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Wednesday 12 December 2018

Words on Wednesday: Norman MacCaig 'Rings on a Tree' 1968

I recently 'discovered' poet Norman MacCaig in typically circuitous fashion. I was recommended Andrew Greig's excellent memoir/homage/meditation 'At the Loch of the Green Corrie' (2010) which I would also recommend to you dear reader.

In these pages I read about the author's connection to this spindly spiky Edinburgh schoolmaster, poet and sometime fisherman, Norman MacCaig, who was one of the explosive set of Scottish poets from the middle to later half of the last century, a group that included such legendary figures as; Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Iain Crichton Smith, George MacKay Brown, Hugh MacDiarmid, and others, some of whom I'll be writing about at a later date.

Knowing that my local public library and employer has a reasonable collection of 20th Century Scottish poetry I investigated the reserve and choose this collection to start with based purely on the name, Rings on a Tree (1968). Here are a few from that collection.

Rings on a Tree
Norman MacCaig
The Phoenix Living Poets
Chatto and Windus with the Hogarth Press
SBN 7012 0304 8


Can you keep it so,
cool tree, making a blue cage
for an obstreperous population? -
for a congregation of mediaeval scholars
quarrelling in several languages? -
for busybodies marketing
in the bazaar of green leaves? -
for clockwork fossils that can't be still even
when the Spring runs down?
No tree, no blue cage can contain
that restlessness.  They whirr off
and sow themselves in a scattered handful
on the grass - and are
bustling monks
tilling their green precincts.

Crossing the Border

I sit with my back to the engine, watching
the landscape pouring away out of my eyes.
I think I know where I'm going and have
some choice in the matter.
I think, too, that this was a country
of bog-trotters, moss-troopers,
fired ricks and roof-trees in the black night — glinting
on tossed horns and red blades.
I think of lives
bubbling into the harsh grass.
What difference now?
I sit with my back to the future, watching
time pouring away into the past. I sit, being helplessly
lugged backwards
through the Debatable Lands of history, listening
to the execrations, the scattered cries, the
falling of roof-trees
in the lamentable dark.


Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock's nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas -- not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.