The Poetry of Toni Maclean of Roshven
Toni Maclean

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THE FERRY-BOAT


Before the road the boat came twice a week

to bring the mail and messages, and everything

from drums of paraffin and T.V.O. rolled overboard

to float ashore, to visitors in overcoats

with leather luggage, lowered to the dinghy, still awash

from being towed, and rowed up to the jetty

where they had to jump in case the dinghy

scraped or bumped. Few made it dry.

On stormy days it didn’t want to stop, and tried

to sneak along. We had to watch for it,

a slowly growing, rhythmically recurring blur

that tried to hide far out: we’d shout,

and wave a sheet and dance about.

As kids we’d scramble aft

to travel in the wheelhouse where the Whaler

let us steer and gave us cigarettes and beer.

These days I travel more. I drive

from door to door, and shop on line.

And sometimes I go surfing on force nine.


FARQUHAR


I’ve known him over fifty years, I first

remember him astride a Clydesdale galloping

along the beach, and in the lean-to where

he built his motor-bikes, and made

a waterwheel from rusty cans

tacked to a cycle wheel, to charge their batteries.

A man of gentle words, he saved his breath

for distance running, nearly every year

he won the hill race at the gathering here.

He always led the music on his button-key

as now the piper leads him and his bearers,

old friends taking turns to carry him

this final lap of honour round the field.

I’ve pushed him in his chair, I’ve lit

his pipe and doused the fire when he set his bed alight.

And now I follow, with the rest, treading a slow march.



ALL HALLOWS EVE


In pointy hats and scary masks they run and shriek and laugh

and try to spook each other in the dark, the way we used to do.

Where are our childhood ghosts? the postie’s squeaky bike,

the creaking hinge of southbound geese, the hiss


of Tilly lamps at twilight, with the flutter, singe of moths;

the smell of heather-fire always brought us hot-foot to the flame


in fascination for its power, or the scents that ambush us

from long unopened drawers, and dressing-table jars.


We wait for wintertime to wreathe each other’s wraiths,

we walk a skin of ice and call to one another in the night


our echoes lingering like roses in November.


NOTHING ADDED

We didn’t go to school till I was nine, we played around

the steading, balancing on rafters, up above the cow’s warm breath

and sounds of languid chewing, shuffling. We smoked behind the bales.

On rainy days we lit the bothy stove and battered pancakes with

secreted flour, eggs from the chickens’ hidden nests and milk that

the cows let down. They were so used to us, to being

scratched and petted, butted at, they didn’t mind.

The mill was derelict but all the cogs still turned, the wheel

a carrousel for riding on, but best of all was when the smithy fire,

goaded by enormous bellows, roared and spat, the glowing metal

sparked, and sweating horses stamped and fretted, waiting to be shod.

It’s all in ruins now, and sold for redevelopment, I went

to school and tried to learn arithmetic, the dates of English kings

in copperplate, and how to play by other peoples rules.


NETTLES

I used to ride along this way,

a milk pail on each handlebar,

well balanced, smooth,

when London Pride adorned the wall

where now the nettles grow,

before the road eroded

down to the mettling.


They have their uses, nettles.

We used to feed them to the hens,

their odour sharp and pungent

in the steamy mash.

We gathered them when young,

bare-legged, open-handed and unstung.


We’re older now, we’ve grown.

Their stalks are woody, bristling,

leaves toughened, poison-tongued.

And now we keep away,

or wear protective layers

as we try to sidle by,

my childhood friend and I.


THE TRIALS

On a sunny day in the middle of May

The motor-bikes begin

To test their skills at climbing hills

And coming down again.

The Scottish six-days cycle trials

When Edinburgh drives for miles and miles

In rainbow-painted, supped-up wrecks

To watch their fellows break their necks.

It looks like Brighton or Southend

The ton-up boys are everywhere.

Their followers over backwards bend

To ape the wonderful clothes they wear,

The multi-coloured anoraks,

And quite extraordinary hats,

Petroleum Company boiler suits

And socks turned down over welly boots.

While down at the Inn a terrible din,

Unseasonable crowd,

An excuse for a drink, and to say what they think,

They voice their opinions loud

On revs and gearboxes and carbs

For many hours afterwards,

Then one last beer and stow their gear

For they’ll take the day off again next year.


SEA

With dreamy opalescence you explore

and hold the glossy pebbles in a hand

lace-cuffed and intimate, or

brush with a silken fingertip the sand

on which I play. Sand ribbed and furrowed,

coiled in casts of crusted worms,

dimpled where razor-fish have burrowed

down into safety, till the tide returns

to claim the puddles and abandoned life,

the stranded butter fish, and crabs, beneath the weed

which shelters them, for opportunity is rife

for shoreline birds to search and catch and feed.

The oyster-catchers’ pied and orange flight

and probing scarlet bills, the gulls who crack

open mussels on the rocks, sandpipers who alight

to search for tiny shrimps among the wrack.

Keen as bare-legged herons in the bright

shallows, among the floating, tangled weed

we stalk the shoals of sand-eels, which take fright

with synchronised, quicksilver, darting speed.

At lowest ebb, the undulating kelp

that looks like highly-polished leather gloves,

waves in the water, signalling for help,

neglected by the element it loves.

And then we join the predators, with pails,

to hunt for winkles, coated with a dusky sheen

and clustered on the stones. These grazing snails

we gather, for a penny each they mean

to us, who nickname them “black gold”

and search as keenly ever as wader’s bill,

even when feet and fingers, numb with cold,

can scarcely scoop them up, our buckets fill.

I’m thinking of the islands in the bay

where sometimes with my brothers I explore

the tidal pools’ transparent pink array

of crusted coral and anemonies, or

scramble on the rocks where orange wrack

which crowns the boulders, look like ginger hair.

When barnacles feel the water coming back,

and wave their tiny fingers in the air,

a slushing, sighing, gurgling sucking sound

accompanies the rushing tidal flow.

and everywhere above, on higher ground,

kaleidoscopic summer flowers grow.

The mustard-coloured lichen in the splash-

zone, clumps of pink-headed, nodding thrifts,

grass of Parnassus sheltered from the crash

of breakers in protected clefts and rifts.

Bluebells so thick we cannot walk with care,

primroses, campion, creeping juniper,

and overhead the sea birds everywhere

wheeling and crying in a frenetic stir.

Over the back, among the seaward cliffs

each bird defends a fraction of a ledge

for nesting on. With squabbles squawks and tiffs

each tries to push the other off the edge.

So many birds in constant carnival,

the guillemots in summer black and white,

the kittiwakes and cormorants, the gulls

and razorbills in alternating flight,

and down below the cliffs, the water too

is thick with birds, who swim and skim and dive

for fish, and sometimes we can see a few

porpoises jump for joy that they’re alive.

Beyond these islands where the sea birds nest,

a long and oily swell, on summer night,

reflects the dying embers in the west

in technicolour shades of fractured light.

Taffeta shot with all the gemestone hues,

rose-quartz and topaz change with amethyst,

and opal with sapphire and midnight blues,

while through it is woven gold and metallic schist.

Because it is our favourite fishing ground

we row out in our little wooden boat

into the open water of the sound

to trail our lines, as dreamily we float

on all this liquid colour, till a bite

distracts and animates, and hauling line

we see the green and silver fish, and fight

it’s streaking energy which flashes and churns the brine.

Out of the sunset, just to spoil our sport,

riding formation, dorsals sharp and black,

contending with us for the fish we’ve caught,

the giant kingfish come in to attack.

They hunt in packs, and having found our shoal

they dive and thrash beneath our little boat.

Nearly as long as it, they turn and roll,

showing their piggy eyes and pallid throats.

We head for home and leave the catch to them,

scared of their size and strength, these mini-sharks.

and now the shifting colour of the gem

has turned to malachite, for it is getting dark.

But twilight brings the herring fry ashore,

so floating in a hushing velvet glow,

encircling with phosphorescent oar

we net the slippery harvest from below.

The shining days, which memory recalls,

but many another mood you can display

of sloppy indolence, the creamy train

with which you wear your satiny silver grey.

Or when you’re flirting with a north-west breeze

and in a pretty blue and white you dance,

with lots of little tripping steps, to tease

the patient beach awaiting your advance.

And when you sulk and glower with thunderous frown

we soon forget our summer in the sun,

and pull ashore the boats and batten down

knowing that when your tantrums have begun

they’re likely to go on for many days.

And while you rage and scream and tear your hair

and throw yourself about in wilful craze

we watch with admiration for your flair.

The fisher-women call you slut, you lure

their men and steal their hearts away.

You are not really evil I am sure

but childishly capricious in your play.

From algae-covered rocks that shine and stream

with furious flying spray, I watch

successive mighty mountains break and cream,

topple and fall with pounding roar, to catch

at the shingle, sucking it back with crack

and crunch and squelch and tumble in greedy undertow,

then drawing youself up for new attack

in lurid green and cobalt, grey and black,

upon the cringing helpless shore below.

It’s Coronation day and I am eight,

we set out in the morning in the sun,

to go to Church, to pray and celebrate

before the evening’s revelry and fun.

But setting out for home an evil hour

besets us as we leave the harbour, for

a squall so sudden, of such vicious power,

makes turning back “as dangerous as go o’er”.

We have to keep our head into the wind

because the heavy sea is short and steep,

and try to leave the weather-shore behind

by heading out into the threatening deep.

Down in the trough the towering rollers seem

unclimbable. We wallow in the trench,

so slowly stagger up the hideous green

ascent, whose curling top prepares to drench

us all. Then hover there in space,

in awful view of all the monsters stacked

before us, and with sheets of water in the face,

till down we plunge with stomach-lurching smack.

Over and over, up and down, the further out we go,

and terror gets acquainted with my mind.

It all goes on and on, time goes so slow

until the shelter of the further shore we find.

And still it isn’t over. For a while

by following the coastline, in the lea,

we gain a less ferocious half-a-mile,

but have to cross it in a following sea.

It doesn’t seem so bad this suck and roll,

though actually it is, courage revives,

competing with the horror in my soul.

It seems that after all we may survive.

How can I ever trust you any more?

Your lovely smile can take my breath away,

but now I pace, distractedly, before

an exhibition of your violent temper, pray

that my fisherman is safe and will return

and all the other fishermen who keep

vigil with you, their daily bread to earn

upon the troubled waters of your sleep.


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