Her friend died and she was heartbroken.
That was in February.
In December, when the chill had really taken hold there were a few days of spectacular hoar frost and it was on one of those days, that the first image of the poem hooked itself in.
On the edge of a field in the middle distance, a line of bush-like trees formed a sparkling horizon. There was something about them, held in the powdery air of frost that elicited the first words: trees, cold-powdered, whispered, static. She repeated them as she walked. She wrote them down when she got home.
Her friend died and she was heartbroken because it was as if she had come to know some wild but gentle creature that had emerged from the edge of a dark wood; its timidity, its watchful calm bringing out in her a stillness, a desire to be near.
Isn’t it the case when you love something that you never tire of looking at it? Each viewing notes a minute difference, there to be appreciated. She felt this way about the hills of the Tweed Valley. It was an easy, accessible feeling. She was driving along the valley south of Innerleithen, wondering how she might feel if she didn’t live here, when this line appeared in her head:
‘In exile I would write the colours of the hills in winter.’
And further along the same road, at a certain bend where it comes very close to the river, the water looked almost still, and that day it had taken on a peculiar colour because of the snow, the shaded position, the trees. She pulled into a layby and scribbled in her notebook, ‘the river, eau de nil, in snow, quiet’. She put brackets around ‘in snow’.
And she had gained its trust, this vulnerable, shy creature.
One day in January, as she crossed the Lowood bridge near Melrose, she noticed how the low sun shone through an artless, jagged mix of bare deciduous wood and Scots pine. The sky had thickened in the frosty air, fogging the sun:-orb, glowing in black trees.
She wrestled with the image, trying to make it exact; it was more an effusion of white mist.
Her friend died and she was heartbroken because she would miss the way her long fingers described the beauty of a thing; the way her limbs moved like a river over stones that would run through her fingers should she try to hold it.
Because from the minute she knew that it was to be death at the end of winter, it was as if the blown light of February had been absorbed, locked into naked trees; as if there could be no synthesis of Spring.
And then it was February again. Sitting on the couch in her upstairs room, she looked out at the sky framed by skeletons of ash and birch, at the undulations of the nearest hills. She sketched the words:
(winter sky), shades and tones very bright, low light, fissured cloud, grey sage, quiet whispering, still openings of blue, of cream, the trees don’t move, the hills don’t move, trees black and still.
At the bottom of the page she later scribbled an assortment of words that had appealed to her from the dictionary: undersurface, linen-fold, stiffness, apostrophe, mediaeval, and a little reminder of something from the Tao, ‘in the Tao there are no separate objects, just differentiations of form within the universe’.
She tried putting together all the fragments and little notes she had made.
As her first line she would take, "in exile I would write the colours of the hills in winter". She thought that she might carry on, name the trees, describe the fields, count out the names of farms, villages, towns along the roads of home, a litany of remembrance; poignant. But she was not in exile, therefore she would write of each minute change, each daily, seasonal difference, and the underlying emotion would be quiet joy, something intensely alive and real; the river would flow, she would feel the air, touch and smell the earth.
Because she had held her as she sank forward in bed with her face in her hands and said that she was scared.
But then another voice took over. It began:
‘as now in winter the sun appears as an effusion of white (she scored out white)
mist through black trees,
a litany of rivers
exiled in snow
smooth their patterns to eau de nil
the sky has written the colours of the hills
its undersurface of clouds
shades and tones of bright and low light
trees hold haze and powder
earth, stiffness of linen-folds’.
It was February, the month she died. It was going to be about grief, remembrance, and how time puts distance between.
And since then there had been the doctor’s visit. The doctor had told her three weeks at most. She should get her affairs in order.
This knowledge hung between them now. Her friend was sitting in an armchair. She was wearing a light dressing gown and a pale blue woollen hat because her hair had never grown back after chemotherapy. She was so thin and pale that her face seemed to be disappearing. But she smiled as always... so pleased to see her. Her voice warm as ever, just the dry edge of it a bit drier, a bit weaker. Conversation was by the way, she smiled and laughed and when it came time to leave she said that she was welcome anytime.
That this might not be the final farewell was the only thing keeping it all sane. She said her name as they embraced. A last look from the door then out to the car. She felt as if she had left all colour behind, that from now on she would see the world in monochrome. Climbing the steps to her house, she noticed a small group of unopened snowdrops. There was something about their helmet-like heads that was so like hers. Later she wrote a poem with too many adjectives in it.
Ghosted drifts of sleet,
your face with the certainty of death in it;
an unopened snowdrop filled with ironic laughter,
breaking through cold pity to pure white compassion.
She wrote ‘lucidity’ at the top of the page. Underneath the last line she wrote:
‘(hills, fields), engraved, cradled, ghosted, unopened snowdrops, stoic’.
The word ‘exile’ was expanded to give what she knew would be the final line, ‘in exile from a time with you in it’. A column of words started to form in the right hand side of the page, ‘irony, remembrance, laughter, memory, compassion’. Mediaeval moved into place beneath effusion and mist. ‘Apostrophe’ moved to the top of the page.
Apostrophe; a mark of elision, denoting something missing.
Because she remembered when they cycled to Gott Bay. It was a day of wind and sun, the air a brisk colour-wash of remembered blues. Dried marram rasped through their wheels but fell silent when they stopped and saw the bay for the first time. ‘This is heaven,’ her friend had shouted to the wind, and to her. Sand lay like a strip of torn vellum. Great waves rolled and pushed their huge energies. They had stood and stood; all their looking rhythmed, scoured by wild water. Terns, close above them, shared the unruly wind, held them in their eye. And when she thought about that day it was hard not to see, even in that moment, that fate already had her cast: genre, film noir; soundtrack waves tearing.
She scored out ‘The colours of the hills’ and wrote ‘compassion’ above. ‘On’ was added to the beginning of the next line. ‘Ironic’ replaced ‘exiled’ in the line about snow, and two new lines emerged:
‘remembering earth; stiff as linen-folds
fissured, engraved with unopened snowdrops’.
In the meantime she picked up a Nonesuch Library edition of Donne’s poems (she was in the mood for something mournful). She searched for ‘A Nocturnall Upon St Lucie’s Day’. She sought the grief-laden texture of its cadences. The songs and sonnets were followed by the epigrams and then by the elegies. Elegies; elegy, the word went round and round. She was writing one.
‘Elegy’, a mourning song, a lament, a serious, pensive poem.
‘Elegiac quatrain’, four line stanzas, written in iambic pentameter, rhyming abab, classic example Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’.
She visited her friend three days before she died. She took some rice pudding ... something soft, that she might be tempted to eat. She took a big cashmere scarf that her grandmother had knitted. She took a card that had a painting of frilled cream-coloured tulips against a pale blue ground on the front. Inside the card she wrote how much she appreciated her as a friend and that she loved her. Opposite this she inscribed a short poem by Raymond Carver written when he was dying of cancer. It was called ‘Late Fragment’.
And did you get what you
wanted from this life even so,
Yes I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
To feel myself beloved on the earth.
She took a fresh piece of paper. Apostrophe, title. Elegy written in the top right hand corner.
She counted out the syllables of the pentameter. They looked like this:
‘As now in winter the sun appears through
black boughs, effusion, mist, mediaeval.
A litany of rivers, ironic
in snow, smooth their patterns to eau de nil.’
She was amazed.
‘The sky writes compassion on the underside
of clouds, in shades of bright - light,
remembering earth stiff as linen folds,
fissured, engraved with unopened snowdrops.’
This would need some work, and the last stanza would have only two lines;
‘Trees held in haze and powder; whispered static,
in exile from a time with you in it.’
But they scanned. They half-rhymed.
She was so pleased. It looked as if it would work as a form of elegy. She deliberately did not want to force it into the classic form. She wanted to be aware of it, acknowledge the rules but break them to give a lighter, more modem feel. In the second stanza she changed the third line to ‘remembering earths stiffness as linen-folds’, ‘remembering’ now given only three syllables. Another small column of words began to appear in the bottom right hand margin: former, previous, ancient, old, golden, lapse, something missing, absent, predecessors, lineage, forbears. A circle was whirled around ‘lapse’. Sounding ‘ps’, it took its place at the end of the line. Then, as if from nowhere, the word ‘oblivious’ arrived and the second line was rewritten thus; ‘of clouds, oblivious to bright or lapse’. And that was it. She checked it over: syllables, rhyme and half-rhyme, the chiming of the short ‘a’s ; the long ‘o’s; the short ‘i’s; the incidental rhyming of first and third line end words in the first two stanzas with other words in the second and fourth lines of each; not too many adjectives, and those that were there were working hard.
Her husband read it. "Fissured is a favourite word of yours". She stared and stared at the offending word. She pencilled in ‘fractured’, although ‘fissured’ was not scored out. Two days later ‘fractured’ was inserted. It gave another short ‘a’, it kept the sense, enhanced it even, gave it a harder feel, and chimed with the hard ‘c’s of ironic, compassion, static. She scribbled out ‘the’ before ‘underside’ and changed it to ‘undersides’. Her husband didn’t like this. That was his favourite line, just the way it was; elided.
And when she wrote in a poem that she wore her grief as a shroud of split colours, she could hear her friend reminding her that the pigment of their lives was as indeterminate as the blue of the sky.
As now in winter the sun appears through
black boughs, effusion, mist, mediaeval;
a litany of rivers, ironic
in snow, smooth their patterns to eau de nil.
The sky writes compassion on the underside
of clouds, oblivious to bright or lapse,
remembering earth’s stiffness as linen-folds,
fractured, engraved with unopened snowdrops.
Trees hold haze and powder; whispered; static;
in exile from a time with you in it.
Dorothy Alexander was born in Peebles and now lives in Galashiels. Her publications include Split Colours, and she has had stories published in various literary magazines. She has also collaborated with the bookbinder Alison Allison and the sculptor Dick MacTaggart. Currently a student on the Creative Writing programme at Glasgow University, Dorothy is working on a novel and a long sequence of poems.
OUT OF ORDER
The Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short story collection 2002
Edited by Suhayl Saadi
"... all you need, really, is one powerful idea, enunciated with the clarity of pure music. Like Theseus and the ball of string; simple, not easy." Suhayl Saadi
The Macallan and Scotland on Sunday are delighted to offer the very best of contemporary Scottish short story writing with 25 stories selected from over 2,000 entries to this year’s competition. Readers of Scotland on Sunday can purchase copies at the special price of 5 inc p&p (rrp 6.99). To order phone 0131-667 7799 and quote SoS1 or write to Shorts promotion, Polygon, Birlinn Ltd, Newington House, 10 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH9 1QS