Friday, 23 December 2016


The glint of a splintered rainbow
the shine, the sheen,
coruscations bright with water drops

each wave, each bundle of energy
a courante, a gig,
dancers leaping in sequins of gold,

a white bird's wings silvered against the sky
frost's shimmering stars
a thread of beads on a spider's web

even the dust in a gleam of light

© Mary Robinson 2016


Sunday, 11 December 2016


Nativity scenes, wise men, Christmas trees, doves, dogs, cats, snowy scenes and even sprouts (yes!) – but this year I’ve yet to receive a card with a picture of reindeer on it.  There’s time yet.  Reindeer are creatures of the chill polar north and the 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas popularised them as draft animals for the sledge of Father Christmas.

There is a Sami myth that the divine creator took the beating heart of a two year old reindeer and placed it at the earth’s centre.  “The rhythm of the heart is the rhythm of the world, the pulse of life, the source of all being.  When times are difficult, the people have only to press their ears to the ground and listen: if they hear the beating of the reindeer’s heart, all will be well, they will emerge from the hard times.  If they do not, they are doomed”.

This piece of Sami folklore, quoted from Harald Gaski, opens John Burnside’s short essay A Poet’s Polemic which I picked up at the Scottish Poetry Library a couple of weeks ago.  The essay is subtitled “Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV”.  Burnside’s essay is political in the widest sense of the word.  He challenges a world in which we are reduced to consumers of bland mass-produced homogeneity (I think of Joseph Brodsky’s opening lines of “December 24, 1971”:
    “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
      At the grocers all slipping and pushing ...”
  just substitute supermarket for grocers).

It’s worth remembering that Burnside is a novelist as well as a poet, but it is the role of the poet which he singles out to be dissident, to oppose the cultural imperialism of mass identity.  In a world which substitutes “the manipulated image for the thing-in-itself, fundamentalism for generosity of spirit, the virtual for the real, the managed for the wild” the poet is called to pay attention to and reaffirm the detail of the world “in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality”.

A few days later I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” in which he admits “I’ve found myself checking email while giving my kids a bath, jumping over to the internet when a sentence or idea doesn’t come effortlessly in my writing, searching for shade on a beautiful spring day so I can see the screen of my phone”.  Meanwhile the internet is tracking our every move and reducing us to profiled consumers.

How easy it is to reach for the technology.  Sailing round Scotland in small boats I’ve seen dolphins and basking sharks very close.  I’ve resisted the urge to attempt to photograph them.  Instead I’ve concentrated on that magical moment when the skipper cuts the engines and the boat floats idly while the sleek glistening bodies of dolphins leap from the water or a basking shark cruises like a dark rippling underwater shadow, its jaws wide open for plankton, only its two fins breaking the surface.     

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript” directs the reader/listener to drive out to the Flaggy Shore in County Clare when
 “ ... the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans”
But, he goes on, “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it”.  This is an experience where
“ ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
Those moments when the heart is caught off guard are vital to our experience of life.

Burnside quotes a letter from Don DeLillo to Jonathan Franzen: “Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us”.  Burnside goes on to say “What a good poem does is take us out of ourselves” (this is as true in the process of writing as of reading).  Such a poem implies that “another world is possible”.    “We must refuse to join with a system that denatures everything, from the supermarket apple to the ground under our feet, for profit’s sake.” 

Poetry is ultimately an “ecological discipline”.  We need to put our ears to the earth and listen.  If we can hear the reindeer’s beating heart we will go on.

Read on
John Burnside’s stimulating essay A Poet’s Polemic subtitled Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV is worth reading in full.  It was originally published by the Scottish Book Trust for National Poetry Day 2003.  I picked up a free copy at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh

There is an extract from the essay on the Scotsman website

Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” was published in the Review section of The Guardian 3 December 2016.  You can find the article at

Friday, 2 December 2016


Two days in Edinburgh this week.  Another country.  Travelling up on the train on Tuesday morning I alternated between reading Eamonn Grennan’s poems and looking at the landscape.  Grennan’s fine collection The Quick of It is made up entirely of short ten-line poems.  They reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s Squarings – vivid word sketches, each one a miniature masterpiece of detail and craft.   The low light, less than a month before the winter solstice, illuminated every fold in the land: a dusting of snow on the hills, pale bristly stubble fields, the long shadows of isolated farms and barns, tussocks of reeds alongside fast flowing streams. The scenery gradually changed from countryside to urban, first suburbs and allotments, soon flats, warehouses, an Odeon sign, offices, Haymarket station and finally Waverley. 

My first destination was (as always in Edinburgh) the Scottish Poetry Library.  I browsed the excellent selection of poetry magazines, dipped into the pamphlets upstairs and bought a book from the bright new shop. There are always interesting freebies at the library and I picked up John Burnside’s essay A Poet’s Polemic to read later.

I hadn’t intended to go to the National Library but the map exhibition was irresistible, especially having read Tom Pow’s beautifully illustrated Concerning the Atlas of Scotland and other poems written when Tom was Bartholomew writer in residence at the library in 2013.  “Each of our lives traces its own map onto the shared terrain”, wrote Rebecca Solnit and Tom used this quotation as the epigraph to his collection.

At 4.15 there was just time to call in at the National Museum to check out things on my must-see list.       The first was the church ship model, one of the items in Neal MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World (broadcast on BBC Radio 4).  The ship was made to be displayed in a church as a votive offering to God for the safe return of James the Sixth (or First, depending on which side of the border you are) after his marriage to Anne of Denmark, sister of King Christian the Fourth of Denmark (he of the long plait and one of the main characters in Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel, Music and Silence).  James feared for his life on the return voyage from Scandinavia – and he believed that the terrible storms which almost overwhelmed the ship were the work of Scottish witches (hence the link with Shakespeare’s Macbeth).  The model ship is only about 65cms high, darkly painted in red and black, fully rigged in thick black threads, and decorated in gold and silver paint.  Mermaids clutch their fleshy, fishy tails but the ranks of cannons poking from the hatches above them are a serious reminder that this sailing ship was no romantic vessel but a warship. 

After being mistakenly directed to the St Finan exhibit I finally found St Fillan.  I wanted to look him up after one of the North Cumbria Stanza Group poets read a poem about St Fillan at a recent workshop.   The cult of St Fillan centred on Strathfillan Priory (Glendochart) and the museum has the three remaining relics associated with the saint.  There is a cast bronze bell or “bernane” (c. 900 AD), a silver gilt crozier shrine or “coigrich” (15th century but with earlier elements) and a bronze crozier head (11th century) rediscovered within the crozier shrine in the 19th century.   The coigrich incorporated a large lozenge-shaped crystal and  had the most beautiful, intricate metal work, so fine it resembled embroidery.  If I should need it any time it was good to know that the bernane was a cure for madness.  Legend and history mingled together in a glass case. 

Meeting up with old friends was another delight of my visit.  We shared news and memories and good food.  Then it was back over the border on Wednesday night.