Three rather calm and reflective family relationship pieces (even the topical Burns tribute from Charlie Gracie could be so described).
Rachel Bentham’s prehistoric women quietly invent knitting and a better plough, making a sustained poem which links progress with successful family life. This may be a romantic idea or it may have some substance. Meanwhile Anne Connolly’s poem is a lightly sentimental blending of memories and birth.
These three are followed by an explosive, rebellious poem from Susan Castillo. Our thanks to the poets.
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Thank you, and see you next time
Mothers of invention
It wasn’t such a huge leap. It was because of backache,
years of leaning over the loom, the nip and strain
long after her hands stopped throwing the shuttle.
It was late spring. How many years could she go on?
But Morag wasn’t ready to let go of blending the
colours, making beauty. Being useful in that way.
Picking up a bracken-stuffed pillow, she propped it.
The wall was warm at her shoulders, the bracken
faint and sweet. The ache softened.
She held a willow wand left over from basket making.
The sun warmed her face. From here, she
could see the hill where Gregor was buried.
Idly, she smoothed the wand, white and clean,
stripped of its bark, hardening. Soon it would be
too stiff for basket, only good for kindling.
Her grandson Rory was sharpening his own wand,
his back to her; using his father’s knife. There
was no other child to soothe or pet. All quiet.
Idly winding brown yarn around the pale stick
Morag remembered her mother Agnes cooking
her father’s favourite griddle breads, humming.
Agnes had said: the plough could be easier
for the ox if the yoke was wider…
Her father’s mouth was too full to answer.
‘And the ox would pull harder too…’ Agnes waited.
‘But the plough,’ he said. Slowly Agnes spread honey
across a warm bread with the back of a spoon,
then brought the spoon to her lips, licking it.
Father was all attention. ‘Well, if the ploughshare
was heavier –‘Father’s hand reached out
to mother’s knee, but Agnes took a charred
stick from the fire, and drew lines on the
hearthstone. ‘Like this – make the ploughshare
longer, heavier – and the yoke wider – so –
it will cut the loam more deeply, turn a
better sod.’ Father swallowed, nodding.
His friend, the smith, made the new plough.
All the men praised father’s cleverness
while her mother smiled and stroked the ox.
Morag picked up a piece of willow bark and
chewed on it. Perhaps the loom could be
different… She tied the wool onto the stick,
looping it on. Not like making a warp. Loop after
loop, she made a row – like blanket stitch, but not
like. The brown wool snug, around and around,
each turn fell into place like earth falling
from the plough in a straight line of sods.
When she’d filled the stick she stopped.
How to work the thread back? She tried pushing it
through with her fingers – too fiddly. She tilted her
face to the sun, letting the warmth ease in.
Then she felt along the even, satisfying row.
Not too tight, not too loose, she slid them
back and forth along the willow. Stitches.
Rory slid down the wall beside her, warm
against her hip, poking at her wool ringed
wand with his own sharpened willow.
The point hit her knuckle. Enough. Taking his
weapon from him, ‘Watch – you’ve given me
an idea.’ Rory pouted, plum mouthed.
Pushing the sharp end into the last stitch,
Morag looped the yarn around the point, and
levered it back through. A new stitch!
Now Rory was gripped. ‘How did you?’ Pulling
the stitch off her stick but keeping it on his,
she repeated the actions; push, loop, lever.
Another stitch! She carried on until all
the row of stitches were on his stick. Messy,
straggling, uneven, but…flexible, strong.
‘Could you sharpen this one too?’ He did it
with careful pleasure. Then she had two sharp
wands for making the rows, again and again.
It was loose as a net, but they could pull
all ways, without unravelling. Stretchier than
tweed. ‘We made a new thing!’ Rory beamed.
‘What shall we call it?’Rory frowned. ‘Knotting?’
Morag shifted against the wall. ‘Mmm – and
you can do it when you’re sitting…knitting?’
First published Poetry Scotland, 2010
Outside pale mallow is still in bloom
opened all the way to the topmost buds.
December wind is tossing, tossing, but
branches will be pliant for another while,
frail, defiant in the face of snow.
It’s there in the pewter pink of clouds
that forecast better than computers.
Inside, his small head is resting on my chest,
replete while his exhausted mother steals
what sleep she can in these earliest of days.
Who knows what games this tiny fellow
plays throughout his snuffling, suckling-
what dreams his parents have for him
after the long haul of childhood?
Our father hunkered down to pattern soot-prints
round the hearth on Christmas Eve
crouched over old boots that gardened,
caught up clay by the patch of summer mint
where chewing gum sprang up overnight
white on aromatic sprigs strong enough
to launch the flight of our imagination.
First published in Love-in-a-Mist, Red Squirrel
Visiting Robert Burns in Dumfries
Sitting in Robert Burns’ chair, I smooth the palms of my hands
across the two hundred years of his desk
feel the wood heat under my skin as they meet
squeeze the small of my back into the cradle of his seat
breathe the dust of it all in to the very inside of me
and I remember my father huddling us on dark nights
reading Tam O’Shanter around the fire
and we saw the Devil
in the wild orange red of the coal glow
and feared witches would grab our feet from under the bed
as we scuttled over the draughty floor
for the safety of our blankets
flying like Meg over the brig into the dark night and home.
First published in Good Morning, diehard metallic editions, 2009
Within the furnace
hair hisses pale effulgent sparks.
My eyes gleam liquid gold,
my legs, bold arching torches.
There’s something to be said for Faith.
Now I’m immune
to nearly everything.
No glowing coals can scorch my feet.
No flickering tongues can penetrate my flesh.
A halo of black silent air
shimmers cold around my head.
I have emerged intact, though at some cost.
And yet at times I long for what
the crucible has burned away
once more to feel the ardent white-hot sweetness.
First published in the Glasgow Herald, 1999