Two Poems

Robin Robertson

The Language of Birds

The sides of the hill
are stubbed with fire-pits.
The sky is paraffin blue.

A pigeon’s heart swings here
on the kissing-gate, withered,
stuck through with pins,

while out on the estuary,
beaks of birds needle
to the wind’s compass,

the sky’s protocol.
Swans go singing out to sea;
the weather is changing cold.


In the elm above me, a magpie chuckles
and turns the magic wand of itself
away, towards the light.

I climb to the seeing rock
high over the pine trees; a blown squall
of rooks rises and settles like ash.

I saw the hay marry the fire
and the fire walk.
The sky went the colour of stone.

The cattle sickened:
what milk that came
came threaded, red as dawn.


Down below, in the grey fall
of heather and gorse,
a swithering flame.

Hooded crows haunt the highway,
pulling at roadkill;
their heads swivel to watch.

I’ve seen them murder their own:
the weak or the rare, those
with the gift of tongues.

I keep an albino one in a box;
I can’t let go of it
till it tells me its name.

These days

The vessel he has carried for so long
is spilt;
his eyes have run out of light, and are
looking beyond us to the far distances,
the simplicities,
My own eyes fill, and star.

His great priest’s face
taking on a cast,
becoming immemorial, a man
becoming something else:
a ruined shell, a wasted king
amongst the debris; a mask.

The slow shutting down of the machine,
till it felt like hours between each breath,
trawled, heaved up,
each from a greater depth.
We listen to his heartbeat’s muffled drum
until the drumming stops.

A poor likeness. Pen-and-ink. Not him
at all. We are mourners sketched
at the death-bed, in a trompe l’oeil room
of personal effects: his toilet-bag and shoes,
his watch, his cigarettes; and the drawn skull
of my father, dispersed.

Waking up the next morning into a wet
brightness and hugeness of day,
the miniature figures
going to work, and the world around them,
carrying on.
I can hardly walk, I am so frightened.

These days are scored through, one by one.
The ward-plan wiped clean for another name;
another man lies in the bed behind the glass.
My mother struggles with the singular;
we all must learn to use another tense:
the past.