Two Poems

Alistair Elliot

Ganning back to the Beginning

for Martin and Diana

I

HWAET! This is what we   wanted to hear:

The floating one swings   still among rocks,
hovering on hemp,   the embracing boat
fast at anchor.   The coastguard on horseback
guides them to Heorot   the shining hall –
the loom of it lightens   the heart of sailors.
They bend to sit   on a bench, a bank,
the modelled metal   in plates and rings
works on their bodies,   distinctive creaking.
Their leader stands,   the proud words flash
from the fire-hard helmet:   We synt Higelaces
beodgeneatas;   Beowulf is min nama.

II

The hall in the story,   the hall of man,
rings with rapture.   We have been waiting
for years for this.
                     Glaedman Davies,
as I chew the words   of Anon’s masterpiece,
I read yours too,   in your manuscript notebook
the faithful trot.   The date there drops me
back where you wrote it,   the room in the roof
above my head   with no view of the quad,
no view of girls,   the wound-givers
in light armour,   distinctly creaking:
they would open their wordhoards   under my windows,
on the red gravel,   while you read and plucked
these words from a glossary   and I turned blindly
to Aristotle prosing   on the kinds of friendship.

III

That was Healfdene’s Hall,   the House of Housman,
the lane of light   where on lines of benches
scholars feast   and warriors wait
with towels on shield-arms   for the words of grace.

Turnstones on Lewis

Pale in the shade of a taller person
I have seen these birds before;
in the wintry black and white
of my father’s telescope
I used to watch them turning
the stones and spinachy weed,
guest-workers from the north
with an international job.

They search for something to eat,
the soft stuff lying under
uncompromising hardness
in the wet space between languages
where solid and liquid fret;
they ask only for stones
to hide among and hunt in,
and dipterans (they love midges).

Today their colours show
for once, the tortoiseshell
feathers of summer. The birds
pose for a moment, characterless.
What are they? I don’t know,
forgetting even the word
turnstone. The manual tells me:
Arenaria interpres

they are translators of stones,
turners of words, probers
of worn old surfaces
for meanings that live here
in the white fragmented-bone
shell-sand of the Hebrides,
a calcium of lost shapes
that will be eggs next year.