I’m sitting in Edinburgh’s Poetry Library. I often sit here. I sometimes work here. It is modern, bright, quiet, and never too warm. Like being at home, I need an extra layer here.
The soundscape moves from quiet footsteps and soft tapping keyboards to the gentle hubbub of staff dealing with visitors’ enquiries. They speak on the phone in clear, modulated voices, then update each other on how plans are coming along for the forthcoming Burns Night.
Soft-spoken A. (it says on his badge), has hung up the phone. I take in his slightly under-nourished frame, his thick glasses and startled hair, giving the impression of just having seen a ghost. “That was Lachlan Maclachlan*. Took him twenty minutes to say, ‘Yes, I can do it.’” He laughs, kindly. My ears prick up at the mention of one of the country’s most prominent journalists. I like that it took him twenty minutes to say ‘yes’, that he had time for pleasantries, a yarn. They chat a little more, and the silence sits back down into the shelves.
I wonder at the difference between eavesdropping and being alive to the world. A chair creaks, a page is turned. A deep comfort settles within me as I sit wrapped in books. I love the order of this place; the order without and the order within. I love the reference numbers on the book spines; sections for poets, sections for anthologies. I love selecting a book at random and eyeing the table of contents, the index of first lines. They are presented like a delicious menu of meals to be discovered. Some are clean and spare and straightforward, like boiled rice and beans. Others are complex, layered, each word sparking ten ideas inside my head; these are the rich, buttery sauces, a little goes a long way; they can bloat me.
I read the acknowledgements: love expressed to long-suffering partners, ‘without whose forbearance this collection could never have been written’; gratitude extended to a wealthy friend, ‘such boundless generosity’ for the use of their summer house by the Aegean Sea; regret for the mother, ‘a life live in sacrifice,’ who hasn’t lived to see her daughter’s work in print: ‘through my words you live’.
For me, it is an emotional space where I drink a distillation of thousands of hopes and dreams and yelps and screams. I look up at the sloping, pale green ceiling. It’s the colour of new growth on hawthorn bushes, when it comes. ‘Bread and butter’ – that’s what my dad called those tiny buds. He taught me to nip them from the bare branch and chew.
“Close your eyes, you can taste better. Does that taste like butter or does that taste like butter?”
“It tastes like butter.”
“And try this, it’s the flower of a whin** bush. Go on, it’ll do you no harm. Tell me what that tastes like?”
“Spot on. Bright yellow coconut blooming up Ireland’s back lanes, who would have thought it?”
Staring at the ceiling lets my thoughts escape. Three equidistant discs of a metre diameter have been cut into the ceiling to let the sky fall into the room. There are so many days in Edinburgh when the sky isn’t even there to fall, when only drab plates of grey puncture the green meadow above. Today I gaze up to the miracle of a blue sky with scudding clouds. Surrounded by poetry books feels like lying in the warmth of the equatorial evening sun. I close my eyes and bathe.
This Poem…… by Elma Mitchell
This poem is dangerous; it should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably, in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless, by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart.
* I’ve changed the name. I don’t think Lachlan Maclachan is a famous broadcaster. If he is, it wasn’t him.
** whin – gorse