Languages of Babyle – James Knox Whittet

The George Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition
2011 Crabbe Memorial Competition – First Prize

Adjudicator: Elaine Feinstein

(At the grave of Iain Crichton Smith)

It is always in autumn that I see you,
walking hand in hand with Donalda
along the esplanade in Oban, past the cathedral
with its organ notes made discordant by sea winds.

Across the bay, the spaced lights of Kerrera
burn more brightly with the deepening dusk:
as you slowly walk, you listen to the gulls’
strangely human cries of exile and longing.

Images of autumn flooded your mind like
the high tides of Babyle where your languages
were confused by humans and not by God:
that unbending figure in whom you could never believe.

Here where your mother’s footsteps crushed the frail
daffodils each spring when she followed the narrow path
to the moor, with a creel strapped to her back, where cairns
of peat were shot through with scattered pellets of sunlight.

Those leaping salmon psalms she sung in the Free Kirk
each Sunday resounded in your ears long after
her shrill voice had gone and, despite your loathing,
were echoed in the sonorous cadences of your verse.

Not far from your home in Taynuilt, the granite statue
of Duncan Ban MacIntyre stands still, gazing stalker-like
down across Loch Awe where the deer move out
in isolated air and wet rowans shake their bowed

heads in a breeze, letting fall their berries like droplets
of claret on goose-fleshed water. Those threatening,
scheming voices that whispered in your tortured mind
have all been lulled to silence now and cattle cough

ghostlike through the mists of autumn beyond
the cemetery walls of Muckairn where you lie with one
ear strained to hear the wailing choirs of the distant ocean
that will forever call you home to wind-bent grasses.

Here now is the stubborn place of which you wrote
where the bewildering metaphors by which you
lived no longer swarm like midges around this blunt fact
but, as a fellow traveler through verbal mazes wrote:

the facts of this world are not the end of the matter*

*Ludwig Wittgenstein
Iain Crichton Smith grew up in the crofting township of Babyle in the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Although Gaelic was his native language, he was taught entirely in English and felt divided between two languages all his life.

Copyright © James Knox Whittet 2011

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