I present seven poems here as a sample. My first collections were mostly narrative; here is an early example, written when I was 22 and still living in Edinburgh. (The place-names are all from Edinburgh.)
The Red Judge
We shut the red judge in a bronze jar
– by 'we', meaning myself and the black judge –
and there was peace, for a time. You can have enough
of the yowling of certain justices. The jar
we buried (pitching and swelling like the tough
membrane of an unshelled egg), on the Calton Hill.
And there was peace, for a time. My friend the black
judge was keen on whisky, and I kept
within earshot of sobriety only by drinking
slow ciders, and pretending
unfelt absorption in the repetitive beer-mats. It was a kind of
vibration we noticed first – hard to tell
whether we heard it or were shaken by,
whether the tumblers quivered, or our minds. It grew
to a thick thudding, with an occasional creak
like a nearby axle, but as it were
without the sense of 'nearby'. – The hard flag-
stones wriggled slightly under the taut linoleum.
I supported the black judge to the nearest door
– detached his clutched glass for the protesting barman –
and propped him against a bus-stop. Maybe
it was only a pneumatic drill mating at Queen Street,
or an impotent motor-bike – the sounds grew harsher.
My gestures stopped a 24 that spat
some eleventh commandment out of its sober driver,
but I was more conscious of the rocking walls,
the pavement's shrugging off its granite kerb....
Quite suddenly the night was still: the cracks
in the roadway rested, and the tenements
of Rose Street stood inscrutable as always. The black judge
snored at his post. And all around
the bright blood filled the gutters, soaked my anyway
inadequate shoes, and there was a sound of cheering
faintly and everywhere, and the Red Judge walked
O thirty feet high and scarlet towards our stop.
In my late 20s I became interested both in Buddhism and in a difficult classical metre, 'hendecasyllabics', in which I wrote several very long poems. Here is a short one: a Buddhist parable that nicely seems to enact the vice it disapproves of. It is taken from an early Buddhist text, the Mahavastu. You should imagine the fish Timitimingala as enormous: its name means Swallowing-whale-after-whale. I pronounce it accenting the first and fourth syllables.
The Happy Crow
If a crow were to find the brawny carcase
of an elephant killed by tumbling in the
pride of life from a cliff above the Ganges;
and that carcase were floating down the flooded
stately river among its mango trees and
jewelled peacocks, the season being Springtime;
and that crow were to think (preening himself de-
liciously!), What a pretty trip I have be-
fore me!, perching then blithely upon the carcase;
and were thereon for days and weeks and even
months to gorge on that quite unwarranted stack of
blood-stained flesh as the powerful Ganges bore it
on among those delights; and if that crow were
to be carried, intoxicated, final-
ly – head bursting, heart roaring, beak still at its
wrenching and swallowing – out to sea, and then still
farther, far out to sea, to where the skyline
is sea only; and if that crow, marooned on that
stinking flies'-nest of bones and sinews (now more than
half awash, and in sight of sinking), were at
length devoured by the great fish Timitimingala –
that, O King, said the Sage, would be much like the
fate of him that pursues the loves of this world.
In mid-life, living in London and increasingly caught up in a busy career, I wrote fewer poems. Here is one addressed to my father, written when I was about 40:
(i.m. Ian Armstrong Black, d. 1971)
Distinguished scientist, to whom I greatly defer
(old man, moreover, whom I dearly love),
I walk today in Kew Gardens, in sunlight the colour of honey
which flows from the cold autumnal blue of the heavens to light these tans and golds,
these ripe corn and leather and sunset colours of the East Asian liriodendrons,
of the beeches and maples and plum-trees and the stubborn green banks of
the holly hedges –
and you walk always beside me, you with your knowledge of names
and your clairvoyant gaze, in what for me is sheer panorama
seeing the net or web of connectedness. But today it is I who speak
(and you are long dead, but it is to you I say it):
'The leaves are green in summer because of chlorophyll
and the flowers are bright to lure the pollinators,
and without remainder (so you have often told me)
these marvellous things that shock the heart the head can account for.
But I want to sing an excess that is not so simply explainable,
to say that the beauty of the autumn is a redundant beauty,
that the sky had no need to be this particular shade of blue,
nor the maple to die in flames of this particular yellow,
nor the heart to respond with an ecstasy that does not beget children.
I want to say that I do not believe your science
although I believe every word of it, and intend to understand it;
that although I rate that unwavering gaze higher than almost everything,
there is another sense, a hearing, to which I more deeply attend.
Thus I withstand and contradict you, I, your child,
who have inherited from you the passion that causes me to oppose you.'
I returned to poetry more centrally in my sixties. I found religious imagery increasingly important in reaching the depth of reflection I was looking for. The next poem looks at some of the changes involved in emerging from the preoccupation with career, status, income, etc. The Saint John of this poem is 'St John the Divine', the author of the biblical Book of Revelation. The poem imagines him at the moment when he has finished writing his book. I have relocated 'Patmos' to the Scottish island of Tanera Mor, more familiar to me and, at it happens, my grandmother's birthplace.
St John on Patmos
After the nightmare, after the lucubrations
and crashing on the brain's organ until you feared
it would break with such a weight of music –
where is there left to go
but downward, into the peace of rock and sand
and brackish water lolling among the shingle?
Angels are not delusion but their presence fades.
How still the world is when the mind is silent!
You love the fresh calling of the oyster-catchers
across the bay. You are ageless now,
gaunt awkward angular man, unoccupied,
and surprisingly healthy considering what you have come through.
Those Whores and horses, the Virgin and her moon,
the moral fury –
the sky-wide banners and the all-dominant trumpets
no longer detain your attention. They resemble
dissolving flags that transiently stain
the slates and blues of dawn. Now they are gone.
The cool clear lovely colours take you by the hand.
And now your other life begins – or not begins,
but is foregrounded, is the life you will live
until your death, which is a part of it.
Strange how there's nothing unfamiliar
about this freedom, as if you always knew
it was waiting for you, unperemptorily,
like a glass of water after a drunken party,
reformulating pleasure. Now, everything
is what it seems, and so it always was
you can't help thinking, ironic among your rocks.
(Irony also is a luxury
not worth retaining.) So it always was.
You watch a sea-bird with unshuddering wings
glide sheerly from the cliff-face and sweep upward,
pause, and continue on a perfect gradient
never before travelled, on dependable air.
Life need not continue and it need not stop.
You see (or I the poet see on your behalf)
no God requires your bent spine or your prayers.
And no Apocalypse will be more real
than these washing waves, this water, and these stones.
I have always liked traditional rhyming-and-scanning poems, though I haven't very often written them. Here is one example, recording a painful but precious moment in my family life. (The reference to Battersea, instantly recognisable to Londoners, is to Battersea Dogs Home for rescued dogs – now the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home.)
In Memory of Pippin
Alert small bitch, half-terrier,
half-whippet, with the strength and speed
bestowed by each ancestral breed –
you reach the close of your career.
So long the path down which you've fared,
memory is hard-pressed to recall
the hurtling canine cannon-ball
who'd greet us when we hardly dared
open the front-door, and who'd then
rush off and rip her blanket up
to celebrate. On a cliff-top
or open field you'd find again
your racing forebears and for hours
go like the wind. Equally true
that you could lie the whole day through
quiet in your basket. Disliking showers
and terrified by fireworks: we
deployed our cleverest arts to guess
what traumas you could not express
brought you, homeless, to Battersea
where you squeaked, fearing to be spurned –
and were so timid when selected
that when rebuked you went dejected
to the front-gate to be returned.
– Well, Pippin with the questioning ears
that scanned like radar, always cocked,
the slender forepaws which you crossed
neatly at the wrists, for fifteen years
you were not rejected. Now, gone deaf,
incontinent, face ash-white, not brown:
we've called the vet to put you down.
Shocked by our power to end your life,
these breaking tears put us in touch
with both our loves: for you, and this
our dubious breed, whose gift it is
to care so cruelly, and so much.
The following two poems are from a recent collection, The Arrow-Maker. Both are in a free verse that attempts to follow the movement of a thinking mind. I think of both poems as "portraits", though in rather different ways.
The arrow-maker has beautiful hands: they are strong and slender.
He glues the flight to the shank with unpausing, definite movements.
With his steady gaze before him, he weighs the arrowheads in his hand –
he makes a decision, he binds one head to the shaft,
winding the tough thread round, again and again, correcting for overlaps;
then glues the thread in its place, then varnishes the length of the arrow –
then stands it to dry out of sight, in the deep shade in back of the door-light.
But the arrow-maker is young: he would like to be out with his mates catching
or gambling for beans in the village, with breaks for philosophizing and horse-
or perhaps going off with a girl, past the small fields into the forest
to which they are called by the Meaning of Life, dreaming and loving…
or he would like to be down at the river, admiring its wrestling currents
or dizzy seeing its broad, shining floor, forever in decorous motion.
It is a burden for the arrow-maker that he has to make arrows, that his people
depend on him.
He sits in the doorway in sunlight, not looking up from his task,
or looking up when someone approaches, and calling out to them cheerfully.
He is identified with his task: you couldn’t say he is sorrowful
or that he’s proud, exactly, to have this use for his dark eyes and beautiful
An Unexpected Intimacy
This afternoon I picked up a warm stone
– I was wanting to fix a hole that had appeared in the pathway –
and I had to check a sudden urge to apologise,
as if I had inadvertently
intruded on something to which my wants were entirely irrelevant.
I seemed to have broken in on a life that had been in progress for millions of years,
always uncelebrated, always in private, through heat, cold, pressure, exposure,
washing, melting, and grinding, and that suddenly now
on this unseasonally sunny late-October afternoon, had been plucked from its
to become a part of the intense fast-moving transparent flood of verbally architected
that we call history in our dismayingly blinkered fashion;
and its character until that moment, which to it was to be an unthought piece of the
nameless, abiding, ceaselessly changing, without significance,
turned in my hand, and without an instant’s delay, into an object of use and
with a purpose not its own purpose, but to do with buggies and bicycles
that it had never in all its millions of years conceived, and that it was certainly
not equipped for understanding – and yet also, I thought,
warm like human skin, naked, and friendly, and intimate,
so that I wanted to say: O I’m sorry! (but at the same time, how nice to encounter
I hadn’t realised you were there.