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Poems, Stories and Writings
By Margaret Tait, Sarah Neely
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 Estate of Margaret Tait
All rights reserved.
from origins and elements (1959)
Think of the word, elastic.
The real elastic quality is the being able to spring back to the original shape,
Not the being able to be stretched.
So, metal is described as elastic
And steel is the most elastic of all metals.
It is specially manufactured to have the elastic quality of retaining its own shape.
Steel is so elastic you can't budge it.
Reading about Rimbaud
Hell consists in a sense of having sinned.
The idea of sin is the actuality of hell.
That's all hell is,
And sure it's plenty.
The heaven within us
Could be, equally, the sense of our own essential innocence,
Intuitive sense of animal complexity
Causing our inexplicable behaviour.
'It's a mistake to write a poem that seems more certain'
It's a mistake to write a poem that seems more certain of a policy or a belief or
anything than you really are.
Express the doubt too.
Even express the confusion so long as what you see or half-see with your earth-vision
is right there inthe thing.
Emily Dickinson shut herself in a room
And wrote about her pain.
She wrote too about joy.
Water is an element in one sense but not in the other.
Chemically, it is a compound
Two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen.
Can you believe it?
And they make that stuff!
Light, lightest of all the gases,
Of all the elements, in fact, –
Light and explosive.
Business-like, useful oxygen,
Ready to combine with almost anything.
I've always liked oxygen.
The air we breathe,
And it combines with that light explosive of a hydrogen
And makes –
Waters of the world.
You can build an igloo with it.
And it's what we use in the grate or the gas-jet to warm ourselves by, making it
combine with the oxygen of the air,
Warm combustible oxygen.
There's a flame,
And carbon dioxide.
That's all that's left of the carbon
– a whiff.
Is one of the essential elements of all living things.
All organic matter
It's the scientific definition of an 'organic' substance that it contains carbon.
Diamonds in the blood,
Coal in the brain-paths,
Heart, muscle, vessels, connective tissue, blood, lymph, alveoli of the lungs
Ultimately made of protoplasm formed partly of the life-belonging element, carbon.
Burning it in our bodies makes us warm too,
Turning it into carbon dioxide that we dispose of then through our lungs into the air.
That black inert-looking element, carbon!
But think of all the things it can do.
It's in rose petals
And tree trunks
Imprisoned in compounds represented by those alarming diagrams which seem so far
removed from reality,
Rings, chains, groups,
Names all with a significance relating to the number of carbon atoms grouped together.
Atom with a solid valency of four
And just occasionally two,
Yet as varied and adaptable as a live thing,
The most varied and adaptable of all elements
As of course is necessary for the one which is to be in all living material.
That means, too, all material which has ever been living,
And it gets into the organic compounds too –
'Organic' because they have carbon in them –
The alkaloids, and the latest medicines devised in the laboratory
And synthetic things to wear or make tools of,
The complex compound things with long many-hyphened names which are one long
cipher quite readable by a chemist who has worked among those significances,
Containing, all of them, this one black atom in one or other of its innumerable
Usually along with hydrogen and oxygen
And just one or two other elements to give spice, uniqueness, point to the already
The animal body is almost entirely made of hydrogen oxygen and carbon
And traces, as they say in chemistry,
Of other things.
After death, the animal body turns into di-hydrogen oxide, that is water, and ammonia,
and carbon dioxide, an inert gas normally present in the air anyway.
(Where did it come from?
From the innumerable decomposing animal and vegetable bodies?)
We breathe it in and we breathe it out.
It stimulates us by reflex action to breathe deeper
And then we breathe out even more of it, the waste product of burning up the carbon
in all the cells of our bodies,
Carbon, black inert carbon,
The fairies, the bitches, didn't build the Pyramids;
It was the Pharaohs, the buggers,
As the colonel discovered
In my uncle's joke.
And the fame of little Moses in the basket
Is perceived by some slightly different part of us from the part that knows the famous
Which he wrote on stone
In later life.
In those days in the basket Moses wasn't thinking of stone-engraven laws.
He was crying
Because he was hungry.
Hungry for breast-milk was little Moses and he had been denied it,
Left in a sweet little basket among the rushes,
He never forgot it,
Never forgave it
And went on proving his near-omnipotence for all of his life.
So as not to say he was omnipotent exactly
He put it all in the name of God.
God could be omnipotent
– People accept that –
And Moses, wee Moses, the basket, could be his Spokesman.
Ah well, it's not as easy as all that.
It wouldn't have worked if he hadn't believed it himself,
Believed that the One individual God of all the universe
Selected him, Moses,
To tell the folks down below
All the news
Of what Heaven expected them to do.
So he wrote it down
And intoned it,
Preached and practised to them as hard as ever he could.
I wished for a storm to test my strength against.
I cried for the gale-force wind,
For electric explosions,
For sheets of rain.
I looked to the motionless wisps of cloud,
To the serene blue of the sky
And wished them transformed.
I wished to be battered and to emerge triumphant.
I love the beating heat of the uncovered sun
And the magic stillness of a wet evening after rain
And a calm of the sea which makes it look like heavy Melted deep-coloured stuff;
But, meantime, through it all,
I crave the wave beating
Lashing the untamed earth I live on
And the screaming of the wild atmosphere I live in.
The violence of it pumps my blood faster.
The tiniest twigs will nearly always light,
Even if they're wet,
And then, when they're going properly,
Add the slightly bigger ones.
As the flame rises
It will dry off the more sizable sticks you've gathered,
And once the fire is going well
It will burn almost anything,
Except of course the sodden solid masses of old rotten log.
Tending a fire
As a full-time occupation
Is a feminine contentment.
To watch the flames rise,
Hear the crackle
And judge the correct moment and the correct place to add the next bit of fuel
Some ancient impulse.
I build a little flame
And keep it there, feed it, keep it going
To warm you all by and feed you and cheer you by
And cheer myself too,
Cheer the deepest comfortless dark in my own self.
Published in The Voice of Scotland, vol. 9, no. 1, 195
Flood-water came out of the sky
It blocked the roads and made the surface slippery
And then it turned to rain,
Melted all the hard stuff into mush.
Great lumps of melting snow stuck in the fields,
Made treacherous pools far too near to the houses
And great splashy quagmires in all the roadways.
Wet drowned the little birds.
They shivered to death with their feathers all drookit.
Water stood in the low places and the continual rain replenished it.
We feared another flood.
But the miracle always comes;
The rain stops,
The water slowly evaporates and drains away once more,
Runs downward to the sea,
Leaving behind a thorough soaking for all of earth's surface,
Some of which, alas, it carries away in the rivers and into the salt ocean.
But the sun dries the rest,
Warms the generating seed
Which then sends out little rootlets to suck in that useful water all around.
In the end it's said to be all for the good
Even if some were drowned,
Even if some were lost.
It seems to be in the long run positive and productive even with all that destruction.
Joins us all.
Is what we come out of,
What we return to.
In our consciousness
Is the great linking thing, sleep.
Just one consciousness, the Brahmins say,
One for all of us
And we all dip into it like the porridge-pot in the middle of the table,
Select our spoonfuls
But dream of the rest.
The rest is ours too, really,
Or we are its,
All living with little bits of the one huge consciousness thrust into us like the processes
of the amoeba poking out and filling with particles of the parent protoplasm.
'Protected in my little house'
Protected in my little house,
I watch the weather.
How it beats at my window-panes!
How it shakes my timbers!
How it howls!
Human beings can make themselves these protective boxes
And lie snugly watching what goes on.
To Anybody at All
I didn't want you cosy and neat and limited.
I didn't want you to be understandable,
I wanted you to stay mad and limitless,
Neither bound to me nor bound to anyone else's or your own preconceived idea of
To be I
Is the last
And first terrifying demand
Which of a poet is demanded first and last and in the middle.
Excerpted from Poems, Stories and Writings by Margaret Tait, Sarah Neely. Copyright © 2012 Estate of Margaret Tait. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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