He introduced his daughters to Ben Nevis.
‘You take the bearing. Line up the arrow,’
pointing to Moonlight Gully Buttress,
Minus One Gully. We didn’t care
until Dad found us a saxifrage. Its blooms
were spokes of the North Star.
‘Saxifraga means rock-breaker.’ Nivalis: snow-saxifrage.
Dainty Alpinist, chinking her roots into ﬁssures
and fractures, like crampons in toeholds.
But I see now what he could only glimpse.
That she and the other Alpines – roseroots
and pearlworts – are scrambling skywards
until all that remains for them is cloud.
Not even when we scaled
the ice-scoured Dalle
did I think it was possible
that he, like a glacier, could change state
from solid to intangible
in the pause between my heartbeats.
Grinning and mopping his sunburnt brow,
my father seemed imperishable
as the snow-hooded Pointe overhead.
When we reached the lake
the glacier calved with a gunshot,
jostled its ﬂoating bergs –
its snout already retreating.
Twenty years to the day
since we last trekked this crisscross path
to Lac de Folly: Madness Lake.
The sign still reads ‘Caution: year-round snow’
but the ﬂoes are meltwater –
my grief now ten months deep.
My mother sounded Earth’s deep architecture,
listening for the fossil ocean’s echo.
(This was ﬁve years before the ultrasound
showed me on a grainy screen in Glasgow.)
She saw the thirsty shrub by a dry well
in a desert burnt white, the salt city’s hinterland.
Oilﬁelds reek of tar, but Omani frankincense
is the world’s most fragrant: a scent that suggests
the Magi, trekking the desert from Persia
to offer the tree’s tears to a small god.
‘Women in Salalah use it to perfume their linen,’
she told me. ‘But it looked like a gorse bush,
you know, the ones you see here on the Common.
Its twigs were barren, as if burnt.
In winter, leaves break from the stems
and ﬂowers unfurl.’
Translating Mountains from the Gaelic
A pebble on the tongue
and a chockstone in the throat:
Beinn Laoghail becomes Ben Loyal, Beinn Uais eroded to Ben Wyvis,
Bod an Deamhain
turns from Demon’s Penis to Devil’s Point,
my voice a stream-gorge
where quartz chunks clatter.
Last summer, I shouldered my red rucksack,
a water-ﬂask, and a vial of his ash.
A deerﬂy, its eyes peridot ringstones
hovered to steal my blood,
my language a trespasser.
I poured his English dust
to feed the roots of the hill’s oldest pine.
Let the rain seep through him,
Schiehallion transforming him to earth.
That garden of émigrés and locals: sacred
ﬁg, date palm. I was sent to clip the shockhead
orange tree, and dropped the shears when I saw
I’d committed murder: an inch-worm, halved.
Chubby infant pythons, its four siblings
cowered under leaves. My sister and I salvaged them,
provisioned them with lime-twig offcuts, camouﬂaged
from sparrows and the boys who dismembered
soldier-ants in Science.
Seven years since the swarm of Nighthawks
burst the sound-barrier, each bearing its high-
explosive clutch, zeroing on Baghdad. Shots
imaged the troops, mantis-eyed in gas-masks.
They shredded leaves to veins for a fortnight
then inverted their skins, like the werewolves
that stalked my Grimms’ Tales. Armoured
chrysalids folded their ﬂight.
North of the border, the local dictator unleashed
nerve-gas trialled on insects. Birds fell to earth
from nests, dogs choked on bloody foam; ﬁnally,
people hacked up their lungs. That memory still
stung behind the eyelids. When Tornados howled
overhead, their sonic boom detonated the night-
terrors of my sister.
We watched their eclosion – damp wing-rags
unscrolling like hibiscus petals, the oil-sheen
shot with lemon. I couldn’t say whether their checked
dappling was the likeness of a silk prayer-rug, or
a stained-glass icon.
Four chequered swallowtails, ﬂexing
symmetrical wings. We watched each
dart through the doorway,
into the ﬂowering season.
12 The Flower that Breaks Rocks
13 In Oils
16 He set off…
17 Esther in the Asylum Garden
18 The Gift
22 The Frontier of Water
24 Madness Lake
25 Fired Earth
26 Superb Lyrebird
28 At the Corrie of the Birds
29 On the Alaskan Peak We Never Climbed
30 Loyal, Munro, Schiehallion…
31 Storm Petrel
37 Coal Measures
41 I watch the city through oil…
43 Cristaux de Roche
45 Translating Mountains from the Gaelic
48 Of the Flesh
53 Fossil Record
58 Hare at Haslingﬁeld
62 Burning Season
BLOODAXE BOOKS LTD Registered Office: Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1BS, UK Registered Number 1656254 England VAT No 414 4062 89