WE are outdoors in Liz Lochhead’s poem, maybe walking down an urban street or along a village road and see a boy and his sister playing in a garden.

They are on the lawn with their mother, unrolling a big strip of wallpaper covered in all the crayoned colours of an arcing rainbow as their father lights the candles on the birthday cake.

In the house behind them their grandmother looks on from behind the glass pane of a window and raises her hand, palm open to the generations in front of her, beyond the pane, in front of our view. A poet, walking by, stops or pauses long enough to see this, to remember the encounter, to let some kind of recognition happen, and sink in.

Three places of perception: ours, through the poet’s eyes; then the figures on the lawn; then the grandmother’s looking back across both, first to her family and then in the direction of a distance behind us, beyond the present scene.

READ MORE: The value of Scots persists through poets like Liz Lochhead

It means nothing, just an everyday occurrence, until perception sinks itself within the mind, sensitively, and the creating imagination puts down the words on paper so that we can see this, too, remember it, and pause on what it’s worth.

This is a poem of encounter or perhaps epiphany, something we see in its unique particularity, its mundane actuality; then we see it in relation to its immediate surroundings; and finally we understand it in the context of

the whole world, the great big

cosmic envelope in which we’ve

all been posted, on our way.

What it is that is seen, how it is perceived and how it can be shown to have some meaning beyond itself is the work of the poet or the artist, to bring out, to help us to see.

There are many poems of this kind that we could place this one beside. Think of Coleridge’s wedding guest confronted by the Ancient Mariner, or Wordsworth in Scotland, looking over at a solitary reaper, a “solitary Highland Lass”: “Behold her, single in the field, / Reaping and singing by herself …” Wordsworth cannot help himself from pausing: “No Nightingale did ever chaunt / More welcome notes to weary bands / Of travellers in some shady haunt, / Among Arabian sands”. The young woman’s “thrilling” voice is “Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides”:

Will no one tell me what she sings?—

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of to-day?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending;—

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Wordsworth has to ask rhetorically in the poem, “Will no-one tell me what she sings?” because he doesn’t know any Gaelic, poor man. The solitary reaper would be better entitled “The Solitary Poet”, lost and cut off in his own Anglophone world. And yet, give him credit, he does pause and listen, and asks the question respectfully, I think.

Closer to home, Jackie Kay’s poem “Pride” takes us on a train journey from Euston in London towards Scotland, where the poet sits opposite an Ibo elder from Nigeria and sees in him a pride in ethnic, clan and tribal identity that seems a common quality, held equally by MacLachlans, MacDonnells, MacLeods, people from various Scottish clans.

The poet is left wondering about the virtues and the liabilities of what pride really is. The “other” addressing the person observing has prompted a necessary wondering.

Pride of a different kind prompts the haughty landowner in Walter Scott’s song “Jock o’ Hazeldean”. He seems concerned and sympathetic but in fact is patronising, trying to persuade the lovesick young woman weeping by the riverside that she should stop crying and marry his son, who is rich and good at fighting:

“Why weep ye by the tide, ladie?

Why weep ye by the tide?

I’ll wed ye to my youngest son,

And ye sall be his bride:

And ye sall be his bride, ladie,

Sae comely to be seen” —

But aye she loot the tears down fa’

For Jock of Hazeldean.

So he wants to marry off his youngest son, presumably because his oldest will inherit the property. But the young woman isn’t interested, even when he tells her that “Young Frank” has a good step at the dancing in the castle’s big hall and is no slouch when it comes to wielding his sword in battle.

And even when the old patriarch tempts her with a chain of gold (it’s still “a chain”) and “braid to bind your hair” (it’s still binding), or hawk and hound or lady-like wealth: nope! No good: “But aye she loot the tears down fa’ / For Jock of Hazeldean.” When the authority of propertied class sets the wedding up and all is made ready, the she’s slipped away with Jock, crossed the Border and run off with him.

The kirk was deck’d at morning-tide,

The tapers glimmer’d fair;

The priest and bridegroom wait the bride,

And dame and knight are there.

They sought her baith by bower and ha’;

The ladie was not seen!

She’s o’er the Border and awa’

Wi’ Jock of Hazeldean.

I love the way the tenses in that verse represent the drama: priest, bridegroom, dame and knight “are” there and that’s present tense, we’re with them. But then they’ve looked for her (past tense) but she “was not seen” (past tense again) because “She’s o’er the Border”: present tense. She’s off! They’re making a run for it and true love will triumph.

The end of the song is the future. The patriarchal encounter between the landowner father propels the narrative through dialogue and into the dramatic action.

BUT pride leads to downfall in Scott’s “Proud Maisie”. She gets her come-uppance, her vanity maintained over a fruitless life where touching and companionship is missing. She goes lonely into her grave. The light liberation of “Jock o’ Hazeldean” has its very dark counterpoint in this one.

Proud Maisie is in the wood,

Walking so early;

Sweet Robin sits on the bush,

Singing so rarely.

“Tell me, thou bonny bird,

When shall I marry me?”—

“When six braw gentlemen

Kirkward shall carry ye.”

Her bridal bed will be made by the Sexton, the gravedigger, and the glow-worm shall light her way to the grave, and “The owl from the steeple sing, / ‘Welcome, proud lady.’”

That eerie sense that the natural world around us will have its last judgment upon those who might think themselves above or beyond its laws is spooky and sinister, gently drawn but unforgettably serious in a poem like that. And a similar supernatural encounter is there in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because

I could not stop for death”:

Because I could not stop for

Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

It’s a strangely comforting poem, and it’s important to get the tone exactly right, balanced as it is between the enormity of oblivion and the fact of mortality, what really is “precious” (the word itself means “valuable” or “of true worth”).

Death is “kindly” here and we all know that sometimes death does indeed come as a kindness, but the poem makes us pause. It remains utterly resistant to sensationalism, cliche or exaggeration. We have to read those long dashes and follow the inevitability of the rhythm, even as it seems interrupted by the punctuation marks.

The regularity of the verses make it seem like a ballad, but it is a very modern poem, despite its 19th-century genesis. That poise, restraint, skilfully imperative but gentle propulsion, all are crafted by a modern sensibility. It takes its own time and delivers its meaning with quiet, utmost certainty.

Liz Lochhead’s poem is also a poem of encounter, but it is an encounter of a different kind. Mortality is in it, and loneliness, and the solitude of the observing artist or poet. But it is also a celebration of life, of connection, of family and companionship across generations.

It’s a poem as careful in its tone and pacing as Emily Dickinson’s and as absolute in its understanding of human vulnerability as Walter Scott’s poems, and as sensitive to solitariness as Wordsworth’s poem, but it is also almost effortlessly about contact. Ultimately it is about touching.

It’s a lockdown poem, dated April 2020. That makes that sense of touching all the more remarkable. Perhaps, in a sense, it’s an Easter poem but it goes a long way beyond Christianity.

Because there are two kinds of touching in the poem, beyond the immediately recognisable one of parents and children at an outdoors birthday party in the garden. There is the touching that is made impossible, through the glass of a window, a grandmother’s hand, five fingers spread open, and a child’s hand raised in the air, in reply: two high-fives making metaphoric contact as palpable as skin-on-skin. The pathos of the distance between them does not erase the fact of their touching each other, a gesture of the body, a contact of the eyes.

And there is another: the most startling part of the poem, a touching of human beings over millennia and across continents, from one side of the earth to another, from Glasgow, Scotland, to – well, where? Arnhem Land, Australia, perhaps?

A rocky desert landscape where people centuries ago would blow pigment out with their deepest breaths on to a hand, opened on a boulder, making a mark that would say: Here I am, and this is me. But also, Greetings: recognise my presence, you who look on, you who are different. Can we ever really know what such an artist intended?

MAYBE to some degree. The purpose of all language is both

to identify and to differentiate: communication is what happens across these things. In Liz’s poem, the father, who “pantomimes ceremony” is himself enacting a ceremony, marked by good humour, not solemnity.

And the daughter and mother, unfurling the rainbow paper, and the boy whose birthday it is, the grandmother in the house: the whole family is lightly evoked, then placed in earth’s human universe, held in our vision for one moment, for the time it takes to read the poem, slowly, and to keep it in mind.

The Spaces Between

(for Leslie McGuire)

The boy is ten and today it is his birthday.

Behind him on the lawn 

his mother and his little sister

unfurl a rainbow crayoned big and bright 

on a roll of old wallpaper.

His father, big-eyed, mock-solemn, pantomimes ceremony 

as he lights the ten candles on the cake.

Inside her living-room 

his grandmother puts her open palm to the window.

Out in the garden, her grandson

reaches up, mirrors her, stretching fingers

and they smile and smile as if they touched 

warm flesh not cold glass.

More than forty thousand years ago

men or women splayed their fingers thus 

and put their hands to bare rock, they

chewed ochre, red-ochre, gritted charcoal and blew,

blew with projectile effort that really took it out of them,

their living breath. 

Raw gouts of pigment

spattered the living stencil 

that was each’s own living hand 

and made their mark.

The space of absence 

was the clean, stark picture of their presence

and it pleased them. 

We do not know why they did it 

and maybe they did not either but

they knew they must.

It was the cold cave wall

and they knew they were up against it.

The birthday boy is juggling.

He has been spending time in the lockdown learning

but though he still can’t keep it up for long

his grandmother dumb-shows most extravagant applause.

She toasts them all in tea 

from her Best Granny in the World mug, winking

and licking her lips ecstatically as they cut the cake,

miming hunger,

miming prayer 

for her hunger to be sated. 

The slim girl dances and her grandmother claps 

and claps again, blinking tears. 

Another matched high-five at her window.  

Neither the blown candles or the blown kisses

will leave any permanent mark

 – unless love does? –

on them on this the only afternoon 

they will be all alive together on just this day the boy is ten.