I MENTIONED in the first of these essays, a fortnight ago, the occasion at which my wife Rae and I listened to Liz reading these poems.

It was a 60th-birthday event for Glasgow’s poet laureate Jim Carruth and his wife Lorna, “a happy occasion with a good crowd and excellent readings by Bernard MacLaverty, Ian Stephen and Jim himself, as well as Liz”.

Rae and I were sitting enjoying the whole thing but when Liz read these poems, something strange happened. We were paying close attention, because the readings themselves as well as the work read, were so good. And with the first and second of the poems, which we’ve read over the last two weeks, the pleasure of the text was primary.

There was no lapse of attention at all. The event itself was happy and uplifting: attention was sharp, all through. And then, when Liz read the third of her poems, the breath was suddenly held. Something more was going on.

Liz read it, seemingly effortlessly, quite quietly, but with proper emphasis and pacing, without exaggeration or drama, letting the words themselves and the movement of tone, and the subject of the poem, and the imagery, carry its meaning without comment. Sometimes things just happen like that.

So, I’m not going to say much about the poem itself today. Maybe to note that we were startled by what you might call the “rhyme” of colours between the tobacco smoke and the bluebells. And the balance of weight and experience evoked by the presence of women of different generations.

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But the poem reads straight from the page as intended, so it’s over to you. What I can do, though, is mention a couple of things that might add a further sense of the distances in which the poem is located, first in terms of the natural world, then in terms of human contact, family closeness, and the necessary tenderness of company, debts that you will never want to close.

These at first seem unrelated but aren’t. The poem is its own singular entity, but its meaning crosses the whole human universe.

My friend Fiona Stafford, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, begins her wonderful book The Brief Life of Flowers with this paragraph:

“I can measure my entire life in leaves and petals. My window opens on to honeysuckles and roses, cascading over walls, clambering into trees, carefully planted to conceal the fact that only a few years ago this patch of land was a field full of broken bricks and rusty scraps of abandoned farm machinery, where the nettles and thistles felt entirely at home.

“The thistles and nettles still make an insistent appearance each spring, but not in such great numbers, as the space slowly fills with shrubs and young trees. The thistles form a living link between the maturing garden and the hay field over the fence, between the immediacy of the budding summer and all the summers that have gone before.”

Fiona later comments: “Flowers are often understood as emblems of the brevity of life but they are irrepressible reminders of natural regeneration and fresh growth.”

They can “celebrate a birth or anniversary, as bouquets to adorn a bride, as wreaths to accompany the deceased to the grave and at memorials to comfort those who mourn”. And “unlike the priest, the registrar or the guests, flowers are silent witnesses”.

Flowers are already deep in the world of poetry: “Every collection of poetry is a gathering of different blooms: the word anthology is derived from anthos, the Greek word for a flower, while posy was originally synonymous with ‘poesy’, which meant a short motto in rhyme.”

The second instance I’ll mention comes from when I was talking with the American poet Robert Creeley at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, on July 26, 1995. I asked him about his experience at Black Mountain, North Carolina, the legendary tertiary education college where many of the finest poets and artists of that era taught or studied, including refugees from Nazi Germany who had emigrated from Europe.

WHEN I asked Robert about his teaching of creative writing, he replied like this: “I had a writing group. I remember Mike Rumaker wrote this incredible story, which ... We would have the habit of ... A student or a person would read to the group what he or she had written, then there’d usually be some talk about it. ‘Would you read that again?’ I don’t think we had a Xerox; we had no means to distribute it, so it meant, ‘Could I hear that again?’ There would be the usual discussion. People would give impressions or what they thought it might be improved by.

“So anyhow, Mike had read this story. God, it was ... I’ll never forget it. I don’t think he ever published it. It was the story of two brothers, one a bit older and one a bit younger, one was about say 15 or 16 and the other’s about 20 or so and they lived in the classic sort of suburban house.

“The story begins with the older brother getting married and the ceremony and the local celebration. Then they go off in the car. And the young brother’s feeling very displaced with the loss of the life he and his brother had had. Now he’ll never know him again that way.

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“So he’s lying in bed musing in this bedroom they had shared and at that moment there’s a kind of scrabbling on the window and it turns out it’s his brother. He can’t go through with it. He’s freaked and he’s come home and he’s asking for his younger brother to let him in, you know, because he’s ...

“And it was such a pristine, curious fable of transition and rites of passage and much that was obviously in Mike’s confusion at that point. I just didn’t want to talk about it. I remember saying to the class, ‘That’s it. No discussion.’ And for something like a week Mike thought I hadn’t liked the story.”

I wouldn’t want you to think my not commenting extensively on Liz’s poem is because I don’t like it. It’s because, as Creeley says of Mike Rumaker’s story, that’s it. There’s nothing more that needs to be said.

And yet, there is something else. Liz dated the poem Monday, March 13 2023, but that’s the date for the final version. She noted that she had found a version from July 2021, in the last stanza of which there were two or three things which I had since lost – things which had ended up having been deleted by the time of the February 2023 version” which she had considered “FINAL” at that time: “But which I now felt very strongly the poem absolutely needed.”

I’m quoting these here because they show how much sensitivity and care goes into the composition of a poem, and particularly, this poem:

1) A breath and a new stanza after he present tense of the lovers’ day on which the day of the inciting of the poem is set. After the poem is done with the lovers’ story

2) I missed the three identities – Margaret, Marguerite and my Mum (the shifting times of them, two in the past and only one (my mum) still existing in the present…

3) The speaker of the poem being, in the present, older than ever Margaret or Marguerite got to be, anchoring this narrator firmly in her beldame years, herself as out of the time and sphere and past the state of lovers – in the same position as old Angela in Keats’s Eve of St Agnes say, or Juliet’s nurse.

4) It felt important that the speaker asking my Mum ‘many other small and silly things’ made light (ironically?) of the impossibility of asking anything at all anymore. It wouldn’t have done if the question of knowing the proverb/superstition felt like a weighty or unusual one.

So it’s clear that the poem, on the occasion when it was read, while it sounded immediate and had an immediate effect, was the product of long care and thought. The craft involved is emotionally subtle and sustained. That should not be underestimated. Liz herself noted as follows:

“In May of 2020 in the lockdown, and again in May of 2021 in the promise of the easing of it, I was, like so many others, especially others of my age, more and more concerned with time and time passing.

‘I KNEW that for me there was somehow a connection between this and my then obsession with trying – and mostly failing – to bring safely home wee bunches of dandelion clocks – handfuls of fragile flyaway time – to put them into vessels of some sort in still-life arrangements and then paint them.

“You may, or may not be, surprised that the dandelion (the dent-de-lion, or tooth of the lion en Francais) is actually much more commonly known as the pis-en-lit. Yes, even in the poshest salads in posh restaurants. Pis-en-lit?

“Ah, just like our name for them when we were kids: pee-the-beds. The superstition was that if you picked them and got even a drop of the milky stuff out of the stems on your fingers you would pee the bed that night. Indeed, I’m told the ‘all-parts-of-it-edible’ plant that is the dandelion – think dandelion and burdock – is in fact a diuretic.

To me those bonny, bonny bright yellow some-call-them-weeds are just living versions of the sun in a child’s drawing.

“Shakespeare, in the Warwickshire dialect of his countrymen and contemporaries, is said to have called dandelions golden lads. And I learned, or think relearned actually recently, he called dandelion clocks chimneysweepers. So, whenever I read or hear “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” that beautiful, universal and timeless funeral song from the very rarely performed tragedy Cymbeline, absolutely no dirty black smuts of soot need pollute the blue skies of summer in my imagination, rather it’s a lift of frail white flying seeds and spores and possible futures that fly light in the dust from them.

“Seduced by the philosophical, almost accepting melancholy of Shakespeare’s familiar couplet,

I chose to quote it shamelessly to embellish my poem.”


BY Liz Lochhead

Maytime and I’m

on a fool’s errand

carrying home this bunch of the dandelion clocks

which Shakespeare called chimneysweepers

and a friend tells me his wee


in the here-and-now calls puffballs.

I’m holding my breath, and them, this carefully

because I want to take them home and try

to paint them, although

one breath of wind and in no time

I’ll be stuck with nothing but a hank of

leggy, limp, milky pee-the-bed stalks

topped with baldy wee green buttons, for

golden lads and girls all must

as chimneysweepers come to dust.

On daisy hill by the railway bridge

one lone pair of lovers laze in the sun.

A little apart from her, he lounges

smoking a slow cigarette and waits

smiling, half-watching her weave a bluebell chain

that swings intricate from her fingers, hangs heavy

till she loops it, a coronet upon her nut-brown hair.

I’m wondering is this to be her something blue?

She calls out to me, I to her,

as folk do in these days of distancing

and I can hardly believe it when she says

she never in all her childhood

told the time by a dandelion clock.

She’s up to her oxters in ox-eye daisies, this girl.

The ones my mother, Margaret,

always called marguerites but never

without telling me again how my father

writing to her from France before Dunkirk or after D. Day

always began his letters Dear Marguerite.

The saying goes that a maiden

crowned by bluebells can never tell a lie

the girl informs me, solemn as she

crosses her fingers, each hand held high,

the smoke from her lover’s cigarette

almost but not quite as blue as

the frail blooms – time, truth and a promise – that she

braided together on this their one-and-only

sure to be perfect Summer’s day.

Oh Marguerite Margaret my Mum

who never got to be as old as I am today

did you ever hear tell of this proverb?

Oh Mum how much I wish I could ask you

this and so many other

small and silly things, but

golden lads and girls all must

as chimneysweepers come to dust.