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Under Beinn Ruadhainn

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For Andrew O’Hagan

Three moons in the sky
the night they found him
drowned in Sawtan’s Bog;
just his cap, sitting there
and his wee fat hands poking out.
It was no loss
to the village, I told them
next morning,
and the villagers agreed.
Horn-daft, he was,
havering and glaikit
and scaring the children.
I mind that time
he picked up a mouse
and ate it, quick,
in two mouthfuls;
set the tail aside
on the ground
like a cocktail stick.

I used her well, after that,
his Jennie,
still in her widow’s weeds,
gilping into her
whenever I could,
in the barn or the boathouse
or off in the fields.
She slipped two or three out at least,
and sank each one in a lobster creel.
Her head was away
by the end, as mad as her man
and no good to me.
She sleeps now
under Beinn Ruadhainn, her face
covered in ivy,
scab, and sticky-willow.

The dreams came then.
Last night, the burning loch,
so full of bairns
they bobbed to the surface
with their hair on fire;
black snow; fingers
coming through the floorboards;
rain like razor blades;
the foosty-faced man,
there at every corner,
hands furred with grey-mould.
And her, as always,
star-naked, hatching
in the herring-nets.
The last I remember
was my body being driven
with sticks through the town
to Sawtan’s Brae, and hanged.

I broke from sleep and sat up sweating,
dream-fleyed in the dark.
I groped around for the matches
and the matches were put in my hand.

Beinn Ruadhainn: (Gaelic) “summit of the red place”—“Ruadhainn” pronounced “riven,” anglicised as “Ruthven”; horn-daft: quite mad; havering: babbling, speaking nonsense; glaikit: vacant, idiotic; gilping: spurting, spilling; foosty: mouldy, gone bad; fleyed: frightened.
Source: Poetry (September 2011)

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

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Under Beinn Ruadhainn

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  • Born in Perthshire, poet Robin Robertson was brought up on the northeast coast of Scotland where, as he says in a 2008 interview, “history, legend and myth merged cohesively in the landscape.” Robertson’s early influences include the stories of Celtic and Classical myth, the vernacular ballads, and folklore. His deeply sensory poems explore notions of love and loss framed by the dialogue between the classical and the contemporary. Describing the poet’s task, Robertson tells of the desire to reveal “the refreshed world and, through a language thick with sound and connotation and metaphor, make some sense: some new connection between what is seen and felt and what is understood.” As a reviewer for the New Yorker notes, “The genius of this Scots poet is for finding the sensually charged moment—in a raked northern seascape, in a sexual or gustatory encounter—and depicting it in language that is simultaneously spare and ample,...

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