A pibroch for (MacCaig)
[ ‘History frightens me…/ If only I come to be a word with brackets round it / a word drowned in a footnote / a word’ Norman MacCaig : ‘Backward look’ 1984 ]
pibroch – because it sounds right,
Celtic, and somehow remote
He’d not be doing with that;
what was it he wrote about death?
‘the one that smiles ruefully
thinking how little he is understood.’
MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper,
pertinent and spry as a robin
on the precise tips of his verse.
What a look he’d give me,
laconic, spare and handsome,
holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.
It’s just that I come to him late
and he bothers me with death:
that cart on the shore road,
the one coming with the sack in his hand,
the scyther in the hayfield,
those blind horizons, black sails.
I keep wondering: why;
here, in this land of birds,
the generous skies of Assynt,
why these shadows, this shadow?
I should pay more attention.
He’s writing the age I am now.
I want to say: you don’t die for years.
He can’t hear me, no more than Hector, Socrates.
I picture him casting, casting
into some high lochan
and a shadow on the opposite bank;
the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,
the finicky business of flies,
and the two of them, still as chessmen
each bent with all his art
on reeling the other in.
Parentheses bother me, too,
(enter a life, stage left; exit right),
as though there were beginnings
and endings. No such things.
The salmon go back into the water.
No brackets for you, MacCaig.
Still learning me your language.
[* Pibroch: a tune played by a single piper. A call to a gathering, a salute, a lament, characterised by the complexity of its grace notes]
pinioned in a parchment sky,
his mind a kite-string ravel,
he stares at distressing
white comets’ tails of feathers,
down at his dwindling son.
He knows so much.
The structure of a bird’s wing,
the melting point of wax.
He can navigate
the fibonacci spirals of a conch
with thread, an ant, and honey.
He understands everything
about a body’s hinges, levers,
fulcrums, the way it works.
He has traced the ridges
of a human brain, the whorls
of fingertips, and dreamed
He can calculate velocities;
knows how a falcon slices
through blue spaces
and why a boy can not, and how
the lucid air turns loud and brutal
and why the cross-hatched sea
becomes a butcher’s block;
he is learning
it’s the sleep of the heart
He could mend a broken clock.
John Foggin has been a teacher, lecturer, LEA advisor and author of books about teaching English. He lives in West Yorkshire and has a problem about remembering his ten grandchildren’s birthdays. His poems have appeared in The New Writer, Ware Poets, Leaf Books (‘Ukraine, and other poems’), and The North. He won the Plough Prize (2013) and the (2014) Lumen Camden prize both selected by Andrew Motion. His chapbook, Running out of Space, was published in April 2014.