It seemed they were always
at verbal cross-purposes.
For her the present was simple,
whereas he dealt in the conditional.
Her aims ran in the continuous mode
and his were quite indefinite,
not to say infinitively split.
Her shalls and shoulds ran constantly
against his mays and mights.
Her visions were indicative
of present perfect,
future perfect,
gosh yes, pluperfect even.
He operated in a different mood,
where, were it but the case,
in would creep the weaselly subjunctives
to cast their doubts.

This could not last.
Time, with its clear imperatives,
made all their conjugations
definitely past,

(First published in The Herald.)


That is the pose to fix the icon,
arms out from the sides, supporting weight,
clenched fists on the desktop,
head down, viewed from the rear,
silhouette against the Oval Office window.

Familiar in Life-Magazine black and white,
the burdened democrat (actually an attempt
to relieve back pain).
Again in mono, behind the opening credits,
the anguished liberal (really an ageing actor
earning his bread).

Make it your pose too, just as false.
Super-delusions - free world leader,
winning the war on terror, business Big Brother,
doing God's work. Head of troubled Jove,
Atlantean shoulders, fists of Rocky.
Yet can you sense the pain, pretence
and dumb bewilderment -
How did it come to this?

JFK to West Wing to George Bush. The pose of the leader of the free world bearing the burdens of office has always been a suspect one.


"It is a paltry business to try to drag down
the arduus furor of the stones to the futile imaginings of men…"
(On a Raised Beach)

I suppose I should be grateful
for your (recently discovered) concern
regarding my well-being, flattered indeed
by your wish to save me from catastrophe.

Your loudly expressed wishes to protect
and preserve my tigers, my elephants,
my whales, my layers and my sheets,
my everything, it seems, (except my rats and fleas)

have all been noted. Do I commend them?
Up to a point, my homo sapiens.
I have no memory of similar campaigns
on behalf of my trilobites, my dinosaurs,

my mammoths. Take my sea, for instance,
my shifting plates. It grows, it shrinks;
they come and go. I am still here.
The need for my salvation is not an issue.

Perhaps you misread our situations. I notice
how you change appearance with my seasons:
summer flimsies, floating fabrics; winter wools
and fleeces. So it is with me.

My lofty parent-patron who holds me
in his grip (the sun to you)
dictates what I shall wear - a suit of water,
hat of ice, coat of air and cloud, shirts

of grass and forest. I shift and change them
as required by flares and wind and solar messages.
Thus you too, my parasite populations,
water-dependent organisms,

have your good and bad days.
To me, cela ne fait rien.
The me that you ignore - that rock
and magma, iron core, the one essential Stone -

is unperturbed. Scratch and bore like mites,
gnaw and consume, make holes like moths,
ruffle my garments, then, in a panic
at the unaccustomed draught, preach

your sermons of salvation.
Forgive me if I stay unimpressed.
I shall merely adjust my dress,
O my bacteria, my Ephemeridae.

Hugh MacDiarmid's On a Raised Beach is one of the greatest of twentieth-century Scottish poems. Its relevance has become greater in this new century with the concerns about global warming.


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