website, Wee Fictions. He very kindly published it -here - in February. Valentine's Day, to be exact. Appropriate. The incident was, to an extent, one that happened. The only difference being that I haven't carried a torch and, no, I don't have a tattoo. Too squeamish.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Switching Off















On the web page, the picture was a blank. Ridiculous. The image meant to inspire his writing was not there. It had never existed. Scandalous.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Voices

People.
Like people I once knew,
Fathers and mothers,
Spoke to me again.

Voices,
Which time had worn away,
Echoed like memory
In the space between us.

As if the leaves,
Worn September leaves,
Still held on to life,
Death-defying in their high trees.

Long-lost souls returned
To their long-drawn place,
Turned imagined footsteps
Home.

Birds of park and wood,
Hoolet, cushat and peewit
Circled out of sight
From a dim-remembered place.

Mist on the far hill
Came like smoke
And went like the clouds
Leaving at sunset.

The wind rose and fell
Twisting leaves into rain
Beech, rowan, aspen, flakes of winter,
Long-gone, but coming soon.

Those voices, so old,
So full of heart,
Spoke as if nothing at all
Had withered in the glen.

Those voices, so bright,
Were yesterday for us
Dust in our fingers
Falling like the crumbling earth,
The crumbling earth that years become.

© BH 2012

Another 'response' poem, this time to Gill Russell's Where Long Shadows Fall installation at Glenbuchat. It's actually nearly six months later, but a response is a response.  It was actually a snatch of video I took on my visit that caught my attention. The mist was like smoke in the air, especially in close-up. The voices in the audio were like those I grew up hearing. That was a while ago now.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Hearth / Sòrn

Night in the deep forest
Falls on blind eyes.
No-one sees the fading of the light.

Words,
Heard above birds in flight,
Speak in tongues not our own.
Other meanings hide
In their telling.

Fire in the earth
Came blue at last,
As if ice were lying
Just beneath the surface.

In the trees’ circle.
A ragged hem of sky,
Two shades paler
Than the black canopy,
Cupped one star
In parting cloud.

What had been snow,
Remnants of sleet and rain,
There, the mist falling
Was dew upon the eyes,
An infinity of moisture
From the pinewood’s arms.

In its ring of stones, blue,
With a cold element of stillness,
The patient light shone
As if there was no end to it.

Above, where no-one looked,
Now, the vague forest
Crackled with sounds moving:
The horse from right to left,
The beat of wings
Like eagle
Like moorhen
Like heather cock
With, behind, sounds calling
From forgotten seasons.

Then the singing,
High and cold
As if blue also was its colour.
A song like the sea,
A stream of southbound sea,
With waves and spume
Coming angular across the Minch
Where the blue men, Am Fear Gorm,
Steal the souls of sailors
From ever finding land.

In this forest,
A hundred miles given
To ground,
The haunted voice
Sang of landscapes lost,
Sons and husbands
Pulled down in the deep;
The deep of sea;
The deep of earth.

Cold slid uninvited
Beneath the skin.
Silence came at last
To the woodgrove
Where only dimness
Rose from the hearth-pit,
Light and shadow
On the long-trunked trees.

In this place,
The veil thinned
Between here and nowhere.
Trees, like masts,
Shone with St Elmo’s fire
While the ship of night
Heeled before a thousand winds.

© BH 2012

I've written a few pieces for Gill Russell's work over the years. This is for her installation, Sòrn, part of the Where Long Shadows Fall project for Cairngorms National park. Sòrn is a light and audio installation in Strathmashie Forest and I couldn't resist making something to fit the place and the work. It's just an impression. What I remember of the night of the Lantern Walk on 22nd December last. Elemental nature with the crowds dispersed. And, yes, there was a star.