THE ARTHUR’S SEAT COFFINSIn 1836, a group of boys discovered a small cave in the rock, hidden behind three pointed slabs of slate. Concealed within were
17 miniature coffins. 
National Museums Scotland

The hand that laid these figures out,
cached in a nest of rock, is as unknown
as their purpose. Of near a score unearthed

no more than eight remain, each casket
gouged from a single plank by the heft
of a cobbler’s knife. Stood open to admire

like childhood treasures, the trinkets
they contain: toy dolls, all soldiers once;
painted boots still on their feet; the marks

of helmets on their heads. But each
is geared for civvy street, in day clothes,
checks and cotton prints, plain weave,

yet every suit bespoke. The same hand
surely pieced these garments up, sucked
thread ends the better to pass them through

the needle’s eye, and tugged at three-ply,
threading stitches into cloth. Took steps
to place these men, each one rescued

from rank and file, back in accustomed life.
No prick of pins, no witchery, no harm.
Only the quiet comfort of the grave.

                       from New Writing Scotland 35, ASLS, 2017

 

THE BRANDED HAND
This Daguerreotype was taken Aug. 1845. It is a copy of Captain Jonathan Walker's hand as branded by the U.S. Marshall of the Dist. of Florida for having helped 7 men to obtain 'Life Liberty, and Happiness.' SS Slave Saviour Northern Dist. SS Slave Stealer Southern Dist.
Inscription on reverse of photographic plate.

They printed this in Florida,
a slave state still in forty-five,
its marshal with the power
to mark a man for life. Yet,

he can’t have lived for long
till someone in New England
passed comment on his scars,
desired that he submit again

to steel that clamped the arm
lest movement spoil a plate
and new technology distort
the marks that he displayed,

his palm extended, opened
to their lens. As it had been
to coals, to branding irons,
the double S that found him,

in The South, slave stealer,
thief of someone’s property
he only saw as fellow men
in need. But, in The North,

a saviour offering the chance
for freedom crossing borders
meant to those who’d borne
the scars or more themselves

in multitudes, unrecorded,
never photographed, but
fixed, as is this single print,
in time, a record of its hand.

                       from Liberty Tales, Arachne Press, 2016

 

TREE SURGEONS

They range amongst the upper limbs
like primates encumbered with care,

find parts of trees we'd recognise
as human gestures on the level,

pass rope through crooks of elbows,
bends of knees, and anchor on

to laterals that bear the strain,
the dead weight of the saw

to make their surgery complete. 
Down here, we're squinting at the sun

and, grounded by our lack of skill,
point out the deft incisions we require

to lighten up our lives. They make it so,
disguise it in the cut and pay down

branches, green and dying, each
a stretcher's girth, a sleeper's weight.

from New Writing Scotland 30, ASLS, 2012
poem selected for Best Scottish Poems 2012

 

WHO KNEW
for Tom Baker

Seen first on the floor of UNIT prone, a miasma
of black and white, that smile not yet in evidence
as the credits rolled, his new form firmed up.

Regeneration absolute, the smile filled up a screen
where interference passed for SFX, jelly babies
were a metaphor for nothing worse than glee.

That scarf too, only some mad simile for DNA,
and topped by floppy curls that any latent hippy
would’ve died for – if they’d spoken like that then.

The Doctor couldn’t do it, couldn’t die, grappled
every cliff-hanger and grinned them out unfazed:
no plastic alien, cardboard spaceship ever up to him.

What was he on, we wondered, seriously stoned,
as the 70s progressed unchecked? That lit-up smile
betokened more than on-another-planet, man.

Out of the box? No way. The TARDIS flew him
off through time and space, dimensions relative
to those we tracked him by – the box we turned on

weekly, watched flicker in a moment back to life.

from Split Screen, Red Squirrel Press, 2012
 

MAKING THE CHANGE

Each third of a pint
was passed round the class
till all

had their bottle and paper straw,
a hole poked into the foil,
and time to suck

the warm as blood,
or chilled from frosty mornings
goodness

governments they’d never heard of
put their way.  One extra,
two or three

if more were absent,
made the rounds, an object lesson
in the doing,

in the agitating
all were urged to do
to churn the stuff to butter, fresh

as their amazement
at the trick.  The solid,
chilled and spread on biscuits,

oozed and crunched on gappy teeth,
imaginations sparked
and harking back

to frozen bottles, winter crystals
icy on the gums,
the mystery of transformation,

milk persuading them of change.

from New Writing Scotland 29, ASLS, 2011

 

AN EXECUTION
When Elizabeth I was informed of the death of Essex
she was playing the virginals.

She lifts one hand and then the other.  The blade
has done its work, they come to say; he will trouble her
no more.  Her hands alone

deny this fact as, pausing at the virginals, her stare
is fixed on nothing.  Straight ahead she sees him
kneel, the rise and fall

of no more than an hour ago,
that makes the measure bitter to her thoughts,
its music pointless exercise that she, from her position,

must resume.  Her hands rest
on the keys.  Black and white is how she sees it,
this curse attached to rank. Her ladies watch 

as no word passes from her lips.  She lifts one hand
and then the other.  One note in precedence
begins it all again, a harmony restored.

from Reactions 4, UEA, 2004
 

THE MACHINE ROOM
Formerly in the Chambers Street Museum, Edinburgh

In there the future turned to meet the past.

A child's reach away found pace and motion,
life made vital and intense, involving
all who watched in some conspiracy beyond
the present tense.  The power of motors spun
a web of sleight deceit as steam enveloped
mind, imagination and belief.  Mines
worked the cages, pistons hissed and spat beneath
the glassy sheen of life.  Ships turned the screw
while locomotives led to transports of delight.

In there the future, turned to meet the past,
suspends the present while the motor lasts.

from Present Poets, Museums of Scotland, 1998