Fathers’ Instants

First Father’s Day without a father. My daughter is planning to take me to/go with me to the cinema. I am, as ever where the cinema is concerned, highly excited, and deeply touched that she thought of it, but, as I wait for her, I’m thinking about my dad.

You don’t imagine an arbitrary, commercialised occasion would matter, in that same slightly ruthless way I assumed in the immediate aftermath of his death that other people’s set statements of consolation wouldn’t really console me. I was wrong: the formulaic is never completely emptied of meaning because we are so desperate for any meaning, all the time, otherwise we wouldn’t buy into commercialism or indeed suspend our disbelief at the cinema, but especially at these moments of extreme vulnerability.

So their statements were comforting, because I looked people in the eyes and saw that they meant it – these were just the words they had to use. And so too his absence today carries extra emotional resonance even though we would speak of it as something of more interest to the other members of our family than ourselves, the two fathers supposedly at the centre of the occasion. Perhaps it matters because we spoke of it that way, and had our secret anti-Father’s Day pact, which was a way of sharing something more momentary, a fathers’ instant, and now that pact is broken.

As with so many of the reasons I mourn him, there is that little selfish element (you continually castigate yourself for feeling sorry for yourself, for not mourning the dead ‘purely’ in and of themselves) – he was the one who knew what I meant, and I the one who knew what he meant. This was a small self-importance we gave each other, and today, three months to the day after his death, even though I know it is the same kind of knowing which led my daughter to think of us going to the cinema together, I feel its lack.

I was reminded forcibly of his death by Marion Coutts’ piece in The Observer about the illness and death of her husband, the critic Tom Lubbock. Two moments resonated for me: that instant in which you witness how the world remains unaltered by this event that changes you utterly; and the strange calm recognition of something entirely natural in the instant of the death itself, as well as how absolutely momentary it is.

Of the first, she writes:

‘Perhaps the one cruelty of this story is that after this, when I look onto the garden, it will look the same. There will be no outward sign. At death the world does not alter: no shift of earth or change of colour, no noise, no shimmer of light, no falling or collapsing of physical objects. The tree standing there will still stand.’

For me it was returning in the dawn after my father’s death and hearing the birds starting up. I started writing a series of brief notes to myself when I got in the house, as though if I could find any phrase at all I might be able to sleep. One was:

‘Returned from the hospital at 6am, the sky frowning into dawn, the birds busy singing. How many choruses must he have listened to here, a man who couldn’t sleep, and now the first he can’t hear.’

Last weekend, my mother and I were about to drive from the house in Monifieth into Broughty Ferry. It was evening, still light, and there was a bird on a neighbour’s roof, I think a blackbird (I’m terrible with birds, and it was just a silhouette against the sky). It was producing an absolute torrent of song which seemed to combine every element of trilling and chirping and imitative sound going. It barely repeated any unit more than twice before going off on another idea and another. I had been going to get in the car, but just stood there astonished.

It was like being in the presence of a sort of genius, and yet it was a perfectly ordinary evening. I remembered how I’d felt obscurely angry with the dawn chorus for pointing out to me that things were simply going to continue – and something flipped: the bird was demonstrating, though without any intention of doing so, how this was an ordinarily perfect evening. All I had to do was pay attention.

Of the death itself, Marion Coutts wrote:

‘On Tuesday, Tom goes to sleep. His breathing is natural and ordered. His face relaxed. When watched closely like this, watched out as if your own life depended on it, death is normal. It is a series of stages more or less known. Here is a person asleep who will not wake…’

Then she says:

‘He glided so delicately out, his absence so continuous with his presence, with us and without us, that I didn’t catch the moment and immediately it happened it had already gone and was behind me. So. Just me.’

My father died in his sleep. He had sleep apnea for years, and it was a combination of this with the lung condition he had developed and a heart weakened, perhaps by these symptoms, perhaps by age, perhaps congenitally weak, that led to his death. His carbon monoxide levels had suddenly soared, despite intrusive ventilation by mask, and his system could not cope.

He was only breathing at intervals, sudden gasps that no longer disturbed him. The terrible cough that had made his last year an increasing misery had abated. We were holding his hands but he no longer seemed to feel us. I was watching the pulse in his neck and, when I looked away to clean my glasses and wipe my eyes, it must have stopped. There was a moment in which I realised this, and another in which I realised I had to tell my mother.

At such moments we all recognise something we share as the living, as the surviving element of whatever relationship we’re losing the mutuality of. It too feels normal and extraordinary at the same time, something we knew in theory or in glimmers or in long lucky patches of falling in love or of spiritual exaltation.

But it feels most particularly that this is something the death is granting you in a way you can barely process and that the grief is part of. As though this is the first time you’ve really understood, for all those years of meditating upon it, all those flashes of what you hoped were or what indeed felt like insights into it, what the present is.

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Watching for Dolphins

What does it mean, beyond the simple delight at your own good luck, to look out of your window at the River Tay, and see dolphins swimming past? Or, as happened to me once last year, to pick up the little telescope my father had lent me, train it on the Tayport side of the river, and immediately see a dolphin leaping from the water?

Certainly there’s surprise mixed with the delight – enough to send you running to the end of the pier to stand among the blasé anglers, who have seen it already and are slightly disgruntled that you’re interfering with their casting. Certainly the luck in itself trumps your ordinary goals and intentions – that important call you were making, how easily it can be cast aside! Among people less ready to be blasé, it leads in an instant to a small society of the fortunate.

I was over in Tayport last summer, where the dolphins come much closer to shore (no jet skis), and the folk walking their dogs or just walking were all suddenly exclaiming – sharing their excitement to see one glide before them – much as, back in the Ferry, I’d interrupted my phonecall to run and see the dolphins’ fins sweeping past, their noses and backs breaking the surface regularly, whether they intended to fish or play or explore, whether socially or territorially. Who knows, in the moment of seeing, why they’re here?

And what does it mean for me, who thirty years ago wrote about the dolphins in my early poems in Dundonian Scots as ‘gairfish’, symbols of conceptual freedom that reflected my newly formed political beliefs, my nascent theories about mind and language? After all, I’d very much idealised them as expressions of psychological freedom from notions of property and reification, locating them specifically in this river, the Tay, as a counter to the intellectual and spiritual doldrums Thatcherism was imposing on Dundee.

The city itself was equally a symbol for me of the precise opposite: stolidity v. fluidity, surface v. depth, the polis already fallen from within, as evidenced by its self-destruction of its own historical heritage, its ready acceptance of the next industry and the next, each set of ‘masters’ exploiting and further degrading its citizens’ expectations and sensibilities.

All very neat – except I hadn’t actually seen any dolphins in the Tay ever in that thirty year period. I’d looked, walking the long beach in my twenties as I’d always done, walking our dog for the miles that put the observed details of my world together with the words I was reconceiving, misremembering, or pulling from dictionaries. I’d even written about the looking, the not finding. But, like many of the symbols in which we invest so much meaning, so much time and even yearning, the experience, the witnessing, was withheld.

After ten years I wasn’t so idealistic, caught up in the practicalities of family and career. After twenty, I just wasn’t so around. On the one hand, what we call symbols submit themselves to what we call facts and are revised, and on the other, when the self and the world stubbornly fail to be transformed, the very neatness of symbolic systems begins to seem a removed perfection, something that subtly encourages disengagement, rather than committing us to identify what could be a significant action.

Then, maybe five, ten years too late, I came back. I rented a flat that looked directly out onto the Tay, and, for long weekends at least, sat at its window first thing in the morning, throughout the day, and late into the evening. I took photos, made notes, and thought about thinking. After a month, the dolphins came. Not often – maybe three times in total, including that trip to Tayport, but there they actually were.

It felt, not like a return to my twenties, but like a reviewing of my imaginative matrix. This was as much a discovery (the symbolic name of Scott’s ship, which in my thirties was transferred to the city as a whole in an effort to will it out of its eighties’ doldrums) as a rediscovery of that matrix. The self-critique had, after all, been going on for years. This was alarmingly like the thing itself.

Everything was simultaneously new and a continuity. I even began sketching out a couple of new Doldrums – though now what was regarded as in stasis were those aspects of unfinished imaginative business the old symbols retained: the bridge, the river, the graveyard, each yielding new angles on old processes.

And I watched the river, almost compulsively, while noting the movements of its birds – the gliding in of ten or twenty swans each morning into the shelter of the harbour; the hovering of exploded clouds of gulls when the wind was strong or bread was on offer; the perpetually startled cry of oystercatchers; the occasional curlew on my new favourite walk along to the Stannergate; the heron, stalking the shallows in darkness as my father dropped me off at the flat after dinner.

Through all this avian foreground, I was ‘watching for dolphins’, in David Constantine’s phrase (from the eponymous poem which, as much as anything, had stirred the imagination in my first case of romanticism with a small ‘r’). Every wavetop darkened by the disposition of the light could be a fin, a breathing shrug. At any moment another full breaching could occur, directly in front of me or at the corners of my vision.

It was like watching for lightning that night in the middle of last summer when the thunder announced its approach and a squall of rain indicated its arrival: I knew it would happen but more often than not I was looking away when it did, usually making a note. And yet I saw it once: the lightning stroke over the river, directly across from my window, like a giant momentary letter, written on the darkness, meteorology suddenly translated into God’s calligraphy.

Equally, the glimpse of an aquatic mammal in its seasonal migration down the coast to this estuary stubbornly retains its symbolic hint at some form of the sublime. It is slow lightning, and I’m moved to write about it as I’m moved to write about the river, the bridges, the graveyard, the storm, the birds.

There are of course poets who think that you don’t just move on from the Yeats of the wild swans, the Olson of the polis, but that, having moved on, you can or rather should no longer write about them. Or, if you must revisit, then displacing the form must also displace the ideology behind it. As if, knowing what we know now, about politics, ecology, theory, writing about these things in whatever form could somehow still be the same old writing – or as if such moving ‘on’ was simply a willed thing, an actual direction, another stylistic decision, however necessary.

There are, of course, poets, who having thought through these processes, consider it better not to write at all, but to generate text by other means that touches on such matters if at all, if read correctly, as radical critique.

Let the willed signification of the anecdotal, with its rigid observational method and its reflex reach for meaning through the tired mechanisms of metaphor and melopoeia, die out like religion, they plead impatiently: stop teaching it on writing programmes, stop reanimating the carcass of the dead lyric, they demand, in the sure and certain belief that faith in such things will fade away.

But I saw the dolphins again yesterday morning – most likely porpoises, as they looked black against the waves – just off the stone pier just outside my window, three or four, moving upriver I thought, then I saw one leap by the timber end of the pier that encloses the little curve of beach I’ve been living beside for these last 13 months, and realised they were circling the area of river directly in front of me.

And as it leapt I felt the first stab of unqualified joy I’d experienced since the death of my father almost three months ago: there it was, for the seconds the creature was in the air – I felt it, recognised my reaction to it, understood its transience, and tried to let it go as the dolphin returned to its usual medium. What was that? An anecdote? If I wrote about it, would it become a redundant joy, a reactionary echo?

It seemed to me to be part of the joy that it was at once simple, an animal delight such as we imagine dogs experience, and complex, innately symbolic, in the way we like to think dolphins think. Meaning must have both elements at once for us, and meaning is not what we make of what happens, it is how it happens. Whether we can conceive of it or not, we cannot experience a meaningless joy, even if we then spend thirty years trying to determine what that meaning was and is now, and, of course, what we meant and mean by meaning anyway.

For the moment, I know what I mean by meaning: it’s sitting here watching the water and the swans, a fisherman already on the pier, a crow on top of the black wrought iron lamppost as if part of its design, the clouds gliding over but not clouding over the blue of the River Tay in June, thinking about my unfulfillable desire to tell my father what I saw, and, for a few more minutes at least, between checking the internet and deciding about breakfast, watching for dolphins.

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Mourning and the mosaic: 2

The mode is incremental: mosaic rather than Mosaic. Instead of the all-encompassing lists of the law-giver, it’s the accumulation of tesserae that means some portion of a picture can be conceived of, and therefore the larger scheme can be guessed at and sketched out.

There is in this an attitude toward social media, rather than a prescription for it. Firstly, that it is not strictly speaking personal at all, no matter how much it may derive from the actual person: it is a negotiation between personae. Many people use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, etc, as an unmediated confessional, a record with diaristic elements. For me, however, the thought of posting personally about my father had to be approached formally through the means of the eulogy, the essay.

Others use it as a platform for self-promotion and self-publication, activities I would confine myself to describing as difficult. Yes, there always is and should be a consideration of and engagement with audience, with the reader, viewer, listener, in anything we are prepared to put in the public arena. Nothing in this sense is simply expressive; everything in this context is published. But this doesn’t eliminate gradation.

I’ve always been reluctant to initiate self-promotion, though I’ll happily pick up on existing publicity. I’ve also been reluctant to publish online anything which I would normally think of as primarily intended for a traditional print medium. In this I am clearly dropping a lot of material into the conventional literary categories of marginalia and occasional writing. But equally I’m aware that aspects of social media challenge these conventions.

Essentially, I’ve been content to let some material appear and vanish in an epistolary manner, replying to specific people or threads with a sense that what happens is and should be ephemeral. With other material, I’ve accepted that the ephemeral is a usual part of the drafting process, and copied it to adapt for use elsewhere.

With Twitter in particular, though, I’ve often thought that something slightly different is emerging. This is partly connected to my sense, shared with other writers, of its 140 character restraint as an actual form. I’ve always thought it entertaining that we insert other forms – haiku, quatrain, almost-limerick – into something that is already a distinct enough vessel to contain everything from mini-narrative to plays on register to complete satori of observation. I’ve tended to think of it, partly because of its name, as inherently comic. And I’ve generally been happy to consider it a peculiarly communal epic, each timeline as its own version, scrolling on, almost, forever, and requiring no further mediation or separate publication.

But this period of mourning has enabled me to come to terms with the idea that the tweet is a viable and adaptable building block for work that I would like to lay claim to. Joining a collaborative group has forced me to think about ownership of the text in a useful and empowering way at a time of personal and (therefore) creative crisis. Hugely influenced by George Szirtes‘ work in accumulating tweets into prose poem units or haiku groups, I’ve begun to distinguish between the single tweet or just riffing on a theme, and the possible creative unit that a certain number – say around seven – of tweets starts to offer.

In the Chimera group, in fact, I’ve posted freely single and multiple tweets on themes that appeal to me – usually comic, but with an edge of dark whimsy both appropriate to the group and to my ongoing engagement with what we mean by the ‘cartoon’ (more on this hopefully soon). These are very happily anonymous. But I’ve also aimed for and then separated out units of seven or so tweets which develop a single theme. These I’ve finally felt able to claim as my own work, writing produced and published entirely within a digital frame.

This has, as the serious play of composition often does, freed me to move onto those more conventional pieces of writing, the essay, the poem, the novel, that my father’s death had thrown temporarily but overpoweringly off track.

I’m therefore more convinced than ever that the left-field, the under-valued, the overlooked, the casually condemned modes of thinking and writing supported by the internet, are not just my but in certain circumstances writing’s Samaritans, and that the more publicised, media-acknowledged-and-therefore-‘popular’, self-aggrandising (whether on the part of the writer, the organiser or the audience) – in short the more commercially acknowledged and profitable routes that writing is forced down – are, metaphorically speaking, the Old Man of the Sea, a Nobodaddy parasitically clinging to our backs and happy for us to die under them.

My father always unquestioningly supported my writing even while pushing me to be as sensible as he thought I could manage in order to support myself and my family. I’m still learning how proud he was of me, and how profoundly his support has enabled me to write freely.

One of his many legacies to me, then, is the strength to seek out what enables my writing, and to resist what commodifies it or, worse, draws on its energy to preserve and promote its own very different agendas.

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Mourning and the mosaic: 1

It’s been more than two months since the death of my father, the person who, alongside my mother and my partner and my child, was at the centre of my life in a loving if not always harmonious interrelation (he is now, it would seem, the quintessence, or fifth element, in our family). In addition, as perhaps only our parents can be, he remains at the heart of my sense of identity as father, husband, son.

I’ve passed through and returned to some of the grieving processes, if not yet others, and am still very gradually coming to terms with what I’ve come to think of, in MacDiarmid’s phrase from ‘On a Raised Beach’, as the ‘inoppugnable reality': the absolute fact of his absence. Having dreaded and anticipated this loss with all the obsessiveness of the craven, it was oddly straightforward to be in the frightening zone itself, where all the terrible things in this life happen to you without any of the usual comforting illusions.

When the final phone call came, I was terrified; but by the time we reached the hospital, I’d become calm. Evidently, I’d actually known it was coming and had, without telling myself, somehow prepared. It is fitting that you’re there to help your father die, that you see it happen. How you feel about it is, in the event if nowhere else, not important. But I felt peace that he was at peace, and relieved that he was relieved of his suffering.

The first month was spent in the ritual of mourning and burying and ordering. I remember how, on the weekend he died, Debbie and Izzie and I obsessively cleaned my parents’ house, just as I’d promised him in the hospital it would be cleaned for his return, while my mother sorted out papers. Every now and then I’d break down, like the moment when I was hoovering in his tiny cramped ‘office’ and caught a glimpse of an old familiar photo of him in the Merchant Navy, young and hale and smiling.

We left normal time, as at times of festival, or as children do as soon as we release them from our schedules, and entered a period that felt limitless, a duration rather than a time. The ritual is not about joy or grief, although it occurs at their common pitch. It is about a process that will not sit in normal time, which therefore we must be steered through by a governed set of actions. The only important element is that they succeed each other, not when they do so.

The second month was taken up by an attempt to respond to ‘real life’, as it likes to think of itself: the call to pick up duties and roles that had been set aside or taken on by supportive colleagues. Then there was the insistence by others with, whatever sympathy they felt, less empathy for the adjustment taking place, that I rejoin the Great Continuity, as I’d come to think of it. This being that pressure of guilts and desires that expresses itself through capitulation to the systems we enfold ourselves in, reluctantly or wholeheartedly paying lip service to or identifying with others’ goals, others’ timetables.

I’ve always thought of creativity as resisting the false consciousness of this continuity, and like many writers, have made room to subvert its grip through writing in all its stages, from the little games of social media, to the reclaiming of ‘procrastination’, capitalism’s guilt term, as day-dreaming: throwing off responsibilities to enter a consuming compositional space, whether for ten minutes or for days at a time. I’ve always accepted the need to find space for play – the drifting stroll, the cafe or bar, the lingering lunch, the cinema or gallery, the discursive workshop which may contain wine.

The only thing was, I couldn’t concentrate. Writing was reduced to a sort of grief diary of a few sentences every now and then. I couldn’t even play: for weeks, no matter how I reminded myself he wouldn’t want me to mope, or that he shared the same black sense of humour, the sort of transgressive turning over of phrase and imagery that I use social media for just felt inappropriate.

This stasis was compounded by the fact I’m currently living parallel lives that are constantly being interrupted by each other and their own actualities. This occurs simultaneously in terms of geography – weekdays in Newcastle, weekends in Dundee – and vocation: the creative/academic divide. I’d set this up for mixed motives: partly to write, partly to be with him and my mother as his health worsened. But each infuses and confuses all the others. And each contains its own subsets, any of which can claim momentary or longer dominance over all the other headings.

In Dundee, I should be working on my McGonagall novel and/or on the Makarship, but I am always dealing with my father’s death, with my own grief and with my mother’s. In Newcastle I should be focussing on my teaching, but always the nagging processes and politics of my admin responsibilities rear up, and my family life and other relationships too must engage with how my own absences in Dundee affect my duties as husband and father and friend.

Into both of these scenarios the usual agendas of the freelance – readings, reviews, projects, residencies – still have to be woven. And underlying those intermittent actions, underlying all the rest with their uneven, demanding binaries, is the poetry, which goes on happening – now slowly, now urgently – despite and because of grief, being a condition which must seek the events of composition and revision and discussion and publication and performance to make itself manifest.

Without the poetry few of my other duties would find much basis in who I appear to be, nor would I be much interested in pursuing them. The way in which I am a teacher or literary person would rapidly lose meaning for me, whether that loss of meaning mattered or didn’t matter to those employing or expecting work from me. My main duty, then, outside the familial and my attention to the process of mourning and memorialising my father, is protecting that creative basis.

But what had happened was my mourning process had become a sort of tipping point. Grief is exhausting: when you’re experiencing it, it’s physical, overwhelming. When you’re released from it, it’s always under parole: you either feel it hovering, or any forgetting is soon sharply countered by the pang of memory, with its reliving and its involuntary guilt. Any task took three times as long: the emotional steeling (which would distend any practical preparation); the action (usually simple enough once I’d got going); and the weary collapse into aftermath.

What is gradually happening by way of recovery is interesting to me not just emotionally, but professionally, as part of that self-study in the psychology of creativity you are always conducting. (In this, despite all the indulgences of egotism, the self is just the most convenient subject, as well as one you have some commitment to studying.)

You need to know how you write in order both to write with greater self-awareness, and to teach with greater acuity, checking your own processes against those of your students, who are no more able to learn in a dispassionate mode than you should teach in a detached, empirical manner. Everyone is involved, implicated, altering, or no-one gets the chance to be challenged, to change and grow.

And what is happening is predictably ironic: those activities which are overlooked or actively denigrated have come to my (partial) rescue. Social media, both social and anti-social drinking, and plain sitting doing nothin, man, nothin, have gradually helped me string words together on a scale and with an integrity I was struggling to achieve. It’s early days, but what I like to think of as the three estates of the imagination: the poetic, the narrative and the critical, have all begun to stir, to pick up old matters and to conceive of new.

The mode is incremental: mosaic rather than Mosaic. Instead of the all-encompassing lists of the law-giver, it’s the accumulation of tesserae that means some portion of a picture can be conceived of, and therefore the larger scheme can be guessed at and sketched out.

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Note on the Rabbie-habbie-tiger Contiguity

(I was delighted when David Robinson picked ‘Rabbie Rabbie Burning Bright’ as one of his Scottish poems of the year over on the SPL website. So much so that I suddenly remembered I still hadn’t written the little note on the poem they ask for before they post everything up. As ever, xenochronicity had sent the duty floating from my brain like a piece of space debris. I finally rectified the error, so before you visit the site and read all the other poems and their notes, here it is.)

This poem is one of a series in which I’m thinking about what certain Scottish icons can still mean to us now. Its main subject is Robert Burns, of course – that simultaneous metonym for poetry in Scotland and poetry in Scots.

He’s such a star, still burning brightly after hundreds of years, still breaking down the barriers between poetry and song and person and persona, that he can’t be obscured by the dull cult of celebrity. I wanted something which celebrated his energy over that celebrity status – hence the echo of Blake’s incendiary tiger.

I also wanted to revisit the way Burns (and Scottish poetry, and poetry in Scots) gets hauled out at the end of January, when journalism dusts off its fancy for the new year. I like to think instead that the Scottish imagination takes charge of Winter as we make that difficult transition through cold and dark.

From Halloween and St Andrews Night through Hogmanay to Burns Night is something of a rite of passage, with the northern Saturnalia of the Daft Days in its midst. We make joy and light out of the turning of the year with its weird departure from ‘normal’ business hours; we make literal bonfires, and, at the climax of it all, figuratively crown our very own lizard king, he of the perfectly appropriate surname, Burns.

But ‘Rabbie Rabbie’ might as well have been called ‘Habbie habbie’, as it is as much a homage to the stanza as to the stellar bard. This lithe combo of tetrameter and dimeter, of four rhymes and two, encourages play, requires dexterity, and speaks to something performative in the Scottish attitude to language.

In a poetic culture which sometimes seems to dote on the anecdotal epiphany, the standard habbie, in the hands of its masters Fergusson, Burns and Stevenson, kicks off lyric restraint and strikes some sparks. An old form but a merry one, like a post-rock reel played on an uninsured Stradivarius.

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A eulogy for my father

A eulogy for my father, William Powrie Herbert (8th August 1937 – 15th March 2014)

(Delivered at his funeral service, St Bride’s RC Church, Monifieth, 26th March 2014)

Thank you all very much for coming. Dad would be delighted and honoured to see you – not that he would let on. I’m going to try the impossible: to talk about his life for just ten minutes, something I suspect I will take the rest of my life to do properly.

I’ve met a lot of clever people, but I’ve met very few as intelligent as my father: he saw what you were saying before you’d said it; he saw through what you were saying; and, if you weren’t careful, he saw through you as well.

I’ve met gentler people – he told you exactly what he thought when he wanted to. But I’ve never met such a gentle man. As many of you have told me, he was a gentleman.

I’ve met funny people, but I never laughed as much as I did with my dad, and at such stupid jokes. Even in the hospital he was doing the old ‘Dinna bather aboot me’ routine he got from his father, the one that ended with ‘Eh’ll jist hae hauf a Waallace’s peh.’ If Wallace’s had sold half of thae hauf a pehs, they’d be rolling in it.

I never met anyone as loving to his family – he gave that unconditional love we all need. That came from his family, the tight nest of four brothers and a sister, and from his beloved mother, who died before he was thirty. It was not a rich family in the ordinary sense of the word, but he never spoke of his childhood without joy and gratitude.

And I never met anyone as intelligent, as kind, as funny, as loving, as my dad. To be all those things is a kind of wisdom, isn’t it? I think he was a wise man.

He had a gift – no, a genius – for friendship. He was my best friend – there was practically nothing we couldn’t say to each other, and I already miss those conversations. You could hardly walk down the street in the Ferry or up the Town without him bumping into person after person he knew. And not just knew – nine times out of ten, he liked them, and they liked him.

When I was wee I sometimes thought he knew everyone in Dundee. As I grew up, I began to think he was Dundee. Hard-working (he gave 50 years without stint), hard-drinking when he wanted to be (and there are plenty of stories there – this is not the place), but not a hard man, in that empty sense. He was my model, my idea, my ideal of how a man should be, with his family, with his job, with his city.

I also first saw the world through his eyes. In the Merchant Navy in his teens, around the world half a dozen times by the time he was 21, he filled my childhood with extraordinary images:

Going over to New York to join his ship with Jimmy Ingram, a teenager on his first time overseas from Dundee, and going to a bar that turned out to be an exact copy of a Dundee bar, full of fellow Dundonians.

Going down to the Demerara River in British Guyana and two lads saying they’d swim across the river back to their ship, and one of them drowning.

Coming through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean and feeling that heat for the first time: after a filthy shift in the engine rooms, getting showered to go ashore, putting on his white uniform, stepping out on deck, and everything being instantly soaked through with sweat.

Waking up after a night out in Calcutta to find himself lying on a railway track, with his head on one rail, and his feet on another, and looking round to see the train approaching.

On deck in the Far East surrounded by ocean, watching the dolphins race the prow and waiting for that green flash as the sun went down into the waves.

Of course most of you knew him as a Timex man – 1961-1993. A Precision Engineer. How exactly that described him. He was precise about everything – how he dressed, how he behaved; and he was an engineer: he knew how everything worked, from the smallest parts of a watch, to a shift of workers, to a factory, to the twists of international business that brought about the closure of Timex.

That should have been the end – in his mid fifties without a job. But he invented himself once again. His people skills as much as his business experience got him to Ireland, where he spent ten years running a factory in the Gaeltacht of Donegal making and marketing printed circuit boards. And that was mostly a happy time: he made a whole new set of very dear friends, still close to this day, and I would take my daughter out there for idyllic summers on the beach at Derrybeg.

But he had a serious, life-threatening illness before he was sixty, and after he retired and came back to Dundee, he had another, and another. His retirement was shot through with illnesses, sometimes very rare – nothing off the peg for Dad. He ended up knowing as much as the doctors about what was wrong with him. But he took such pleasure in being alive, he bounced back every time – he made cats with their nine lives look like amateurs in resurrection.

And it was often a happy time – his love for family and friends saw to that. For my mum, his wife of 54 years and the love of his life; for his brothers and sister and their families – they just seemed to grow closer and closer; and for his granddaughter, Izzie, his ‘wee darling’, the ‘light of his life’.

He never gave up, even when his quality of life was slowly declining; even in this last crisis, he was making plans for the future. When I left him on the Friday, never imagining it was for the last time before that call we all dread, he looked me in the eye and gave me the thumbs up.

Because his death was so sudden, I want you to know that when we were called back, and sat with him while he went, he was at peace. It was a gentle death: in like a lion, out like a lamb. I’ve thought since how his dad, my Grandad, died before he was forty, and how lucky I’ve been to have him a dozen more years.

He always wanted to sail up the river back to his home town. On his last voyage in the Merchant Service, there was a storm and he never managed it. I’ve been thinking about that Robert Louis Stevenson line, ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea.’ Well, this is his last ship, and he’s making his last voyage today. I’m very glad you’re all here with us to welcome him home, into our hearts and into our memories.

I’m going to finish with a short poem he wrote back when he was seventy. He was very ill at the time, and I don’t think he expected to live. It’s just four lines, but it shows how precisely he saw the brevity of our lives, the randomness of our entrances and exits. I think we may put it on his gravestone:

I had to come
I had no say
I was not here
I could not stay

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Pedro Serrano’s Peatlands

(This is my intro to the just-out selection of poems by the marvellous Mexican poet, Pedro Serrano, editor of Periodico de Poesia. Anna Crowe is the (excellent) translator in Arc‘s ongoing and highly recommended Visible Poets series. As I’ve said before, Arc’s commitment to translation should be praised loudly, for extending beyond the usual famous names and narrowly Eurocentric focus which seems to be what some other publishers understand by the term ‘translation.’ There are plenty of key European figures in this series of, now, 37 books – Radnóti and Rózewicz leap to mind – but half the joy is in the discovery of farther flung and more recent figures. Serrano is a perfect example of both.)

Pedro Serrano is one of poetry’s great natural ambassadors, moving on the one hand between cultures, whether between his native Mexico and Spain, or between the Spanish-speaking world and the Anglo-Saxon; and on the other between the physical world and the human. The debatable territory between consciousness and instinct, and between landscape and animal (including the human animal), is one of his core concerns. As he says in ‘The Cove at Aiguafreda':

Shrinking, we came up against the pebble’s roughness,
a wall from which the sandstone’s rubbed away,
the outline of ourselves.
Faults and fissures of mineral accretions, that’s what we are.

I first knew of him as editor and translator of the anthology he produced with Carlos López Beltran, La generación del cordero (Trilce, 2000), which brought my generation of poets into Spanish for the first time. I first met him in person when he was living in Barcelona in 2004, when his wife was there on diplomatic work, and he acted as host and dragoman, introducing me to the poets of that city, the dead as much as the living.

Here, in an irony he would appreciate, I must confess to misremembering the Catalan restaurant he took us to for my own mythopoeic purposes – I lost the notes I made, and determined that it was the Casa Leopoldo, favourite haunt of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, after whom Camilleri named his famous Sicilian detective. Somehow I never quite got round to asking him whether I’m right or, more likely, wrong.* (As he says in ‘Drawing the Boundary’, ‘The fact is, I do not believe in myself’.)

Both as editor and as littérateur, the generous inclusivity of his imagination shone out then, and does so now with striking clarity in this comprehensive selection of his work. His poetry shows his twin reflexes, like the contraction and extension of the muscles of the heart: the urge to curiosity and then communication.

Author of half a dozen collections between 1986 and 2009, with another, reflecting his time in Barcelona, represented here but still to be published, he has a pronounced gift for the musicality of Spanish, as evinced by his interest in libretto. His poetry has demarked its own distinctive territory from the outset – indeed it is about territories, both invoking and, especially, embodying them: the body becomes a kind of geography, and its passions and functions are seen almost as species of weather. As he states in a passage that seems at the heart of his poetics:

Trade winds pass over the chest, swim blue over the hands, pass.
Fear returns, re-establishes itself in the ungodliness of the waist,
you have to go back to the source of the pain, make it
become dream,
pounce in the act of flight, decontract.
Its breath grows before my eyes like pasture,
sex’s sweet black majesty, its crammed and sweaty pubis,
the open presence that I penetrate.
From my centre the wrong windows shatter, grow still.
An immaterial melting makes the flesh flesh,
stone is crushed, becoming sand.
To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom.

A marvellous love poet, though, as this example indicates, one concerned with relationship in the metaphysical as much as the sexual or familial senses, he tends less toward the poetry of disrupted social contract and political tension that we find in a Latin American contemporary like, say, the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, and more to the atavistic impulse we recall in the Neruda of ‘Too Many Names':

When I lived among the roots
they pleased me more than flowers did,
and when I spoke to a stone
it rang like a bell.

This is not to say there is an avoidance of the violence that we as humans are so ingenious at – in one of his more stunning images (and one which has a neatness and elaboration we would associate with the Metaphysical poets, but which in the Spanish tradition perhaps derives equally from Surrealism and from Góngora), he compares the turning Earth to a revolver:

We are a chamber in darkness,
the globe a revolver.
The world is night and we are there inside it,
loaded and expectant bullets.

It would however be more accurate to observe that in his work, as Blake asserts, everything that lives is holy, and each human function is as appropriate as another for the purposes of poetry. In ‘The Liminating Art’ (notice how neatly Anna Crowe’s translation catches the original ‘El Arte de Fecar': the play on ‘eliminating’ matching precisely that on ‘defecar’), Serrano draws on the reductive Catalan tradition of the Caganer or ‘shitter’ to draw out a surprisingly elegant comparison between the place of the excreter and the escritoire.

There is as that example suggests a directness to his work despite the elegance of his language, so brilliantly and unerringly matched by these scrupulous translations. He is unafraid of the large gesture, as in ‘It is cold in the vast and unprotected slaughter-house of the heavens’ (from the opening of ‘Three Lunatic Songs’), or of drawing out the interrelation between art (particularly, of course, poetry) and life: ‘I fold my body into this attentive pen’.

In this, he is both a counter and a corrective to the too frequent British assumption that the rhetorical tends only to excess or to artificiality. Forever testing our boundaries, he will turn from a poem about a mermaid to one about a saleswoman with a sense that the juxtaposition, the disjunction, is part of the point.

The intention throughout his work appears to be nothing less than visionary: to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body – ‘To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom’.

There is in this something at once Quixotic and compelling. What we make of the world, he suggests, is ourselves, at once a fiction and the only meaningful gesture. At its finest, Pedro Serrano’s poetry is both completely involving and seemingly inevitable, and in its aspiration to be an act as well as a force of nature, we find ourselves challenged and marvelously reconfigured.

* Pedro tells me it was in fact the Can Massana, a favourite haunt indeed, but of Jaime Gil de Biedma. I am strangely indifferent to the enormity of my error.

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