‘poetry is still beautiful’

This essay was first published in a booklet, to accompany five poem-objects, an exhibition at Ingleby Gallery Edinburgh in 2012.

(I) father is the war of all things

Although their sources are unrelated, placed together these five poem-objects draw themselves into intimacy. The first text, 'father is the war of all things', transposes one of the fragments of the pre- Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. When I was at primary school, a signpost bearing the inscription the way up and the way down is one and the same appeared at the foot of our road. Every day that Ailie and I went down to meet Ramsay’s minibus in the morning and back up in the afternoon, I was less inclined to agree.

A few years later I encountered an equivalent, walking up the track in the pitch dark when the torch batteries failed, as they always seemed to, exchanging the world of eyes – fence posts, wireless-poles, sleeping sheep, molehills and thistles – for the lone I of the black Pentland night.

I followed the footsteps of my daytime self, feeling for the texture of loose gravel through the soles of my boots to tell where the ruts of the road led up, imagining where the gate would be, reaching out a hand for the cold metal of the top bar, keeping on until I could see the single low star of the front porch light.

Family walks at Stonypath followed a settled route. Dad would say, let’s go a walk to see the vale, and off we went. I hadn’t a clue what the vale was but, over time, a poetic fret settled over the asperity of the moor. We followed a sheep-trod close to a narrow, nameless burn with water-grasses floating in arrows across its surface. As we approached dad would give one of his wee smiles and, dipping his wellie-boot, say, you can never step in the same burn twice. Grown-up I learnt that, like the sign at the road-end, this phrase came from Heraclitus. His waters are elemental, but it was the grasses, in the manner of their floating, pointing downstream, that were the local revelation of time and flow.
Burns were IHF’s fondest things, for their gentle containment and for memories of fishing trips. At each new home his first letter to friends began with a description of the local burn and his hopes for the trout its pools and overhanging banks may conceal. Our walk to the vale returned home via a circular sheep-fank, down the eastern boundary of the Anston Burn, by sycamores where herons nested, suckered hazels and one wee pool that could take a two stroke swim. The burn hurried on to the River Medwin, which defined the valley’s different world of old woods, hump-bridges and red tarmac roads, remote from the poet’s hillside garden.
There is another burn at Stonypath, conducting the water into the garden, which IHF made by hand, laying a bed of stones filched from the dykes on the hill, planting grasses and ferns, in memory of the rills of the Boltachan that flows and falls by his Perthshire cottage, Dunira, where he lived in the 1950s.
If the Heraclitean burns at Stonypath are associated with childhood idylls, then the embroidered poem father is the war of all things recalls a contrary fragment: 'War is the father of all and king of all; and some he shows as gods, others as men, some he makes slaves, others free' (Kirk & Raven); to which we can add the emphatic: 'It is necessary to know that war is common and right is strife and that all things happen by strife and necessity' (Kirk & Raven). The poem, father is the war of all things, seems an autobiographical confession – though one which leaves open the question as to whether father is the subject or the source of war – but, together with its companions, it also reveals itself as a fragment
of philosophy altered. Performing a revolution, the text turns the ‘strife’ of the philosopher topsy-turvy: father and war demand to be exchanged, their dialectic symmetry renders the transposition inevitable.
The contention of the Heraclitean universe is refracted through our Darwinian and Freudian inheritances. The text resonates, but we have learnt from bitter experience – from the destruction that hid behind known knowns and known unknowns and unknown unknowns, things we don’t know we don’t know – to be suspicious of linguistic operations. They run the risk of nullity; a doubt remains whether this generation is capable of overcoming the cycle of conflict. It is left to the texts that
follow to attempt a resolution.


(II) mother’s word is ward

The source of the second embroidered text, 'mother’s word is ward', is a line in Paul Celan’s memorial poem ‘The Travelling Companion’.

            Your mother’s soul hovers ahead.
            Your mother’s soul helps to navigate night, reef after reef.

            Your mother’s soul whips on the sharks at the bow.

            This word is your mother’s ward.

            Your mother’s ward shares your couch, stone by stone.

            Your mother’s ward stoops for the crumb of light.

            (translated by Michael Hamburger)
In April 1970 the incommensurability of memory drove Celan to throw himself into the River Seine. The poet had already sought to escape his tragic inheritance, altering the ‘natural’ order of his name by the generative means of an anagram: Antschel / Ancel / Celan, as if such an act could reverse history. To friends, Celan spoke of a monstrous event, one embellished by guilt: holding his father’s hand through the barbed wires of a Transnistrian transportation camp, he was forced to let it fall when a guard bit fiercely into his fingers. Both his parents would die in the camps.
It is to the ‘mother‘ that Celan awards the muse-like gift of speech. The dyad ‘Mutter‘/‘Mündel‘, becomes, in translation, the surety of the mother’s ‘word‘ and the guardianship of ‘ward‘. It is she who, through her words, provides reassurance and protection.
From parliamentary elections and hill names – Ward Hill appears on maps of Orkney and Shetland – we know that a ward is a measure of the human world, an enclosure. From word to ward we catch language in metamorphosis, just as on the hillside at Stonypath the exchange of a single letter translates curfew into curlew, as the bird’s call tolls the tocsin bell for evening across this patch of earth.
To Celan, poetry revealed itself to be divinatory; a rite of speech in which words spill, reveal and prefigure; the poem, a message in a bottle which may someday wash up on heartland. He pictured his own unfathering and unmothering in the perilous reefs and menacing sharks of ‘The Travelling Companion’, imagery inherited from an earlier poem, ‘Love Song’, a shipwreck in which the lovers drown alone at home, peering through the translucent deck of a war-damaged flat. Such poems are written for the other, the one who comes after. Texts may be oracular, but the poem is fated to appear in time – in the strife of history and the deluge of wartime slaughter – fated to land among us as a remembrance.

(III) family is a shipwreck

This scene of dispossession sweeps us on to the third poem, 'family is a shipwreck', which reduces cosmological strife to a singular event. Given its position in the series, the text inherits the melancholy of Celan’s familial loss. The source is an essay by the Brazilian poet and theorist Haroldo De Campos, in which he characterizes the poem as 'a shipwreck in time and space'. The image is suggestive of a poem warding meaning into a fitting matrix, constellating words, identifying poetry with the plural form of human relationship, family.
De Campos inherited his image from Mallarmé, whose Un coup de dés was one of the inspirations for his Noigandres comrades in their revolution of the poem-constellation. In the pages of Un coup de dés blank space assumes the translucence of an immense sea, in which the phrases of Mallarmé’s poem float like the ribs and joists of a sepulchral shipwreck – a culmination of the wreck images that appear in 'Brise Marine', the sonnet 'A la nue accablante tu', and in the notes for the memorial poem for his son, 'Pour un tombeau d'Anatole', in which the eight year old boy figures as a sailor setting out on his final voyage. Over time wrecks loosen themselves from the catastrophic event of their foundering and, scoured by sand, bleached by salt, embed themselves as littoral, even loved, memorials.
The five poems are embroidered on handkerchiefs, with the same homely charm as the linen squares my mother would stich into sails of blue and brown for my father’s model boats. Being read in their familial context, De Campos & Mallarmé’s wrecked boats call to mind IHF’s fleet of vessels, the clinker-hulled fishing-boats, Fifies & Zulus, the sleek technological menace of the destroyer, the gasoline-honeyed island of the aircraft-carrier. His wooden toys and stone models shelter from storms and battle actions; look at their reproductions in books and cards, they are never scratched, damaged, nor sunk. The boat’s form was solace and shelter in the face of the ocean’s void, a curative for agoraphobia, a poem-vessel to tack through time.
Melancholy as the family poem may be, there remains the care of thread and sentiment of the handkerchief. The embroidered texts reflect upon and distinguish themselves, one from another; the five poems assume assigned places and, as they do, the texts themselves, with their interpenetrating meanings, become familial, renewing the possibility of a shared sense of belonging and relationship.


(IV) children are the revolution

To complete the coeval pairing of father & mother, the third poem, family, stands opposite a fourth: children are the revolution. Alone among the texts, this one has no source. It springs from the others, writing itself, as it were, by dint of the different positions they press one another into. The child is agent of memory; children learn to remember through song, rhyme and poesis, the technologies of language.
In the mythical account of history, fathers beget wars and children inflame revolutions. Here though, alert to the ways in which the texts work upon one another, we allow the pun, for it is children that revolve the familial wheel.
There is a playful echo here with an earlier poem-object, a small ‘tirlo’ windmill-turbine, the blades of which bear a circular text after John Cage:

            turning / toward / living

When the wind blows the poem disappears into a blur; when the breeze drops and the turbine is unproductive, the poem asserts itself, as an energy.


(V) our lives are a carrying stream

The fifth poem, 'our lives are a carrying stream', gathers the other texts into its current, immersing them in an awareness of time beyond individual or familial life. What is sewn may also be unpicked; each thread is a trace of the time in which the poem was patiently made, but, with the right needle, the text could flow in another way.
The text came via my mentor, the folk-singer Hamish Henderson, who characterized the tradition bearers and anonymous lineage of folk-song as a carrying stream, and the great songs as licked into shape like pebbles by the waves of countless tongues.

            Tomorrow songs
            Will flow free again, and new voices
            Be Born on the carrying stream

            ‘Under the Earth I go’

Hamish gave me an empathy for song and poetry, as he did for so many. When I first moved to Edinburgh I would do odd jobs at his home, fetching lunch and, as he had a gammy hip from an injury he’d taken at El Alamein, helping him get in and out of the bath. I’ve never forgotten a conversation we shared during one bath-time, reflecting on the war in the desert and the tide of history that flowed through the ruined tombs and the single column, 'die eine', at Karnak, a scene he recorded in the Eighth of his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. That afternoon Hamish was moved to recite the Tenth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in German, from memory, tears welling in his eyes.
'There were our own, there were the others': more than anyone I’ve known, Hamish sought to go beyond the inheritance of contention. Being himself ‘fatherless’, he tried to elude the rhyme that bonds father to war. From the wound of his illegitimacy he embellished myths regarding his paternity, wrapping himself in the mantle of old ballads and the lives of the outcast tinkler-gypsies. Like Celan, with his Bukovinian polyglot tongues – Swabian, Yiddish, Ukranian, German and Romanian – Hamish insisted on the hybridity of cultural inheritance, growing up with English and Scots, hearing relict Perthshire Gaelic, to which education added German, French, Italian, and later, collecting songs in the fields, he caught on to traveller cant.

(VI) ground, river and sea

The stream of my own memory begins and ends in water. Its source is at Stonypath, outside the bounds of the garden, by the spring that rises on the moor which feeds the burns and lochans and provides the peaty water we drank. Over time, as accounts of the garden detach the landscape from the reality of our lives, the spring came to symbolize the familial spirit of the place. Few critics have cared to follow the burn upstream to that original spring, overhung with ferns and rushes, from which the farm
and garden were born.
These two summers past I’ve made journeys through the highlands and islands and, along the way, tied paper wishes to burnside alders, hazels and birch, in memory of friends. Following Basho’s Oku-no-hosomichi, one day I found myself exhausted – shipwrecked, if you like – in an enclosed glen part-way up the Inverianvie River, able to get beyond the waterfall, but still far from Loch a Mhadaidh Mor. When I got back I found that the namelessness of the glen resonated with Tom Lubbock’s brave memoir of living and dying, as he recorded the fading of language from the effects of a brain tumour.

            poetry is still beautiful

            taking me with it

            quiet but still something

            ground, river and sea

            my body my tree

            after that it becomes simply the world   

Later I discovered that some of these riverside sites were associated with the first goddess of Scotland, Annait, Anaitis, whose name was brought to these lands by semitic tribes from Anatolia, long after the ice had receded.

Annat – Annet – Andat – Anaid – Annatland – Anatiscruik – Annatstoun – Annatfield 
Longannat – Craigannet  – Ernanity – Coire na h-Annait – Alt na h-Annait
The first site was Balnahanaid, by the River Lyon; the second, the well Tobhar na h-Annait, at Kilbride, and the nearby temple at High Pasture cave, where archaeologists recently discovered the wooden bridge of a 2,300 year-old six-stringed lyre; the third site, a temple mound by River Bay, Waternish. The goddess is traditionally represented by a votive stone which the river has smoothed into a female form. These Annait were ritually washed in the water, and at these sites the community cast the ashes of their dead into the river to be carried under the earth, down to the underworld. Annait, travelling companion, Earth Mother, Bride, who John Latham recalled in Niddrie Woman, whose new name is Gaia: there are no sacred texts describing her mythology and yet, in little burns and springs, She is the source from which the carrying stream flows on.


            shafts of winter light
            pink the hoar
            on Beinn Na Caillich
            and glint a sun ring
            over the garnet aureole
            of Beinn an Dubhaich
            catching Annait’s
            river-worn form
            laid by a hazel burn
            in which bone & ash
            were cast to wash
            down the chthonic sink

            (High Pasture Cave, February 1)


Kirk & Raven, Heraclitus: the Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, 1954)
Michael Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan (Persea Books, 2002)
Haroldo de Campos, Novas (Northwestern, 2007)
Hamish Henderson, Collected Poems and Songs, (Curly Snake, 2000)
Stéphane Mallarme: Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson (Miami University Press, 2012)

 The linen handkerchiefs were embroidered by Jean Malone

With thanks to Peter Manson, Luke Allan and Richard & Florence Ingleby

photography Ingleby Gallery, 2012


  1. Thought for food; feeling flowing, fact standing like stone washed in the burn Thank you, Eck....

  2. Thanks Tom, hugs and fond wishes.


Leave a comment...