Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: Edgelands

‘A Woman on the Edge’ – workshop project of prose and poetry: Omega.

One day nature will declare my work-in-progress a canon, and there will be an omega stamped, sealed, upon my work. It will be as final as a horseshoe-print on my skull, a line drawn underneath the last word on the last page. The moment before that line is drawn and the Omega is spoken I know that I will be praying to write just one more line, one more metaphor. Perhaps it would have been as apt a metaphor as – life imitating art – was drawn by those foresters who lately cut down some trees in a piece of Perthshire woodland. No doubt in an act of supposed ‘management’ they culled those on which, a couple of months previously, hand-written poems of mine had been pinned, but more than management it seemed like retribution exacted by the landowners for their having participated in an act of revolution. Cruel landowner! Cruel foresters! The trees were innocent bystanders, or at most unwitting insurrectionists!

Still, it made me think.

It knocked clean out of my head my project of hidden poetry, buried under the earth and leaf-mold of the forest floor. In its place was panic at the thought that a day would come when I produced no new poetry, not simply poetry that would remain unseen. How awful a glimpse of mortality!

I shall seed amongst old books some scraps and notes, lines in my hand on the backs of old envelopes, hints of manuscripts completed but undiscovered, so that there will always be speculation as to whether any ‘canon’ is complete, whether there are poems out there new to the reader’s eye. I shall redecorate my house, writing in felt marker upon a wall before I apply paste and paper, so that – perhaps – when they blue-plaque the building with a reverent Marie Marshall, author and poet, lived here it may be treasure-trove. I shall give my man-of-law a box and specify that it is never to be opened.

Such you may consider to be sleight of hand, deception, half-lies, total falsehoods, and finite even if secretly so. I shall bequeath to other poets a phrase each, an idea, some few words, a sentence, a rhythm, a rhyme – something. Along with each bequest will be a plea for them to run with it, weave it in-and-out of the pommiers of their poetic orchard or of the bollards and signposts of their city streets, to mortar it as a reclaimed brick into their own wall. I will release my works to the world and say: If you have a mind to poetry, then lift these, re-mould them, extract text from them, expand the images and metaphors, or simplify them, encapsulate them in seventeen syllables, do anything you wish… but please be sure to acknowledge them!

Perhaps there is an Edgeland between life and death, and this is why we believe in ghosts; perhaps my own dreams – the ones where I can fly, rather as one treads water – are intimations of this state seen through a crack in time and space. If this is so, I might be watching as it all unfolds. I might be the goose that walks over the grave of the reluctant poet – the one who doesn’t pitch in – and makes him shiver. You have been warned.

Bat, man, batman, batsman.

Crypto-anthropology is a word I thought I might have invented (like ‘polemophonic’ – pertinent to the sound of warfare, ‘polemophonics’ – the study of the sounds of warfare) but it seems not. A pity, considering my interest in the Moosh-Moosh. But then I didn’t invent ‘futilitarian’ or ‘eukelele’ either, although the latter is only a pre-existing, alternative spelling. Here is my butterfly mind flitting from flower to thoughtflower for the brief summer of its life, digressing from the off. Here’s what I mean to say:

Cities grow. Ours did. Track outwards from the centre and you will see where the margins were, how they advanced and were filled in, how they swallowed neighbouring villages and towns, how there are rural names for roads and faubourgs mixed in with the newer names that commemorate royalty, trees, Scottish islands. Between the city and me there is woodland and parkland, but in that woodland there is a golf course. Golf courses are things of the Scottish ‘edge’ as farmers diversify in hard times. Also there is a water tower for the nearest of the city’s housing schemes that lie on the other side of the wood. The parkland, once the estate of a conquering admiral, is now a pleasure park for the citizens, complete with zoo and funfair. Only on the edge could such things be.

Is my village itself still a village? Its dormitory status makes it almost a suburb, yet it has or had a number of edge-features – a caravan park, and at one time an indoor play-area for children with a ball-pool and such like. Oh flit, flitter, flutter, fritillary. Anyhow, here’s what I mean to say… no really…

Attached to our Millennium Hall are a bowling green and playing fields. There is fitba of course, but also a cricket pitch. Cricket is not unknown in Scotland, of course, and much further north in the land too, but it is nevertheless a curiosity to many, something you would have to turn your head to gawk at if you were passing on a bus. It isn’t entirely a haven for expatriate English and third-generation South Asian Scots either, but it is an edgy place where crypto-anthropology has recently taken a strange turn. I think so. I had to think so when someone told me that the cricket team had a member who was half-man and half-bat.

I remember thinking that they were making a play on the word ‘bat’, but no, they meant it literally. There is a man nominally on their playing strength who has the arms and wings of a bat. He goes by the name of Doug Millar. He can fly, though he hardly ever does, and only once has done so on the field of play. He was fielding at silly-point when a farmer’s son from Forfar let fly a square cut with his full strength. Doug dived out of the way to avoid harm – there was no way he could have stopped the ball, let alone caught it, without risk of injury – and in diving he spread his wings. He only flapped them once but that was enough to allow him to glide over the outfield towards the Third Man boundary where he banked sharply, caught a thermal, and soared. Thankfully the umpire was about to call a drinks break anyway and Doug wasn’t even off the field long enough to warrant substitution by Twelfth Man. He returned red-faced and apologetic for his lapse.

Doug is not of this world. He is a Thogrian, which many folk mistakenly write as ‘Thorgian’, a unique marooneer on our planet and a castadrift from the world of Goldilocks 4. The cricket club doesn’t shout about him, they’re cagey blokes. If he could handle the willow or the cork-and-leather a wee bit better, or if ever he flew from Fine Leg to take a catch at Gully, it might cause questions amongst the rules committee of the league in which our village team plays. But he’s a plodder with both ball and blade and an average though conscientious fielder, driven less by skill than by his love for the game.

I have always wanted to talk to him but have never succeeded. I heard that he was due to be at the last home game so I went there and hung about the pavilion, searching amongst the whited players on the field or waiting their innings on deck chairs. I couldn’t see him. Then someone told me he was in the scorers’ hut for that match and couldn’t be disturbed. And that’s when I caught sight of him, very briefly, walking back to the hut with a tray of teacups and a teapot, his wings folded across his back. For some reason he had affected a Mohawk haircut.

I am told that if he excels in any respect it is as a scorer. His entries in the score book are precise, instant, and accurate. He uses an ancient Parker fountain pen but never makes a blot, and indeed there is a little Gothic flourish every time he records a ‘W’ for wicket. I think that he’ll be in that hut whenever I make an appearance at the cricket pitch. I think I have missed my chance. The hut is sacrosanct.

You see… I want to tell him that I can fly too, even though I only have conventional arms. I can’t soar as he does, though I have tried it once or twice when leaping from the King’s Seat, beyond Abernyte. Each time I could feel the wind under my arms, but my descent was too rapid and I had to resort to flapping hard to maintain any height and to land safely. I want to share with him that sweet, intimate knowledge of the upper air and of seeing the land turn beneath me. I have to speak this truth to someone who will not say I have been dreaming.

‘A Woman on the Edge’ – Railway poetry

Railway footbridge, Perth.

My careful paces, three to the second, carry me
across the worn, regular plates of the footbridge; a slight give,
spring, a dull noise that dies, and if I pause to look
over the rail into the slack, dark backwater,
the black-to-silver flash of heron-bait fry
flickers against the turvy tree and the negative sky.

I know that by the hedges at the far side of the bridge,
where an old gate leans, black flies will be haze-hanging,
trailing their lazy legs in the air, and that I might be taken
by the sudden ambiguity of a butterfly, resting
on a stoical stone, all red-gold-in-shadow.

Yet to come, but first a one-boy riot of slapping trainers
in a terrified sprint to win the far side before a train comes,
oh the clangour of drowned bells his feet make; be quick, be quick!
Who knows what cracks may open and
what worlds may be tumbled into if the monster should arrive;
would the boy be left senseless, eyes a-distance,
or a wicked, smiling changeling, or a pair of empty shoes?
Is there such magic, such old, unwritten wizardry in the everyday places?
I have no idea, but he has me running fit-to-win as well!

The view from a train

Travelling by rail gives me views I am not supposed to have. Human activity and urban sensibility demand that I approach by road, on foot or by car, and see the face that places want to project – the front of a house, the shop façade, the planned vista. The railway, on the other hand, ignores convention and ducks around the side and back, and for all that impoliteness it barges through in a straight line or at best in a gentle and graceful curve as though ignoring the things it passes. But surely things were built this way? Surely the railway was here before the majority of the landmarks of the townscape?  Maybe. Nevertheless even the Georgian villas present the reverse of their wooden fences to me, the obverse being a quiet component of a garden. It is not the train that sees things at all, it doesn’t care a jot for the intrusion, its progress is a linear dance to the tune of its diesel motor and the rhythms of the track. It is I who am the voyeur, keeking at the dirty underwear of the town. The town doesn’t care. It was built this way, showing its bent and ugly back to the travelers, showing us contempt. “I shall show hoi polloi my arse! Folk of quality roll up to my front door by carriage, knock, present a gilt-edged card. Only the ragged are shuttled behind me. If they demand respect, let them come by foot and see my porticos, my pediments, my railings of wrought iron.”

Not that we notice, of course. Newspaper, book, and now laptop, iPod, iPhone, iPad, tablet, gamer… only the indolent (me) technophobe (me) lexophobe (me) looks out of the window,


sometimes the town shuts with a bang. Someone has built a new housing estate that just out into the countryside. Its edge is as sharp as a kitchen-knife, and the green field full of sheep with dirty wool and patches of reddle leaps up at me immediately the instant I pass in the train. Whose idea was this insanity? Who decreed that there should be no debatable area but instead of that an ugly, stark interface?

There is a pick-up-sticks of broken doors,
poles, planks, grey and shadowed in angularity;
my head turns in direct proportion
to the speed of the train, and the sight is lost…

unless of course… the weather turns against us…

… rain making scars
across the face of a window.

In summer the rose bay willow herb is dense. Or is it loosestrife? The former I think. Someone I knew called it railway weed, or parson’s prick because it pops up everywhere – episcopalis vulgaris erectens or some such. I wrote a story once about being asked by an elderly Japanese couple what the tall, pink weeds at the side of the track were, and how I watched them mouth each word carefully. Rose. Bay. Willow. Herb. I can’t find it now. This tall, waving plant is the hair on the back of the town’s neck. It blushes and is beautiful from a distance, ugly close-to. It sighs and bows to the train’s bow-wave. It has its own eyes and watches back, pink-lidded and dusty with sleep. Left to its own devices it would colonise no further. It seems not to need to. It seems to know the limit of its domain. No flower defines the edge more than rose bay willow herb.

‘A Woman on the Edge’ – workshop project of prose and poetry, part 3

The moosh-moosh

In the marginal lands between city and countryside there lives a type of rare hominid known as the ‘moosh-moosh’. The name appears to be of Romany origin and until recently these shy creatures would only reveal themselves to travelling folk. In fact so secretive and shy are they that most settled folk continue to deny their existence.

Their natural habitat is, or was according to anthropological speculation, the cave. However since intensive agriculture has decimated the wild places of Britain in the south, and deforestation and sheep-farming has done the same in the north, the moosh-moosh have moved into the new wilderness that humans have created, the wilderness that is neither urban nor rural but which is found on the margin between the two.

In build they resemble humans almost exactly, except for their apparent superior muscle tone. They are stocky but not fat. Their skin is pale but is hardly visible except on the face, the rest of their heads and bodies being covered in a light, reddish-brown fur. Their faces are large and broad but not un-handsome. Some observers believe them to be descended from the last remnants of the Neanderthalers, but this is mere speculation. They go naked but appear to be totally without any sense of shame. Deprived of their natural habitat, they have occupied such spaces as unwanted cargo containers. A small group was discovered living in an old Nissen hut on what was a WW2 airfield but upon which a new housing estate was encroaching, and it was this extended family that became the first moosh-moosh to encounter its homo sapiens cousins, or at least the settled and civilised branch of our species, with more regularity than before, gaining a certain controversial fame in academic circles and becoming a minor tourist attraction, especially for a few savvy if brash Americans.

Communicating with moosh-moosh is problematical. Folklore tells us that they and the Romany people once made themselves understood by a system of mutual hand-signs and by a few syllables of human speech, but if that folklore is based on truth it is a tenuous truth and the faculty has long-since evaporated. The interface between us and the moosh-moosh is akin to that between an adult and an autistic child, except that they will meet our eye with a steady gaze. There is no hint of comprehension in that gaze, with the exception that if you hurt one of them their expression hints at puzzlement and sadness. They seem to be asking silently “Why?” Violence is alien to them.

Their own speech sounds like a cross between the cooing of doves and a human whistle. It is quiet speech and they use it sparingly, spending long periods in communal silence. I have tried to imitate their sounds whenever I have been amongst the ‘Nissen Family’, as this particular group has come to be known, and whenever I have done so they have turned a softened gaze upon me as if to say that they appreciate my attempts. The only time I have ever seen a definite communication between moosh-moosh and homo sapiens was when I arrived at the same time as a knot of transatlantic tourists. The moosh-moosh were about to eat, which they do communally, and a female came behind us making insistent, shepherding gestures, urging us to sit down with them.

Moosh-moosh food is simple, consisting of a kind of cake made from the seeds of wild grasses sweetened with honey or with whatever berries are in season, or flavoured with hedgerow herbs. They share their food evenly between all who are present, even with homo sapiens, although the latter sometimes find it hard to digest. I am always conscious that they have scarcely enough to spare. In winter they are, if anything, less semi-visible than they are at other times of the year; it was thought that they hibernate – the Romany always said so – but in fact they spend most of this time when little sustenance is available huddled together for warmth in foraged straw and under salvaged tarpaulins.

Their groups and extended families are without hierarchy and are highly co-operative. If two or more discrete groups should meet there is no competition, but rather all direct themselves towards mutual benefit. Their delight is in each other, and it is a full and complete delight.

They make no art, no music, and of course no literature, but their appreciation of the natural world appears to be total. It is an appreciation apparently not born of awe or of anything mystical but rather seems to be one of immersion, joy, participation. It is a happy state free of the twin mental yokes of religion and science, a state which proves that mutuality rather than competition is the highest law of evolution.

The last time I sat down with the ‘Nissen Family’ of moosh-moosh I felt their hands gently resting on my shoulders and arms. Their gaze had softened and seemed to express some kind of sympathy. I realised that I had been crying. I tried to smile, and indeed their caresses were comforting, but this display of empathy, this acceptance of myself almost as one of them was so poignant that my tears continued. There was so much I wanted to say to them.

Oh, my dear Nissen Family, as dear to me as my own family! My dear, precious, innocent moosh-moosh! If only you knew my true nature and the nature of all of my brothers and sisters, the homo sapiens. If only you knew the depth and height of our jealousy, our insecurity, our vainglory. If only you knew how cruel we are. You, I know, are no children except inasmuch as you have preserved the innocence of childhood. You are no distant cousin, no Neanderthal throwback. You are of the same root and stock as we are, you are people, but you are people who took the decision long ago to follow the path of pure wisdom, to seek nothing but that which was good, nothing but what you actually needed. You are wise beyond our capacity to be wise. Yet in that wisdom you are as foolish as saints. What are fences and hedges to you? What are the divisions and boundaries that we set up in the face of nature to you? What are the frowns on the faces of farmers and householders to you when you forage their barley and their chives? What is our folly to you, the folly that points to something and says “Mine”?

If only I could convey this to you before it is too late, before you become nothing more than a dwindling number of anthropological or zoological specimens, a theme park, ‘Moosh-Moosh-Land’, an insignificant detail of history, a small entry in Wikipedia, a cuddly toy. If only you would realise this before we come for you, before we take you away, before we make you our playthings, before we study, catalogue, abuse, dissect, and destroy you, before we turn upon its head your evolutionary success and make a lie out of it. We are monsters, my dear family, monsters. We are ugly in our complexity, ogres, madmen!

You sit here in utter patience, lambs of the God you do not know, every one. Why do you not start up, why do you not run? Why do you not find all your tribes and families and hide in what remains of the forest? Why do you not go deep into our abandoned mines and conceal yourselves? Why do you not remove yourselves from our sight and memory before we remove you entirely from the world? Why do you sit so patiently, witnesses to all that is good, a light that will soon be put out? Are you somehow driven to prove to us what brutes we are?

We are your brothers and sisters but we are also your executioners. We hold your death warrant in our hands.

‘A Woman on the Edge’ – workshop project of prose and poetry, part 2

image (c) James Allan

Caravan Storage 

There is a lane behind my house. It runs straight,
all along the backs of our gardens, a hedge to one side
of dense beech and hawthorn, garden fences to the other.
Today there is a litter of pace-egg shells; kids,
despairing of a slope, have hurled their treasures
at the high, thick, brown wood, and they have fallen
amongst a rash of tiny mauve flowers. The flowers dare me,
taunt me as a ‘nature-poet’, challenge me to name them,
and I can’t; the flowers win, and nod slightly to themselves.
I am no Janus. I confess I look outwards from the town,
never inwards; I can be found pent by the first barbed wire
when it is winter, clutching numbly with my fingers,
beside the prayer-flagging shreds of polythene,
gibbeted rags riven from their scavenged corpses,
making the only music above the wind in my ears,
harsh, a relentless clatter like the tearing of paper.
Now, spring, I strain to mark the place where dunnock,
finch, and wren give way to jay and woodpecker,
and that corsair southerner the magpie – curse her! –
where lawnmower is drowned in a sea of new leaf-rustle.
And yet at the end of the lane I am always surprised
by acres of caravans, so I turn right, looking to lose myself
in the wood, where one is always north of the road,
west of the golf course, south of the water tower,
east of the houses and one field of grass-keep,
and where in autumn I come across lost golf balls
as often as fly agaric. Today, perverse, I turn left
instead of right and wander where the phalanx of caravans sits,
silent, almost terminally silent; I expect a dog to bark
or a man to shout, but it is as though life is waiting,
as dormant as each caravan, as flat as the pale sheet of their sides,
the sky, the clouds, angled towards me in each window,
blind girls’ eyes, colours that can see no colours.
Behind me, diagonally across a field, it is playtime
at the school, the yard sharp and joyful with children –
here amongst these sleepers the kids’ cries are yips
and yaps that vie with the conversation of sparrows.
At the end of the very last row I could push through
a thin screen of trees to contemplate the brown furrows,
but why not, for once, sit with my back to a post
or perch on a metal step to look back? Find a vantage, Marie,
from which to gaze at this oblong promontory,
the imposition of order certainly, but left
to weather the seasons, tarmac pebbling at the edges,
grass high, dandelions asserting themselves,
crows wheeling awkwardly above, panels of pea green,
aquamarine, sunburst yellow baking to fade
in the Scottish sun. Along with caws from the tattered,
fragmented flight, the sound of the breeze
whipping a loose washing line, the clink of a tool
on an engine block, a hint of raucous diesel
from the mini-coach headquarters. The sight of roofs,
grey, grey, and pale pantile-red, slipping away to my right;
the insect-crawl of a tractor along the plumbline road.
I could sit here until night, when the dark is drilled
by streetlights, stars, and the red beacon atop the TV mast,
by the wing-tips of an old Fokker 50 in steady climb;
I could wait for owls; I could come back in autumn
and spy bats out of the corner of my eye, after days
spent brambling, the corners of my mouth hurting,
pie-hungry, my fingers bloodied and pricking;
I could mark the turns and twists of the year not so much
by the cold or by the rain but by the depth of the furrows,
the voices of the sheep, the ins and outs of the caravans,
the headlights on the tractors, the saltired contrails
on the blue flag of a Scottish sky. I could take root,
become a laminate print of myself, still as a Madonna,
and lean one-quarter-starwards as the caravan windows do.
I could become part of the debate that is this corner of my county.
Listen – is that the distant whip and pock of golf club against ball,
or a thrush anviling a snail? Is that a Romany terrier barking
or the cut-short cry of a gull, a child, the creak of a wind-driven hinge?
Eventually, of course, I will simply leave, go home;
but on the way I will pass a couple who have been
hand-in-handing it along the lane and, as always,
I will notice the young woman’s hair, conclude that it is
a cross between Baltic amber and that drift of old beech leaves
piled against the padlocked door of the shed I have never seen opened,
and I will rush to box myself in my house to write poems
to the Icon of the Angel with Golden Locks, striving
obsessively for the perfection that is never there in the world,
but without which we could not write, or paint, or sing.
The things which go on at this edge will go on without me,
as ignorant of me as I will be of them, because that is in our natures,
tenacious, just like cuckoo-spit on reed-grasses, oil patches on concrete,
the green of dock-stain on nettled thumbs; unlike my words
which stick in the mind less than the letters on an old, flattened can,
the painted number on that shed door, the half-buried
number plate of the old Vauxhall, and which, if read aloud,
are somehow less musical than the rattle of gravel under
slow van-wheels, the drone of a motor in low gear.
This box – home – is the inside of my head; out there
amongst the ranks and rows of trailer-homes is dreaming,
dream-time, another place entirely, conflicted with
the coming and going of images, unsafe, ambiguous,
flirting with the bizarre rather than fighting the familiar,
as though each was mildly irritated by the other
but neither could ignore the attraction, opposite poles
pulled together, magnetic lines compressed, penetrating,
alloyed, brazed at the edges, bitumen spilled onto grass,
grass spearing asphalt, weight and counter-weight,
blade and counter-blade, kiss and counter-kiss.
If there is a centre of the world, a true axis,
then the world will spin on an imaginary line
between two such places. The centre of everything
must be just that – the centre of everything, the bisection,
even the meeting of dreams and reality. And yet…