Impossibility

Robert Crawford

Under the North Sea, a mile off Elie
Where once she was noticed in a mullioned window,
White lace cap rising, brooding over her table,
Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant
Translates onto starfish and nacred shells
Montalembert’s Monks of the West

Still weary, awash with hackwork to support
Dead Maggie, Marjorie, Tiddy and Cecco,
Her water babies, breathing ectoplasm,
She watches aqualungs glow with shellac,
Mindful how she loves light’s aftermath,
Protozoa’s luminescent wash

On the Firth of Forth; she drifts
Eagerly shorewards, can almost touch
Piers at St Andrews, cybery, Chopinesque fingers
Of Tentsmuir Sands, Blackwood’s Strathtyrum
Pressure-resistant, bathyscaphic den
Deeply upholstered with morocco books

Ich bin Margaret Oliphant
Je suis Margaret Oliphant
I am Margaret Oliphant
You are Margaret Oliphant
Vous êtes Margaret Oliphant
Sie sind Margaret Oliphant

I love my home, its lares et penates
Of broken shoe buckles, balls of green wool,
Needles, its improvisatory architecture
Feeding my work with interruptions, turns
Snatched, forty-winked; stashed seed pearls in a dish
Radiate homely, incarnational light

Sometimes the green walls glimmer, elverish,
Phosphorescent, spectrally alive,
Razorfish splay galvanised medium’s fingers
Seeking burnished heads of polyps and corageen
Brocaded with plankton, nuzzled by antlered snails,
Vulval, brasslit, flecked and veined and washed

Dinner-suited Auchterlonian clubmen
Fill the fishtank windows of the R & A;
Subsea, in my dark, Victorian
Antimacassared, embroidered sewing room,
I’m inky, threaded with spectra, gynaecological
Eyeball thistle-tassels of the sea

Brown, blue-grey, single-cell-like
Pre-embryo materials in store
But never used, spermatozoic spirits
Haunt the sunned waters, séances of plankton lie
Paperweight-still, flower-heads, floating marbles
Undulating in slow liquid glass

I am too antisyzygously Scottish,
Thirled to names like Eden, Wallyford,
Pittenweem; tidally to and fro
Mights and maybes captivate me, I waver
Between hot toddy and hard, cold-boiled chuckies
Smooth and rounded as a baby’s skull

Oceans teem with informational currents;
Lord Kelvin’s submarine telegraphy
Nets continents; minke whales, prawns,
Mackerel and reef-life hover, agog,
Though bored by its contents: same old same old
Verisimilitudinous whine

When Alexander Diving Bell invented the xenophone
I heard his voice calling, ‘The sea! The sea!’
Hollowly into a shell
As if he could contact Robert Louis Verne
Or all the impossible, massed, forlorn spirits
Edinburgh exiled, waving from twenty thousand leagues

Under force eights the Lusitania,
Hood, Tirpitz, Mary Rose lie barnacled,
Cell-like binnacles of another life
Lost to the world above but frozen here
Among squid, mantas, coral, nameless shoals
Writhing in a lurid, marine Somme

Is the sea Scottish? What are the oceans’ flags?
Britannia is ash on the surface of the waves;
We commend the deep
In mem
Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot
         aere peren

Almost meaninglessly vulnerable
To men who hold them with incomprehension
Softened by love, small crania nestle in tweed
Until a woman comes, a maid, a nurse
With her efficient, separating smile
Allowing cigar smoke, whiskies, broadsheet papers

Breastfeeding women soldier
Lovingly, intimately, hurt
Night after night in private dawn campaigns,
Babies in regiments, the Royal Scots Greys,
The Fusiliers, the Guards, madonnas, children,
Waterloo, Sebastopol, Verdun

‘Why me?’ I cried when Cecco died, ‘Why you?’
‘Why you?’ echoed St Andrews cliffs, ‘Why me?’
Sounds of my voice and of my voice re-echoed
You-me, me-you sieved through the bells of flowers,
Merged with sea-urchins, stairwells, conches,
Telephoned through grasses, filtering inside

Hay stalks, through woods and coffee-pots
Soundwaves of me and you acoustically
Married plunged beneath St Andrews Bay
Out among lobsters, creels, beneath the hulls
Of homing Fifies sailing by the stars,
Bonded, faithful, never answered cries

Fed through bakelite receivers, new
Technologies of machines and genes, systems
Replicating, generating, creating
Heavens of sea-slugs, ganglion-by-ganglion maps
Linking you to me, me-you,
Cecco … I am dying to hear you

Caravans of beasts cross the sea floor
Battling; there should be more tomes like Forbes’s
History of British Starfishes,
More unignorable music like my baby’s
‘Stennynennynennynennynenny’
Vibraphoned with the long pibrochs of whales

Next, we’ll be remixed as a strange city
Where the dead one spring day are allowed
Visits to the living, but gilled under the waves
Where none can breathe, where riverine
Currents of cold meet a persistent Gulf
Stream, thawing a cryogenic, living flood

Sanctioning in vitro fertilisation, I shoal
Cell by cell by cell by cell by cell
Teeming with breathless nanosecond fins
Deluged with algorithms, difference engines, mouths
Kneading me into new shapes – tendrils, snout-neb,
Gills – and, while this happens,

I write Katie Stewart and The Quiet Heart,
The Perpetual Curate, menstruate, conduct
Business by telegraph, crisscross Europe, trill
Coloratura Italian names for carp,
Starfish and flounders, chant to squid about
Così fan tutte, Rigoletto, Siena

Where my husband’s buried and where I watched my baby
Die in my arms; I am pulverisingly
Penniless, fortunate and very tired;
In the early hours, weathered by children’s breathing,
Chapters drift up among sluggish cuttlefish,
I see the passing lights of hulls above

Dull skies hanging low, but to the east
Hints of clearness, the light on the Bell Rocks
And at Arbroath, I watched the water-snakes,
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, their elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes

I am my own autobiography
Drafted with children nibbling at the page,
Clamouring, immaturely loud, dividing
Concentration, some quick and some dead,
O Cecco, Tiddy, Maggie, Marjorie,
I extrude your names as wormcasts on Fife’s shores

Writing underwater I can be
Protean with shimmer and cascade,
Waxy and oaten, tearful,
Ambered, leylined, Atlantean, coursing
Dolphin-nuzzled, keen and adjectival,
Never to be netted or ticked off

Sea-surges nurse and cradle with me, to-froing
Diaphragms of water laugh, lullabying caves
Gargle the ocean, articulating waves’
Propulsive jokiness coming and going in squirts,
Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant
I am, babies, I am

I am a pearl and Scotland is a pearl,
Chuckies on the beach, each one a pearl,
Mudie’s Circulating Library’s
Books turn to pearl, spill out across the floor,
Glasgow’s dour drinkers’ spit shines for an instant,
Skrechled, tubercular seed-pearl nebulae

Sea water is all starts, an embryonic
Florilegium of lucent drifts,
Pulling, insistent, ceramic-glazed but soft,
Filtering light in snaily, Pictish spirals,
Irises, fannings, anemones, blurred nodes
Unfurling in the tidal give and give

Ossianic, nacre-rich, transforming,
Oceanic, ram-stam, brooking no stop,
Nation-like, yelling and rallying,
Subsiding, calm and violent, perjink
Splashed across headlines, Scotland, Scotland, Scotland
Quartz-strewn, Laurasian, pre-continental

Soften and turn to me, and slowly flower,
Fresh irises, sea-pinks, forget-me-nots;
I’ll fade away, profound, forgotten, growing
Pearlier beneath the Arran sun
I’ll rise to be my land’s loveliest necklace
Of Margarets, scattered, spilling far wee stars

Dear Mr Blackwood, here is a short story
Dear Mr Blackwood, here is my Kirsteen
Dear Mr Blackwood, my review is finished
Dear Mr Blackwood, I enclose one lung
Dear Mr Blackwood, here is my baby’s coffin
Dear Mr Blackwood, say that I am brave

Non-voices emerge from slush of tidal muds,
Pied and shaley, or from singing sands’

Coming to me as a medium crying
Childishly, childlessly, for five lost children.
Sperm speckling agate, mealy discolourations,
Random, dark flecks held in tortoiseshell

C.V.: M.O. is born in Wallyford
Now her family moves to Liverpool
Now she suffers a broken engagement’s silence
Now, 21, she publishes a novel
Now she visits Edinburgh, woos Blackwood
Now she marries sad Frank who designs stained glass

Now she gives birth (a baby girl) in London,
Maggie, now a puir wee thing who dies,
Now a son dead after one long evening
Now another son, Etonian Tiddy,
Now a fifth child, Stephen (d. influenza)
Now Frank dies, now Cecco is born

Now Maggie dies, now Margaret drowns in novels,
Writing while her last surviving children
Play around her, or wave from a barouche’s
Switzerland/Jerusalem/Eton/Balliol College;
Tiddy dies, then Cecco; she writes
‘The Library Window’, ‘A Beleaguered City’

Where the dead brush lithely past the living,
Fussily depart, return, like trains
Depart, return, depart. 25 June
1897, Mrs Oliphant
Passes; I see her mobbed by lugworms,
Bass and elvers, 100 per cent gleg

Dear Mr Murray,
                Our language should be gendered,
Making the following proudly masculine:
Vending machines, trees, typewriter ribbons,
Cups, semolina, while we would still speak
Of ships as ‘she’, along with mathematics;
Some surprises too, as Italians say

Il soprano (masculine) or in France
Penis is fem. Then, my dear Mr Murray,
Talk would flow much more pleasurably through
Amniotic diction, a real heart-throb
Philology that swilled and swirled and sworled,
Aye your faithful savante,
                         Lover of Words

Since ‘Margaret’ = ‘pearl’, I love to dream
To Bizet’s music of a great pearl fished
From Tay, or Spey, or tropical in flarelight
White with clams found by divers in the Gulf
Off Qatar deep in elephantine darkness
Surfacing with tiny globes of light

Some people hate my style’s stop-start
North Sea sun-chill, a shoal veering away,
Sighted, lost, slyly looping back
In medias res; my life like yours is
Conch-shaped, a diagram of the human ear
Straining to catch my own repeated name

Sing me map references – long, measured numbers
Pinpointing sandbars on lined nautical charts
Telescopes and periscopes have checked;
Let me read materialist spirits,
The Theology of Oceanography,
Innumerable Worlds, The Birth of Life

Fallen in love with the capricious dirt
Of Scotland where a man’s a man now I
Hymn angel-fishes’ aquadynamic hush,
Salmon’s effort; my epithalamia slocken;
Sea erodes natural amphitheatres,
Sootily Glasgow slips beneath the waves

Trapped air bursts out of Sauchiehall Street rooms,
Bubbling wildly upwards, tenemental grime
Flakes off and masses on the inky surface;
All the street-lamps fizzle and go out
But on the seabed shops unlock their shutters,
Couples uncertainly begin to dance

Round the submarine telegraph; share prices,
Dates, loves, scientific formulae
Mingle and shine among briny, gum-eyed beasts;
Sea-cucumbers, Reuters, brittle-stars,
Editions of my novels, comb-jelly, the Times
Recirculate through washed, clean, air-free rooms

Nothing is solid, schist, sandstone and chert,
Ovoids of granite, rock anemones,
Light-beams’ white spots on red serpentine –
All have been molten, flowed as softly
As the Kinness Burn, amber and cornelian,
Chalcedony, bud-petals of the earth

Open around me, a hard-won bouquet
Held in triumph in my own marquee
Ordered to celebrate full fifty years
Writing for Blackwoods; pert champaigne corks pop
Slàinte! Cheers! Salut! MRS OLIPHANT REQUESTS
THE PLEASURE OF THE CREATURES OF THE SEA

Scotland has never seen democracy;
History: Red Comyn’s wife’s demeaning wail
Over her children, through rich, spirituous rain
Soaking a slaughter on imperial fields,
Pissed regiments; I want some dignity
For the unmaimed in a democratic land

Buy Mrs Oliphant’s The Chronicles of Carlingford!
‘An assured success’ ‘A work of great delight’
‘Splendidly touching’ ‘A domestic jewel’
‘Her translation of Montalembert will live for ever’
Vellum 3 vols Octavo First Edition
Come buy! Come buy! Come buy!

Father Almighty, I strive against thee;
I reproach thee; I do not submit;
Maggie, if you would but rap the table
Once, if I could but hear your quiver
In the medium’s voice; routine starts up again;
Impossibly, Our Father, I endure

Pay me; I work; I will not be your necklace
Till you adorn me with creeled villages,
Arisaig, Morar, Crail and Anstruther
Polished and strong, until I cast them off
One by one, slowly, in apocalypse,
Turning to wink then walk into the sea

Wee lovely, terrifying, imperious people,
Why did you die still in your knitted shawls,
Nursed, longed for, fed? I’m crying
Over nothing, over an emptiness
Only I notice, my big, ridiculous name
Owling back to haunt your minute graves

I see a red-haired girl on the losing side
Always marching in a tartan toorie,
Skirt, strong shoes, down vennels of Scots towns,
Campaigning for democracy, my country
Right and wrong, she wears a cardboard breastplate
Proudly, with painted block caps, VOTES FOR WOMEN

Scotland, your Mary is a Margaret,
Shod in ultramarine, bangled with whelks;
Knox is my muse, his monstrous regimen
Landlubbed, declaiming on the Firth of Forth;
Non-swimmers’ emblem, he wobbles, presbyterian,
Tiptoeing on chuckies; I pout him kisses of spume

Now the great winds shoreward blow,
Now the salt tides seaward flow;
Now the wild white horses play,
Champ and chafe and toss in the spray …
Children dear, was it yesterday
(Call yet once) that he went away?

Birth overbalances men, pitching them forward
A generation; balance-sheets slip from their hands
Pleasurably; a father birling round
Laughs to be ungainly, heavy-suited,
Dancing in the privacy of being with babies,
Emancipated, masculated, light

Roles for daddies: hedge-bearded, adamantine,
Fiercely crabbit, crouched behind their ‘No!’
Or louche and yissless, slipping like a drink
Poured back down the bottle’s green neck, spilt away,
Lost; I am a father and a mother
Underneath the waves of Pegwell Bay

Marriage: dappled light through red stain-glass
Gloving a limb, jewelling us, rich
Spectra coating and nacring everyday
Troubles: his tubercular, fathering voice,
‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;

Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me’;
I woke in peeling, impasto Siena,
Frank gone; in hot, holy Jerusalem,
Frank gone; I am a single, married woman
Impatient with the surface of the earth

As the sea circles this planet’s
Pictish spirals, Celtic solar discs,
World-snake popping its tail in its own mouth,
So I perfect my impossible, nuanced grit,
Nacring its pregnant shell, its given/giving 360°