The Cave

 

This poem first appeared in Gutter 3 (ed. Colin Begg and Adrian Searle)


Some say he was born down here,

that he’s been submerged since birth.

Perhaps because his skin is so white,

perhaps because his eyes are so large.

 

They say she gave birth behind the bar.

They say she wet the baby’s head with whisky.

Now his eyes carry rings,

now his stomach hides his belt.

 

He traces a cloth over the wood,

polishing so hard the varnish fades.

It could be driftwood, this dry slab,

washed up from some broken ship.

 

He looks from under leaden lids,

surveys a young man counting coppers;

he is lining them up on the table,

little lights to reel her in,

stars reflected in a black sea.

Carnegie House

 

This poem first appeared in Dundee Writes 1 (ed. Josephine Jules Andrews)

 

I sit in the sun parlour.

I am barely here:

a cloud of dust,

a ring left by a teacup.

 

He sent me here.

I was sick, he said, truly sick.

Hysterical.

 

I had been to an art gallery.

I had been unrestrained.

 

The paintings, he said,

were the works of madmen,

and those who love them

madder still.

 

We are not allowed in the dispensary,

but I go there.

 

I touch the shining scales,

the brown bottles,

the jars of salt,

the barrels with their buckled wood.

 

I run my fingers over them

and think of drinking something sour.

Hourglass

 

This poem first appeared in New Writing Dundee 5 (ed. Rachel Marsh and Amy Kimmond)

 

I look better in mirrors, she thinks.

It’s something in the flip of my features,

something in the tilt of the glass.

 

‘Move the pin up a notch, tight,

as tight as that, that’s right,

so tight the leather squeaks.

I could wrap one hand round that waist.

I could put gold round your finger,

tie you up tight like a gift.’

 

Before breakfast my stomach is flat,

she aches, it swells as the hours slide.

I’ll buy tights that suck it back,

hold me in close like a hug.

 

‘You won’t wear heels tonight,

I like you yards below,

I like your eyes looking up.

I tell you when your roots grow black.’

 

There is hell in the hourglass, she knows,

it drains away too quick, cuts me to the quick.

When the roots run to grey it will end.

 

I sleep wearing make-up,

he’s never seen my face,

I set my alarm early.

 

‘Nearly there,’ a swig of black wine,

hands encircling an intestinal pang.

‘…you’re nearly there, you know.’

 

‘Just one more notch,’

hot breath on the neck,

‘and you’re perfect.’

While We Sing

This poem first appeared in ‘For A’That’, a Dundee University Press anthology celebrating Robert Burns (ed. Kirsty Gunn and Anna Day). It was later selected by The Scotsman as their ‘Poem of the Month’ (January 2010).

 

The mouse and the louse

crawl between continents.

Holy hypocrisy spans centuries

as the cries of bastard weans

echo in the cities.

The mountain still springs daisies

as the Twa Dogs bite.

A face now stamps banknotes

where once only letters ran.

Through fluctuating fashions

he stood within the frame,

bowed head and bent knee

made meaningless, dulled to archaism

when poet and people are one.

This peasant did not kneel

and will never kneel while we sing.

What Walt Disney Did For Us

 

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

We came before the Celts, of course.

 

We walked with the wise men of Greece

and splashed inside the baths of Rome.

We played hide-and-seek in the pyramids

and danced in the Mesopotamian dust.

 

We were there in Medieval dreams,

when the Greyhound Saint

returned the babes we stole,

when the Wife of Bath spoke our name

with a wink and a saucy, gap-toothed smile.

 

Our names cropped up in witch trials,

sealed up the fate of too many girls.

We were not seen as tiny then,

not wee, nor twee,

but dangerous as the Devil.

 

Then Shakespeare gave us proud Titania

and jealous Oberon, with Puck

the playful mischief-maker tangling up

what should run smooth and straight.

 

Enter the dazzling footlight fairies

of Victorian music halls,

the battery-powered lights sparkling

in their hair.

 

And then there was poor Conan Doyle,

who was right to believe in us

(though was a fool to think

those photographs were real).

 

Yeats made use of us

when he got lost in the Twilight,

but if that was a rebirth

then the baby was weak

and sick as a changeling.

 

In the trenches, too many lost boys

grew up so fast that we became invisible.

Our numbers died out like stars vanishing.

 

Then came Walt Disney, whose Tinkerbell

had the curves of Marilyn Monroe,

with a cute temper and sweet little furniture

that she kicked with her boudoir-style slippers.

 

After that we were done for.

 

Now, when someone says our name,

it’s little girls with glitter wings,

it’s their sticky trick-or-treating hands

that pull us down from trees and stars

and seal us up in plastic.

The King and Queen

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

Tell me that story you tell

of the mermaid who beguiled the stars.

 

There was a mermaid on a dolphin’s back,

whose voice was so crystalline pure

that wild waves were brought to rest

and stars came down from their spheres

to hear her song.

 

Now tell me of the babe you stole,

the changeling you would not let

into my humble entourage.

 

Your humble entourage, indeed,

but I’ll let it pass and tell my tale.

 

There was a lady I gossiped with

on Indian shores, watched ships sail by

with fulsome sails.

 

She would fetch me luxurious merchandise,

her belly swelling like the ships’ sails,

until the babe ripped her fabric

and her journey stilled.

 

I took her newborn boy

for our friendship’s sake,

and for the trifles she’d brought me.

I would not give him up for the price

of all these fairy lands.

 

And so, we quarrelled.

 

I remember it well,

the night we spoke too much of lovers past,

our fights fired in the forgeries of jealousy,

the night I told faithful Robin

to pour love juice in your sleeping eyes.

 

Ah yes, the night I loved the man

translated to an ass, that monstrous angel

who woke me from my flowery bed,

a bestial doting.

 

Oh, the mischief of our night-tripping fairies,

the confusion of the forest,

moth dust, blossom petals, mustard seeds,

and cobwebs light as trifles.

 

In the end, we flew off together,

swifter than the wandering moon,

to encompass the globe

and resume our regal adventuring.

 

Yet still I think of the stars who shot

to hear that mermaid sing.

 

If men can read the future in their patterns

what could have been read on such a night,

when the stars had left their stations?

 

Were portents lost?  Were accidents made?

Would the mother of my darling boy still breathe?

 

We cannot concern ourselves with mortal ways,

proud Queen, or accidents from heaven.

The parts we play are between the earth and skies,

and if we begin to understand the stars

we must close our eyes.

 

You are right, sweet King,

and now I shall lie easy on my petal-bed;

the love I gaze upon this time is no illusion.

 

Now tell me one more story

before the fires of the stars die out.

 

Perhaps, if we speak of our wanderings,

they might dismantle their constellations

and come down to press their ears

against the treetops.

The Showers of Perseus

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

The constellation sees centuries of dust

cling to a comet’s tail,

returning each year to shame the stars

in their kaleidoscope trail.

 

Danaë heard the drip-drip of Zeus

as he poured into her virginal tomb.

Then, the steady nine-month alchemy,

and a son who could turn flesh to stone.

 

Now, as the debris burns and blazes,

open-mouthed heads tilt skywards

and spectators are stunned to statues,

 

struck dumb by a shower of meteor dust

that springs from the star-studded product of lust

who was born of a shower of gold.