Another Perthshire Writer
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This poem won the Wigtown Book Festival's Scots Poetry competition for 2014.
Ae-time a schuil in Phnom Penh, uised bi thi Khmer Rouge as a jyle an tortur centre; noo it's Cambodia's genocide museum.
Pikit-weir an airn surroond the gowans.
Dreich raings o coancrete windaes owerhing
a gressy lea whaur fidgin schuilbairns wait
in timid seelence, haund in wyteless haund.
A pentit notice screichs oot preeson rules.
Sit still, be quiet, and wait for questions!
This wis yince a schuil. Syne a jyle.
Noo, in the spielinyaird, efter thirty year,
we see whair gairds uised roustie monkey bars
tae rax thair preesoners' donsie airms an mynds.
You are strictly forbidden to disagree with me!
A througang, whaur young vyces dingelt;
schuilrooms bricked in clumsy five-fit cells
fur lippert men in chynes. The yin gypes still,
fae a dowed auld photie kinkin oan the wa.
Aichteen, flochtit hair, tuim een.
Answer without wasting time by thinking!
Aye, it wis a schuil. Laboratories gowp.
There's apparatus redd, but no fur science;
fire, watter, an electric weirs collogue
tae speld the skin an rive men's hidlin sauls.
Disobey, and you will be lashed with electric wire!
Owerby, a blackboard, greetin stourie wirds.
Massie fowk lay here, wi shammelt faces;
they heard the rattons scartlin. Whan fremmit airmies
set alunt the lift, the tremmlin gairds,
no wastrif o bullets, battert them tae deith.
Thair deid-hoose wis a clessroom in a schuil.
While being lashed you must not cry out!
An efter, thochtie seelence oan the coach,
tourists thegither but nae gibble-gabble.
Inside ma heid, the fadin photies plead,
a thoosand fleggit faces cruinin fae the wa.
Nane ootleeved it. A smitch o birsie dist
creeps in ma ee, as ah ween whit man can dae.
An dis, this verra oor, athort the warld.
This poem won second prize in the 2013 James McCash Competition for poetry in Scots.
Sclim up, ma freen. Ah’m waitin oan ye.
Jist scrammle tae the cairvit wudden gailerie;
keek, mensefu, tae the view o the altar;
syne, mindfu o the sclinters i the ravel,
sprauchle roon the twistlin airn stair
tae win the tapmaist laft, whaur sit
ma fower leamin poalisht manuals.
Echoes chitter i the auncient nave.
A souch o wind maks carkin thochts,
but here, heich oan ma buskit perch,
ah straidle the solemn hirsel o tourists
wi thir breekums, watter boatles, cameras,
snokin the foostie guff o history.
Oh, yer skeelie fingers are gleg tae push
dinnlin tuins throu ma stourie tubes.
Bide, ere ah hauch tae clear ma thrapple.
Thare! Did it shak yer banes? Ma muisic
gies pouer tae auld-farrant wirds.
Ah begin; piccolo voices chaunt,
birlin blythely ower the rangle’s heids.
Syne ma langer pipes erupt,
thunnerstanes takkin maucht
fae ma hail diapason. An efterhaund,
ablow the scope o ony lug,
a grummle that nae man can hear.
A grain that dinnles the auldest stanes.
Fleggit whitely faces i the aisles.
Ah’ve leeved ower lang, ye micht say,
months o muins; but aye ma gowl resoonds.
This poem won the 2013 Neil Gunn Poetry prize
Ma faither coudna staund ava; jist sat,
haurd tethert tae a chair wi belts an scaurves
tae stievely haud his fidgin airms an shanks.
Thay telt me we war cairved fae wan whinstane,
lang i the neb an derk aneath the een.
Thay said his illness widna be passed oan,
but i the frichtsome derk o nicht ah’d whiles
weigle ma taes an chaff ma thees tae pruive
ah wisna duimed tae tak yon daurksome wey.
His boadie wis his jyle, wi constant twangs
tae mynd him o the tribble he’d tae thole;
but in his heid he kent whit fredom buir.
In buiks he traivelt faur oot ower the warld;
his teeth wad grip a stick tae turn the page,
an efterhaund ah’d harken tae his crack
o coral islands, war drums, shrinkit pates
an awthin unco. Whan ah wis twal year auld
we lernt the Laitin, baith o us, curcuddoch,
gaun haufers i the buik sae we coud shair
the pleesure (an the pyne) o the auncient leid.
He wisnae dour, tho; he’d natter wi his freends,
sookin his yill throu a strae an kinkin wi lauchter.
Whit ah liked best, he’d joke awa wi me
as if the unweelness wid be gaun in hauf an oor.
He coudna darg lik ither faithers did.
His airm coud nivver bosie me, but yet
yon braw weel-hertit man gart me feel siccar
aw ma brickly youth. Ah aye keep mynd o him;
he luved his life, an makkit it whit he coud.
Smeddum. Hert. Aye, ah’d gang yon gate.
Joint winner of the McCash Scots Poetry Competition 2010
organised by Glasgow University in conjunction with The Herald
He streetches oot upon the pullman seat,
fower rattlin lager cans his ordnance noo.
Thae buits are stoorie still fae hert-sair launds;
he steeks his een.
The wumman opposeet
finds hard tae thole the sicht o this
young sodger fresh fae scabbit crags.
She welcomes politeecians’ platitudes
and sangs o heroes: this is no the same.
She disnae ken whit sichts thae een hae seen
or whit thae brakken finger nebs hae torn
fae Afghan herts.
Wi’oot her TV screen
tae sanitize, she’s wary o the sodger’s
closeness here, his sweit, the reek o beer,
the bluid and sandy terror o his dreams.
The wheels rin smoothly as the train sweeps north:
a rattle ower points and intae Perth.
The cairriage yerks, the cans fly skittlin doon;
she tichtens bluidless lips.
The sodger fidges.
Ahint his lids whit scenes are playin noo?
ends here, this threadbare rock,
where it frays into the sea.
The air gives the yellow grasses
a stiff brushing
and throws sea-spit at us,
forty feet up.
I thrust my shoulder
into the wind, forcing a division
like a stream round a boulder.
I’m so proud.
For the briefest of moments,
sitting at this wooden table
beneath the lighthouse,
I am the most westerly person
on the British mainland.
Of such small triumphs
are our lives constructed.
Steely, the sea poses;
the horizon a spirit level
between curving headlands.
A hungry cormorant plops
backside bobbing like a black buoy,
The sea fidgets endlessly up the bay
without ever getting there.
We sit on the pier, watching and waiting
through a hundred lifetimes.
This poem won second prize in the 2015 Neil Gunn Poetry Competition.
Twa-three weemen ah seen in Moscow
This wudden doll, lashes lik flochtert centipedes, gresps her flooers,
twin reid circles affsettin her chowks. Her een are stertlin blue.
No ower pensefu, but fair awa wi her circumference.
Twistlin, ah brak her asunder.
Inby her, the Tsarina Kaitrin, richtly ca'd The Muckle, sonsie but
frichtsome. Maisterfu, she glowers doon giltit gaileries in
historic ha's. This wumman, ah ween, is nae leddy.
Inby her, hair in dour pleats, the wumman gairdin the picturs
is loast in her beuk, face dreepin doon lik meltit wax.
She gants an stretches, luiks at me wi deid een.
Inby her, a ballerina, face a pentit mask wi nae feelins.
She wheels, ticht circles oan shilpit white legs.
Oan a suddent, she murns wi her airms.
Inby her, a stane paisant in the Metro, limbs strang,
chin bursten wi smeddum, thrists a wappin heuk
intae the saft wame o her nation's futur.
Inby her, a braizan jillet, lik a fairin, gliskin reid
an gowd, maks flirtatious gesturs while she
birls clowshit tourists in auld mazurkas.
Inby her, frae muilderin coancrete flats,
a dowie face, fauchie's an egg, keeks
throu gray tear-stained gless
at the plashin rain.
An inby her, at peace,
a cosie wee babbie,
the bouk o ma
Tak tent no tae tyne her.
The Queen hysts a reid and white strippit shank ower the wa
an howks hersel, drippin, fae the Tay.
The croon ligs squint, provocative-lik, on the tap o her henna wig.
She shaks hersel, bapteezin aa the leal fowk o Perth wi royal draps.
She swells, sonsie’s a dumplin, an heaves up tae her fu heicht,
a campanile o regality.
A wee bit snot hings fae her neb, swingin i the wund.
A shauchle o Heich Constabules, staunin amaist tae attention,
bray their lealtie, Gawd bless ‘em, wi batons elevated.
O, thae men arenae vin ordinaire.
The wee tottie provost rolls afore her, velvet an ermine rivallin hers.
Aye, he is prood, he is noble, he is welcomin. Oh aye, aye indeed.
She picks him up,
exaemins him, in detail, considerin,
then, pensefu, bites aff his heid an
gobs it, delicate-like, ower the wa intae the Tay.
She smirks a reid smirk wi smudged lippie.
Solemnly, the fowk o Perth, in their Sunday claes, cheer, wi middlin rapture.
The Queen, noo forty feet heich, rampant, coorsely singin randie sangs,
picks a mouldy auld fag-end fae the gutter
an lichts it wi her wee diamint-studdit lichter.
Pechin, she gaithers up her purple velvet,
no shy tae lat see her strippit tights an hivvie black buits.
Expandin still, an michtier, she surges in triumph doon Sooth Street,
agin the rin o traffic.
Dauvit Ogston, neebor, meenister, scriever an guid friend, deed in 2008.
Crinchin throu graivel atween oor hooses,
leukin tae’s ingans an sweet peas: Dauvit,
a neibour wha made the gairdens feel eydent
wi the snap o his saw, cheegh-cheeghin the wuid
tae feenish a frame fur a halie icon,
or a wee bittie stob fur that ricklie fence
o brakken auld boaxes an flairboards
‘Gress,’ says the fence,
in ill-set cut-oot nailed-oan wudden letters.
A carle wha’d gie’s a couthie grin
an wag a haun owre the hedge ilk morn.
He aye made noises fur oor dugs tae yowf at:
wheechin his hoe, snick-snakkin his shears
as he warsled wi yon ramstam privy,
refusin the len o antrin thingies lik
electric cutters. He howked an muddled
wi his hauns.
He pleuched his glebe o wurds
an aw, winnin a hairst o guidly scrievins,
but fegs, that’s a graund sang fur anither day.
An whiles we’d owerhear cantie caperins wi
thae wee speugs, his twa graundbairns.
But gin ye needit, he’d drap awthing,
gie ye his lug an a wheen hertsome thochts,
an mebbe a poke o moolie tatties.
At the warst o times, ah cud aye lauch
whan Dauvit cam in fur a wee bit crack
an a Macallan.
Ah mind that orra chuckle afore
he spak, an the hamelie glent in his een, as if
he wis seeing somethin ah couldnae.
Bit ayeweys, there’d be easement.
His gairden’s tuim an gowstie noo; cushats flee,
croo-crooin ower foostie growthe.
Nivver a peep else
braks the seelence.
Ah’d lik fine tae hear agane thae crinchin feet.
James Gordon’s School for Boys, 1965.
‘This will be your room. It’s a bit of a hutch,
I’m afraid, but forty desks fit well enough.
Old Torrance didn’t walk around it much,
he gave his lessons mainly off the cuff,
taught from the front. Knew how to handle boys,
at least until last term.’ No pictures cheer
the bare walls, slyly scribbled to annoy
without detection, each word a silent sneer
at dog-eared learning, repetitious cant.
I sit behind his desk. A sudden thrust
of interfering sunlight falls aslant
the air, reveals the asthmatic chalky dust
that never settles. Alone now, on his chair,
I look at crumpled mark books in a pile.
Was this his lonely purpose through the years,
to rank each boy by numbers in a file?
I see him now, behind this ink-stained desk,
bowed forward, head in hands. He must
have offered up his safe and certain texts
to ungrateful boys who led him to mistrust
their worth. A small shelf by my side contains
his few well-fingered books, like funeral urns,
their margins annotated to sustain
familiar learning that his pupils spurned.
A hook screwed to the door supports a gown,
frayed, grey with words, that ruled the class
until the restless schoolboys wore him down,
and faltering, he went home, turned on the gas.
The classroom clock, that ticked his thirty years,
still sounds, the pulse and measure of this strife.
And cold, among these ghosts of his austere
and lingering days, I glimpse myself, my life.
Roostin at the tap o Rosemount Biggins,
heid-tae-fit in narra hurlie-beds, nine bairns
seen the hinnerend o Victoria’s rule. Lang deid noo,
the maist stottered at lenth tae their eild.
I kent twa-three, whan ah wis a wean.
Nessie had blithe runklie een an crinchie wee pokes
o strippit bilins. A wolf liggit roond her craig;
it looked tae me, girnin, slabberin its lips.
A sairious carle in a heich bed, Frank scrieved
letters fur fowk. His life dreeped awa doon tubes as,
solemn-lik, he bunged up his thrapple wi pills.
Emmie smoked wee cigarettes in a stick,
smirked lik a sherk, wore purpie troosers.
Her lippie drilled holes throu her sisters’ een.
Jim hud a sonsie wadge o a face, glintin wi wallies
lik an onfaw o snaw. He wore tweed shuits,
pu’ed surpreese hauf-croons fae’s hairy lugs.
Chris harled her wee oarie-boat ower cauld tides
an biggit a wudden hoosie in New Zealand.
Sent hame rugs lik woolly flags, blazoned wi sheep.
Meg wis ma grannie. She laucht saftly,
sang, 'Gin ah can help some buddie...'' She ettled sair,
but cud nivver mind oniethin that she’d duin.
There had been Jane, an Libby an aw, ah wis telt,
an the laddie Chairlie, takken at Passchendaele: dowie ghaists
haudit fast in the aspic o ither fowk’s braith.
Nine raggedy corbies; aye crawin inside ma heid.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Malacca
She kneels wi paums thegither, fingers spread;
her gray auld heid is bowed. Her runklie lips
are pittin up saft wurds ah cannae hear,
an widnae unnerstaun.
The incense sways
in sairious daunce; it smells lik musty buiks
wi laither spines. Fae ahint her teems the licht,
tossin hir shaidie forrart tae the altar whaur
the wallie statue harkens tae her whuspert prayers.
Tourists walloch roond, blatterin awa.
They tak nae tent o hir, jist breenge aboot,
gaupin at the eemage, wi its gildit glent o bress.
They worship it an aw, wi flashin cameras;
thir guide-buik wised o sichts that they maun see.
It smirks, this pentit goddess wi the cheenie face,
een dooncast aneath its perfit brous.
A gravat o yella gowans haps its craig.
The wumman mutters still, wi quiverin mou.
Her een are steekit; her gracie thochts are lockit
atween hersel an yon wee idol there.
Whit scrimpit kinna mercies dis she seek?
Hidlins, ah sneck hir photie, canny-wyes.
Yon hamely face amang the weel-daein thrang is
sweet’s a goldie flichterin fae a dyke.
The bonniest sicht in aw this fremmit airt.