Arriving damp with sea spray, fingers cold,
I disembark a day already old
as billows scatter seeds or smithy sparks
across the west, against the growing dark
of Dalriada, Pictland, Gododdin,
and Strathclyde, shadows flooding every glen.
Birds take flight from nested hierarchies
of class, order, family, genus, species,
in and out of weeks, across an ocean,
skimming foamy paragraphs of Ossian,
an immram of uncertain end or goal
until the island rises from a shoal.
Columbidae Columba livia
sails on outstretched wings from its armada,
catching sudden flame above the firth
and coasting down like Lucifer toward earth
in trumpet spirals, forms that wind and rain
erode from standing stone and souterrain.
Driven off its course, a tousled heron
drags the night behind it like a curtain
and sinks its toes in a hag of sphagnum moss
beside a ringing river. With a toss
and muffled flap, this pilgrim smoothes its plume
and gingerly advances through the gloom.
Eying fingerlings beneath a ledge,
the heron whets its gaze on the water’s edge.
Its neck, now limp as rope, abruptly bows
and floats a sleeky head above the flow
as in a cobra’s hypnotized display.
With a sudden thrust, the bird impales its prey.
Fluid rock, Iona wraps in mist
the island’s endless morphogenesis:
addenda, curling up the crust of land,
and corrigenda, subsidence of sand;
addenda, beech and hazel, oak and ash,
by corrigenda burn to smoke and ash.
Gleaned from shafts of sunlight, barley grain
steeps in a tank of Lochan Torr and rain,
the kernels dried in ovens, milled to grist,
oared to mash, the wort drawn off and mixed
with yeast in wooden washbacks, boiled until
its spirit fogs the neck of a copper still.
Heaven blends with Hell. The whisky bears
a nose of salt and peat-reek, earth and air.
It warms the belly, blooms, and stimulates
a lucid dream as it evaporates,
pissed away against a public wall
beneath the stars, as summer turns to fall.
In winter, clouds haul water from its source,
the ocean basin, welling up by force
of deep convection through the troposphere
to irrigate the crops and kailyards here,
propelled by the polar jet from trough to trough
across the rippled flats and furrowed crofts.
Kings of the present world, your glories fail,
your frigates founder in a sudden gale:
here lies The Swan’s gigantic, bony hull
submerged in silt beneath the Sound of Mull,
a reef for conger eels to colonize,
her ribs dismantled by the rushing tides.
Light rain sifts from clouds in which its bound
instead of breaking loose to drench the ground:
mammato-cumuli distend like udders,
braiding rills that feed the Forsa’s waters.
From smoking haar to affluence to loch,
this long hydraulic cycle never stops.
Masses coalesce as planets, flung
through empty space and spinning round the sun
by force of gravitation while we sleep,
the piles of consciousness embedded deep
in tertiary basalt, gneiss, and schist.
To such foundations Columkill is fixed.
Not far beneath the surface, all who died
sustain the darkness, cloistered from the sky.
In slow combustion, corpses decompose,
stripped by slugs of feathers, fur, and clothes;
of flags of disposition, yours and mine;
of family, genus, species, kith, and kind.
Of all the dead, not one can read my psalter,
an Cathach, borne through clashing swords—the Battler!
Locked in a cumdach forged from plates of brass,
its leaves have caked and cockled, gone to grass,
and yet its songs still circulate as sound,
escaping spiral form and snapping hound.
Pursuing my own thoughts along a track
across the rocky headland Ardmeanach,
I found a basalt frieze of fossil leaves
and frozen force of trunk in low relief.
This tree outlasted Vikings, Picts, and Jutes,
transformed, but still remembering its roots.
Quarried blocks of Ben More set in stone
the legend of a dead volcanic cone.
Who heard its molten lava hiss and sing,
extruding through the crust to which it clings?
What buzzard climbed a sgurr of ashen air?
What Moses grasped the glyphs eroded there?
Returning day, volcanic spilth of dawn,
instantly overflows the Firth of Lorn:
dies irae, day of humid chill,
a day of knuckles cracking, snow on sill,
a day to counteract a night of love.
From sleep’s edge I feel a gentle shove.
Sunlight beams across this beehive cell:
a socket for the skull, a hissing shell
or cochlea, inverted coracle,
it amplifies the laughter of a gull.
This blank stone on which a blanket curled
has heard confession from a savage world.
The ferry sounds its horn, a tuba blown
by Israfel to roust these weary bones.
Illumined limbs untangle, creases fade,
extremities revive. Having strayed
all night, my thoughts return along a strand
of Helix snail shells pulverized to sand.
Venus greets the morning sun as Lucifer,
struck against Iona’s rocky spur.
Orion slipped the Outer Hebrides
four months ago and left the Pleiades
a fading smudge of fingerprint on steel.
Such tropes revolve like spokes within a wheel.
X-rays pierce a silver Tompion
pocketwatch recovered from The Swan:
beneath a calcite crust and hunter case
the sun and moon sit frozen on its face.
Time has stopped. Beleaguered Jacobites
still crouch in caves, arrested in their flights.
“Ye’ll Aye Be Welcome Back Again,” a reel,
meanders through the Bellachroy Hotel:
hung over or reprised from Friday night,
it emanates from sources out of sight.
On flute and fiddle, fingers leap like deer;
“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here.”
Zealous dukes and earls have cleared the way
for blackface sheep to trample Torosay
as clachan cedes its place to congregation,
cliff to cloud, and rupture to abrasion.
Flocks disperse from pens; the days unfold
between volcanic heat and glacial cold.
Devin Johnston’s most recent books are Creaturely and Other Essays (Turtle Point Press, 2009), reflections on the natural world, and Sources (Turtle Point Press, 2008), a volume of poetry. He co-directs Flood Editions, an independent publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University in Missouri.