Scottish Sonnets


These sonnets were written during a trip I took from the Yorkshire Dales to Edinburgh with my friend Pat Maples in June of 2009. A few more were finished in July in the South Mountain in Pennsylvania. These sonnets are for Pat Maples. Enjoy




As the Labradors black as night splash in

the morning light and swim in the current

up to their necks going for the mallards

that fly away before they get to them

it is about to rain and a chilly

cold rain it will be, clouds in clouds coming

over the hill and stone fence darkening

the baaing of the sheep, the many sheep

who stop and look at me curiously

waiting for what? For me? A nettle stings

and midges fly around my feet. England

must be many things but it is surely

this. To find my pen I had to retrace

my steps. Burnsall is the name of this place.






I do not know the flowers in the moor. 

Some are blue, and some are yellow, and those

long and bending purple—Foxtails? Foxgloves?

There is so much I do not know. I know

the sky is huge. In it the clouds don’t seem

to move although the wind around me moves

everything including me or moves

my hair at least, the grass, the limbs of trees

the rolling hills going up and down the

dale where the stone houses are moving too

mixed in the clouds that now begin to move

the day sunny and blue but cold. From the

grass paws click claws on the path, Spaniels

come running fast before their master calls.





“If precious stones weren’t hidden, would we think

very much of them?” I think about words

before I say them stuttering afterwards

never witty like the English. English

is what I speak, but I’m not English. “This

egg is not cooked.” “The egg isn’t cooked?” “No,

it hasn’t been cooked.” “It looks cooked enough.”

“Well, it won’t come apart.” “Shall you send it

back then or pretend that it’s poached?” “Young man

young man, yes you, young man, you took my bags

up the stairs yesterday. Would you be as

kind as then and bring them back down again

today? Oh yes, it is a bit of luck.

Down I should think is easier than up.”




I sit among the buttercups and sheep

shit—How beautiful the world is even

if you’re sick—O wonderful sun come down

come all the way down and make me strong. Sleep

or the lack of it, dreams where the demons

grapple—perhaps they’re taunting angels—

have exhausted me and left me mangled

but the stone is warm that I sit on

and in the boughs above the doves have filled

their coos with waking roses opening up 

for the new day, all ready to go but

me. The omens are good sit where I will

full of woe. On dandelions dark bees 

hover in my mind and cover poor me.






So here I am another place again.

Yesterday was full of trials and errors

beautiful sights and accidents. Terrors

gave way to a serene lake and looming

clouds impossible for the sun to come

through. Here we are about to. You’re almost

the moon beyond those clouds, Cyclops

of Ullswater. I see you, you me. One

moment changes things. Sheep we wear and eat

eat up the mountain baaing as they go

up the slopes between the creek and the stone

walls ages old hands formed and let go. We

must let the stones go, let go of them all

or there will be nothing not even a wall.




The little sparrows on the rocky wall

are taller than I am or the castle

is—In fact, they’re the tallest of the tall.

Then off they go with little care at all

I write about them—They have better things

to do while I am left without a wing

full of feathers to help me soar and sing

like the sparrows. Poetry must have wings!

There they are again on the highest cliff

with light and the wind preening their amber

limbs perched I know with ready mates after

a night of gathered sleep. What would I give

to see what they see? Almost anything.

What would they give for a thought for a wing?







I lost my pen that I had lost and found

again in the grass by the River Wharfe.

Not any pen will do. Pat understood

and gave me one of hers, a choice of two.

I chose the better one—At least to my

mind it was—It’s with what I’m writing now

a fine black line—I had had blue—But it

isn’t so much the color as the weight

in the comfortable flow of the ink

easing the words that it creates going

on to the next. What would they be without

an understanding friend who had a pen?

They’d be unsaid, and I’d be going on too

not the way I wanted to, but had to.




Open the window and let in the air.

This room is close and dark and dim and bare.

The curtain drawn shows there’s a world out there—

Scottish morning—The sky cloudy and clear

and like a clock three ravens on a peak

say that it’s nine, and twelve, and three if peaks

were clocks and ravens on them time. Even

from bed there is a lot to see. Moss and

grass like it up here living off the tiles

and gutters. How many hours of miles

until the Isle of Skye? Morning like me

cloudy and clear and hurrying slowly

only the nine o’clock raven remains

reminding me it’s time to start the day.






Behind is a sky of blue, in front of

that a cloud comes softly apart. A patch

of blue appears through that. At

the very top of the roof it forms a

peak on whose left edge a raven sits

abandoned by its mates. Why does it wait

letting me sketch it, no Dorian Gray

but immortal in its way doing what it’s

always done perched above a city where

many battles have been fought? It’s looking

for the end to fly down and start pecking

out the eyes of unfortunate men. Where

you will be eating, Raven of Stirling

is Iran if you fly there this morning.




Flowers have feelings. Top-heavy foxgloves 

are proud—although they’re not—their bottom was 

once their top—growing highest in the bunch

petal after petal full of itself

white, purple in dotted circles inside

and out inviting bees to come in them

and buzz. Quivering like lovers they hum.

You do not have to move to move the bee.

The highest bud above opens and sees

that it has come from those below and bends

humbly to bow to the blossoms at home

with birds and an old tree still bearing nuts

like me who has to go wake his friend up

more like the bee I suppose than the foxglove.




Foxglove, how did you get here among the

rocks? Tell me as best as you can. Speak the

language of flowers. I want to know why you

are here alone next to the sea, why you

aren’t in a garden with your family 

somewhere near the dock. On this slippery

hill of rocks that can’t hurt you like it can

me, I have scaled them all unharmed drawn

to your beautiful bowing to the dawn.

I was worried you weren’t happy but see

here comes the bee and in she goes. Mmmm

that must feel good. It does. Our destinies

change minute to minute. Today, let’s see:

the sky, the land is clear and so’s the sea.







It’s the end of the day. Play, fiddler, play!

The girl by the wall is pretty after

all, and the boys are fine and fair. The sun

has gone behind the clouds so I can see

the mountains and the sea, the Chinese and

Bengali lasses snapping their fingers

and shaking their asses. A gold earring

flashes the peeking sun that catches and 

illuminates their fun stretching across

the bay like an elongated hourglass

with dim boats coming in. He smiles. Shall I? 

The music stops; its silence fills the place

with voices where they have already been—

It’s when the music stops you notice them. 







In fact like all of human kind the rocks

along the narrow beach are all somewhat

alike yet each entirely different.

We pick them up, Pat and I, searching

for the ones that really touch us, the ones

we want: perhaps they are somewhat like us

love at first sight, bending our bodies down

examining delight or finally

not delighted letting them drop but oh

the ones we want, spots or lines throughout

touching them them touching us. Does the cloud

want to touch the mountain or the mountain

the cloud? Does the stream go down the rocks

or the rocks up? Do rocks pick friends, friends rocks? 




Some sounds you can stand and some sounds you can’t.

That clanging of something metal hitting

the iron mast I could go to sleep with

—But not now of course. Right now I want 

to write having woken up, not a soul

around but me before the dawn. Time for

thought before a thought becomes a doubt

—Just write it. The sea becomes so bright

it’s hard to see the castle collapsed in

to a grassy mound gape wide in ruin

dark hole a hollow eye inside the light.

No bloody Vikings now, only the Scots.

The world is so beautiful—A silly

thought I think—Why can’t we live in peace?







Although I want to sleep I must get up

to write this. The past is many places

bringing us to the present. On the Isle

of Skye the fishermen come in from sea

drank their tall ales listening to John Lee

Hooker still standing in their Wellingtons.

“Aye, he’s wailin’!” Here I am: a window

open to a garden: flowers and trees

each with a bird singing perfectly in

Inverness. Am I here? Here I am!

The same three words are slightly different

depending where you place them. Lochness is

just down the road. I don’t believe in dragons

but I’d believe my eyes if I saw one.




I haven’t an idea in my head

except the morning sun behind the roof

has risen high enough to come and soothe

my aching neck. Michael Jackson is dead. 

Life is one surprise after another

One could never say shock—We know  

something is always coming down the road

eggs and salmon then a flat tire later

on—Whatever might happen on the moor

soon’s yesterday. Dark clouds chill the garden

and wind stirring the pine overwhelms and

blows Americans back to their room.

Farrah Fawcett’s dead too no longer now

on her way out stopping to smell the flowers.





At Clava Cairns the hands have come and gone

arranged the stones to their rhyme and reason.

We can only guess the song, the text, the poem

where the calendar sun comes pouring down 

on us, what’s next, a walk into a mound. 

What are seconds to a stone? O moments

big as years! There is wind, a bird that sings

silence but for our footsteps making sound.

Culloden’s down the road. There on a day

two hundred sixty three years ago six

hundred Scots were slaughtered by the British

in a matter of minutes. Someday 

the Scots will rule, someday the stones will talk

someday we’ll know it all and if not not.





Packed again and about to go over

the river and through the moor a wee bit

more—Just Edinburgh. They say that it

is beautiful. We’ll see, discover.

I’m ready and not dreary like today

reflecting yellow trees in a dull door

where curtains with branches have made it more

like a room with a view of yesterday.

The mighty hills of Skye come back to me

unpacked by memory—Castles, foxgloves

—A gull passes through the reflection now.

Foot on knee, my writing desk has gone to sleep.

Foot on floor, I have to start to move it so

slowly a raven caws, “Come on, let’s go!”







It seems the fog is rising from the stones

like very chilly smoke without a flame.

Edinburgh’s been waiting centuries

to catch fire. Every chimney is the same

standing in a row, gull on one master

of all. The cries from its great throat cover

the men below who’ve made a mob and shout

about a game they’ve lost, but what is worse

an enemy has won. The sky is a

wide dank overwhelming sheet some goddess

has hung and might grab at any moment

to wring out. What’s behind or happens next? 

Who knows? There is a gull above us all

on the cobblestones of Edinburgh.





Out of the drizzle and the fog boys dressed

up like soldiers come although they’re more the

hands that wind around a clock changing the

guards. In the cry of gulls and a Scotch mist

outside the castle’s walls they stop and 

click their heels turning as if they’re on

a wheel as they take off and put back on 

bayonets. I feel no more protected than

when I hadn’t seen them, yesterday’s children

becoming men with a wife at home or

a girlfriend or a boyfriend—Who knows? Love

brings us all together and makes us want

to kiss. And then a bullet stops the rest.

The tomb of the unknown is up ahead.






I am walking between two narrow walls

a place I’d get stuck if I were fatter.

On the way you can’t meander. If not

in retreat you can only go forward

no other choice but to walk directly straight

ahead as monarchs must have walked condemned

to put their heads on the chopping block though

this passage leads to life, grows wide into

a field and other fields divided by

the winding stone fences that have been piled

carefully for centuries keeping

in the sheep grazing there above. Here one

sheep is baaing by itself. It wants out.

I’d like to help but only see the rocks.





I’m a feather for you, Honey. Don saw

me and thought of you. There’s nothing quite like

being interrupted by a nice surprise—

Not with a banjo though or stars that fall

on Alabama—Just a slim feather

with an edge of blue tinier than small

but pretty you have to admit, special

with my tip of white fallen from a bird

you probably know because you do know

birds. Don only knows that I’m not a leaf

from a tree or a stone whose destiny

was the ground, but a kin to wind I’ve flown

from Pennsylvania hoping to please

when you open the letter and see me.





Most of our fears are very silly. Last

year the state trimmed along the mountain roads

and then no milkweed grew and it was so

because everywhere I looked it looked as

if there never had been any milkweed.

My mother was dead, that was the present.

But back from Scotland now in the present

I see more milkweed than I’ve ever seen.

Virtual fields of it nod in the wind

and the weight of the sucking bees hanging

from them humming in the sunny beams

on every purple limb beginning

to give this morning fragrance not sadly

for a flowery funeral but for me.





Balanced on a sharp huge cold mossy rock

I’ll dedicate this poem to you and

everyone back to 181

and a few more yet to come because they’re

because of you inviting me along

for mornings of leisure at hotels, dales 

and moors, seasides where I could sit writing

sonnets forgetting problems in New York

refreshed by the sights and sounds traveling

listening to Keats, Baudelaire and you of course

inspiration in inspiration’s

overflow when you have the time to think

and feel though you feel you don’t feel at all

you keep writing and it’s good after all.





I brought Jenny a handsome brown teddy

from Scotland in a box that she quickly

opened, took the bear out, and squeezed his cheeks

kissing him on the lips immediately.

Hello!” Jenny says. “I’ll call you Scotty. 

You are out of that damn box forever.

You’ll never be lonely again.” With her

finger Jen bends his head Yes. “Oh!” Scotty

says, “I will never be lonely again!

Jenny is going to be my friend.” And then

Scotty nods his head again and again.

And everything he says is Yes Yes Yes.

That said, “I’ll never grow up,” Jenny grins

at Dad: “It’s too much fun being a kid.”





Every snake I saw today turned out

to be a stick, the first one this morning

was big, its head and upper part rearing

off the ground provoked as a besotted

Scotsman ready for a fight; it was a

branch broken from a pine that had impaled

the ground. Another came along the road

twisting itself into what it was

a stick that took its own good time to form. 

Right now I see that that could be a snake

down there where my ankle dangles naked

from a rock coiling half hidden in thorns

and shadows but do you know what? That mouth’s

only a stick when I figure it out.





This is what I love about my brother

He didn’t kill the rattlesnake that struck

at him when he was walking in the woods

but pushed the ferns aside afterwards with

his walking stick to see it twist aimed at

him a yard in length and thick flickering

triangular head that hadn’t bit him

and let the venom out because venom

is to be spent paralyzing a bird—

It couldn’t swallow Scott worrying it

with the stick a little bit to hear it

rattle. But that was it. My brother is

a hunter who knows where he is. A guest

doesn’t murder. He’ll never crush that head.





I’d rather watch fireflies than fireworks

pressing against the dark. “They’re vicious beasts,”

Dad says: “All they do is have sex and eat

their prey by the light they make. There’s the first 

one now!” I look watching it glowing go

out quickly back into the dusk again 

flickering up the wood going off and on.

It disappears then shows the arbor’s post.

The sky has its stars, the earth its fireflies

that come to give us light as the light dies.

On Judgement Day they say that souls will rise

—Stories I’ve heard around a campfire—Eyes

opening with a familiar regard

knowing who I am knowing who they are.





I learned that Michael Jackson died from the

newspaper left at my hotel door in

Inverness though on first seeing his face

I thought it was about the concert soon

to take place in London. Back in New York

I teach a class next to the Apollo

and have to push my way through crowds that come

to pay their respects writing on the wall

there. I see not only Americans

but Chinese holding pens, French, Arabic

and Spanish that’s been written. All drawn here

hear a universal chord, a boy who jumped

for joy. Some say he wasn’t a poet

but it wasn’t about the words, was it?





So far this morning there’ve been lesbians

saddling up their horses, a gold tiny

feather that had fallen, and a sunny

bunny close enough to see the dark veins

run thin and red through its pearlescent ears

before it hopped away. The lesbians

are coming through the trees. I imagine

them bare-breasted about to appear

in a chorus of birds. I am so glad

I’m here. This mountainside is freeing

me from ambition’s leash and worrying.

It’s the milkweed I think. Last year, a sad

year I thought it was no longer here

but I see bees and blossoms everywhere.



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