Hey, we were only semi-literate
ourselves; we meant to head for Mull, not
where the blessed Kevin miscarried us,
a rank bad place with no words at all.
It was about the year dot – before
MacBrayne and the broken ice; before
Colum and Camelot, whose annals skate
over our failed attempt on Muck –
when the call came (I didn’t hear it)
to rid ourselves of the Ulster roof-
and-cake mentality, and work abroad.
So we did go, in wash-tub coracles,
and hauled ashore for an hour or so, on a
black upturned platter of rock, stained
with sea-lichen and scummy pools
of barge flies and crab water.
No trees, then. No welcoming men
or women either. But out on a spur’s end
we spotted a sham temple – being a few
upright poles fashioned from driftwood, which
when we straggled over to them, seemd,
without a text or rune to vent their purpose,
to have their say in fish. (‘That’s one
of our symbols,’ said Kevin, slowly.)
The first was crude, like holy rood,
a shark hung where the Christ might be.
The crossbeam of the second, wavy,
white and queasy, was split three times
by dolphins’ leaps and falls; while each
of the mounting horizontals of the next,
carved with a rogue’s dash or abandon,
was a fish-beam: the worst given the arc
of a catfish – though closer to, we saw
how this was worked from a lower jaw,
the bass jaw of an ox. These three might seem
the project of a class of kids; except
for the cunning which had placed the group
of crosses, if we call them crosses,
in silhouette, against the setting sun,
her lux in embro; or the paler moon.
The fourth was set apart. It wore
the red back half of a toy tractor, fixed
to the neck of a pole; and strapped to the spine,
a thermos, meant to last the afternoon…
– the cairn beneath it had been plugged, once,
with a plastic helmet – that was bleached by now
from orange to lime or yellow; and over the whole
was thrown a mongrel dress of fishnet and floats.
K saw a fifth, with his second sight,
and wasn’t telling. Only ‘Back to the boats! –
It’s no good, we brought the word of God
to those in hiding here, and they don’t want it!’
So we sounded in reply the child’s note
of feigned frustration, masking the relief
our code forbids us to have felt, or
having felt, express.) Till as we sucked
our wicker boats and heels clear of their shingle,
he struck up from the front, bellowing out
Our Founder’s Lesson, ‘Study the Mountains’ (strange
how the borrowed prose would fill him full of himself) –
‘Study the mountains; then when you fancy
that you know the mountains, you can learn the stars.’
(Just then, Kevin, none of us rowing could
see past the grimed horizon of your neck;
and as the squall got up, you couldn’t hear
half that we aimed in reply; until with the double
beating of salt and rain on our hands and face
we sank back in the bee-shape; kept at the oars.
But we will expect something to sustain us,
soon, beyond the Plough and the Sperrins.
In the meantime, here’s to the gay goddess
Astart? – mother of false starts!)
from The Lost Leader (Faber, 2008), recorded at a Poetry Evening held at The Bodleian Library, October 2007, used by permission of The Bodeleian Library and the Estate of Mick Imlah.