Week 409: 51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily, by Hamish Henderson

When you first read this poem, written during the Second World War, you may be forgiven for wondering if half of it is written in Scots Gaelic, but no, it’s English, Jim, just not as we Sassenachs know it, and a little persistence and recourse to a glossary (see foot of poem) soon sorts it out, to reveal a wistful, complex, ambivalent poem of leavetaking. The war-weary swaddies (soldiers) are not sorry to be leaving Sicily, and yet there are things about it they will miss: this alien land has become something of a home for them, offering bright rooms, wine and kindly women, and the music of the pipes as they leave chimes with the mood of that strange grey sky over the Strait of Messina in a lament for days of comradeship and adventure. This rather ties in with the experiences of men that I knew when I was young, who had served in the Second World War. They seemed to be evenly split between those who had loathed the whole brutal experience and simply wanted to forget it and those who had had, or claimed to have had, the time of their lives and were finding peacetime existence something of an anticlimax. Maybe the latter were those who had never seen action, but this did not always seem to be the case; maybe they were just whistling in the dark, but again, that did not always seem to be true. It was all a bit morally confusing.  There is a great pipe tune to go with the words. Of the singers who have covered the song, I think Dick Gaughan deserves a special mention. 

51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come round for his vino the day
The sky o’er Messina is unco an’ grey
An’ a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn the ferry’s awa’
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae name can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin’ ava
He’s beezed himsel’ up for a photy an’ a’
Tae leave with his Lola, his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Hamish Henderson

pipie = pipe major
dozie = sleepy
vino = wine
fey = acting in a strange manner, as if having a presentiment
unco = strange, unusual
chaulmers = rooms
shaw = wood
kyles = straits
smoor the wiles = obliterate (literally smother) your fascination (one smoors a fire)
drummie = drum major
beezed = polished (beezin =  spit and polish)
we’ll a mind = we’ll all remember
shielin = hut
byres and bothies = cow sheds and cottages
shebeens = boozers, drinking dens
whaur = where

Week 408: I Am Roerek, by Sheenagh Pugh

Roerek was a minor king of Norway in the saga times, and the first settlers in Iceland, not counting a few Irish monks, were emigrants from Norway who were, according to tradition, fleeing from civil strife brought about by the rule of King Harald I. And that’s all you really need to know to enjoy this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, who has a delightful gift for retrieving characters that have fallen through the cracks of history.

I Am Roerek

I am Roerek: I was king
of a little scrap of Norway;
large or small, I would not part
with what I had.

I fought a man whose luck
swallowed mine; he blinded me,
but being a good Christian
he wouldn’t kill me,

just kept me about his court,
where I spent my spare time
earnestly attempting his life.
After the third try

he said: don’t you ever give up?
and shipped me to Iceland.
I stayed a winter with this man
and that: we always quarrelled.

Now I lie under a hill,
hear the muffled wind shifting
over the grass, uneasy
like the sea in a shell.

I am the only king
to lie in a land too stubborn
for kings; an edgy country.
it suits me well,

for I am one who would not
co-operate; tailor my wants
to fit reality. Roerek: king
and cosmic nuisance.

Sheenagh Pugh

Week 407: So Many Summers, by Norman MacCaig

‘So Many Summers’ by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) is a good example of how a poem can be formally constrained and seemingly transparent in its language, yet dense enough with meaning to open up whole avenues of reflection. What is it about the juxtaposition of those two images, of hind’s skeleton and decaying boat, that resonates so? And what is this malice that time adds? As I interpret these lines, it is the way that the living thing becomes indistinguishable from the artefact: that once life has departed from the animate it too is no more than a collection of molecules, subject to exactly the same laws of decay as anything else. But do the phrases ‘neat geometries’ and ‘already dead but still to die’ suggest something about the power of art to preserve for a while some stripped-down quintessence of a thing, before its final dissolution and oblivion? I am reminded here of Keith Douglas’s lines: ‘Remember me when I am dead/And simplify me when I am dead’. And what precisely is the tone and message of the last line: ‘So many summers, and I have lived them too’? Is this a wry recognition that his own time too is coming to an end? Or, read with an emphasis on the ‘lived’, is it a kind of defiant gratitude for his own survival, for having been allowed this enduring richness of experience? 

For me, this is definitely one of those poems where you wish you had had the chance to discuss it with its creator, with the caveat, of course, that poets themselves do not always fully understand, or at least, cannot always articulate in other words, what it is that has been given them to say during the writing of the poem. 

So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind’s neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one –
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Norman MacCaig

Week 406: Against Geologies, by David Sutton

Our wedding anniversary yesterday, and this year for the first time my wife and I agreed not to buy each other cards, given all the hassle with masks, hand sanitisers etc currently attached to going into shops. So I thought the least I could do for my companion of fifty-four years was to dig out this one from my ‘Collected Poems’ and rededicate it to her as some token of recompense for all those times when the process of composition has made me less than usually attentive to her discourse or, as she likes to put it, when I have been away with the fairies.

Against Geologies

Our seconds rain like shells of lime
To build great thicknesses of time:
We watch the secret moments fall
Anonymous beyond recall,
Since who will look for you and me
In those white beds of history?

But if they do, with prying pen
When all our now has turned to then,
Let them not think, because they find
Some particle we left behind,
They know the vanished sea above
That was our salt and sunlit love.

These words I leave for them to learn
Like lily’s stem or print of fern
Are but our shadow in the stone
And all the rest is ours alone.
Then what a world of touch and talk
Shall lie compacted into chalk.

David Sutton