Native Language

Overnight I’ve listened to thirty Vancouver stories,
Not leaving my room. My jet-lagged ear
Tunes in to verticals beaming cold H2O
Ten levels higher, twenty ceilings below,
Blueprinting every floor of the building,
Floating each a little, draining it slowly away
Down chutes, round U-bends. Hung-over minibar glasses
Emit high pings, a dawn chorus of different pitches,
Conjuring water, till this suite itself
Gurgles like a basin, though each room’s extractor-fan dry.
Freshets under freeways ululate through early traffic
On Dunsmuir and Pender, skirling a deluge from tarns.
I shower to a pibroch of culverts of ice-melt unplugged,
Thawed from flaked sandstone, ocean dunting trunk-broad logs.
Resin seeps through arbutus trees. Tower blocks
Stand like lone cedars. Weightless and solid, my head
Can’t find its own level, half empty, half awash
With a Gaelic-and-tom-tom, English-and-Cantonese croon.
Native language ebbs away and comes back
Just a bit different, two feet firmly plonked
Right in my earhole. It’s that wee guy I saw
Carved four-square, braced in a totem pole’s lug,
The little man in the ear. He wheedles in Haida:
You are an only child. You are my sister.


From the Latin of Arthur Johnston (1587-1641)

Here, neck and neck with the Vale of Tempe,
Stretches the Howe of the Johnstons.
Underneath Aberdeenshire sky
The sparkling, silvery Urie Burn
Slaloms over well-fed farms.
Benachie’s sgurr untousles a last quiff of cloud;
Night and day hang in the balance.
The Don hides garnets. The high glens, too,
Dazzle with gemstones, pure as India’s best.
Nature reclines au naturelle
On a surging bed of heather. Swallows
Loop in the tangy air. Salmon
Flicker. Strong-bodied cattle
Chew the cud in the pastures.
Here, where northern apples redden,
Cornfields bend under golden grain,
Largesse lets orchards sag.
I sprang from this, these rivers, fields
Over a hundred generations
Always the Howe of the Johnstons.
Virgil made his birthplace famous;
Mine will be the making of my poems.


For Alice

Lighter than a snail-shell from a thrush’s anvil,
Glimpsed in grass cuttings, whiffs of splintered light,

But knee-tough, toddler-fierce and undeflected,
Slogging between Arbirlot and Balmirmer

Where the Arbroath road shoogles in the heat,
All plainchant and sticky willie,

E-babble and cushie doos,
A soul, like the signal from a mobile phone,

Heads south where muscadine light
Slurs long, dwammy midsummer breakers,

And sings out, blithe, by a kirk whose bell-rope
Hangs, a frayed leash that’s attached to the whole of the sky.

A Good Address

Hair fizzing, earlobes red with daftness,
Hugh MacDiarmid in his council house

Or maybe out back, in its garden shed
A.k.a. The Scottish Poetry Book Club,

Retunes near planets till they mutter Doric
Sing-songily, but alien all the same,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn! …

Up carpetless, dark-varnished, creaky stairs
Edward Baird’s sables make Twenties Montrose

El Greco’s Toledo, shining over water,
A Scoto-Spanish, kirky Tir nan Og,

While Willa and Edwin Muir, in Willa’s mum’s
Draper’s shop, talk sex, conscious that past

Their douce seaside cosmology of golf balls
Where fiddlers jig and ‘The Democratic Butcher’

Places his doggerel in the local rag,
Immigrants flit – black swans, swifts, swallows, terns

To and from Africa, Siberia –
Native and foreign as the Pleiades,

The Royal Family, or a crystal set;
Birds’ unpredicted, random, oiled quill-feathers,

Still frosted with aurora borealis,
Drop on the High Street’s pavements, or Links Place.

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