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The peculiar riverDouglas Oliver
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Vol. 15 No. 18 · 23 September 1993
Poem

The peculiar river

Douglas Oliver

433 words

Last time I wrote of Parisian loaves newly baking
because the yeast was in my nostrils
from the rue Lepic bakery beneath.
Now I’m lost in Scotland, my grain of truth.

Across bare floorboards of this home in Paris
the thistle of Scotland’s nationhood crosses like a swift stain.
Never to know Scotland
perfect/imperfect
wanting to bring Scotland to Paris in my work.

In England I grew up Scots
dreaming of the castled nation with its shattered wall
the foolish antics of its kings and queens
the crescent blade to sever Scotland’s link with England
to save Scotland’s neck which is joined to England
like a tatty prince’s head
on the body of a full-blown courtesan.

In border history once a thousand head of horse
and now millions of cars
long avenues of street lights
and falling stars of headlights
flowing along with the water lights
river motes of tourist dust in wind
across the disadvantaged nation:
silver insect cars on distant bridges
and underneath smooths gleaming like a limo bonnet
and underworlds spreading weed over auto parts
in the undertow of pasts.

I’ve taken the night train to London,
a morning train to Durham;
now I hire a car and drive to Threave,
a castle on an island in the River Dee,
and I walk through reeds beside the castle wall.

This time I can write of a cadaver
hanging from the walls of Threave
that dying-out, that death within my life,
and get free – as if I could enter a small dinghy,
sail it with light luminous sails beyond Threave,
a castle-home of murders, while around its island
daffodils tremble with hideous memories
as I curve the boat backwards and forwards
on a broad river with its shelving walls,
a peculiar river I make mine uniquely
being human in its watering places,
some waters beginning quietly in my mouth juices
becoming words of air as I swirl
drawn by the sails into a very far journey.

White and brown furs cover the transom
the boat is named with Celtic signs
which send the imagination farther north,
the unique river lengthening into regions
where no map takes it, re-invented
to flow through a landscape of the mind
until the journey reaches a remembered mountain,
Ben Alligin shouldering down to Shieldaig Loch.
There, I’ll simply tack inshore, trusting the words
that brought me over lost water into this lost copse.
The words don’t say the lands from then on,
the lands of Optimum Infinitum, stretch much farther
beyond the shores of this unreal Scotland.

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