Robin into Scots

It was when I read this poem by Robin that I suddenly realised I could work in Scots, that there could be a connection worth exploring across two such closely-related languages. Something about the relationship between the speaker and his father spoke immediately to me, both personally and culturally.

My own relations with my father don’t resemble the scenario here at all, but he has been ill, and that certainly resonated. But, as importantly, Scottishness and machismo and stern paternalism still go together in a particularly grim mix. I thought of the God of Tom Leonard’s ‘Feed ma lamz’ for instance, and any number of fictional faithers, and it seemed this poem could stand as something of a commentary on all that.

Father on Earth

With a hobbling gait
my father whips out his dick
and pisses like a dog.
He’s 86 and lost his reason.
Not quite, for when he loses his temper
he blurts out: “Dog’s cunt”.
But the man who never prayed
when I was a kid
and asked us to burn his horoscope
is now humming hymns.
What is the matter with him?
Is it the strain of dementia
which is supposed to run in the family?
Is he penitent about his infidelities?

I remember his gentle physician’s hands
that mended my fractured fears
as a child,
his joke about village dogs
refusing to bark at Rip Van Winkle,
his histrionic tale of Bremen’s musicians.

My mother, long-suffering and prejudiced
could never catch a wink when he shouts
in the dead of night as his demons needle him.
But she often holds his hands and caresses them
and talks to him as one would to a child.
She’s been doing this for years now.
So it must be love.
My father now mimics my little daughter.
In fact, he is the son I never had.

*

Oor Faither oan Yirth

Wi a hirplin step
meh father whups oot’iz cock
and pishes lyk a dug.
He’s echty six and huz tint his wits.
No quite, fur when he loses his rag
he shoots aff, ‘Cunt o a wee mutt!’
But thi man wha niver prayed
when Eh wiz a bairn
and askit us tae burn’iz catechisms
is noo hummin hymns.
Whit’s wrang wi him?
Is it thi gaga thing
that’s meant tae rin i thi faimly?
Is he sorry fur hiz swivin yet?

Eh mind his douce doactir’s haunds
that mendit thi fractures in meh fears
as a wean,
his gag aboot thi dugs fae the village
that widnae bowff at Rip Van Winkle,
thi big drama he made oot o thon band o baists fae Bremen.

Meh mither, that tholed aathin and tolerated naebody
couldnae catch hauf a wink fur his skreiks
i thi middle o thi nicht oan his deevils’ heckle-pins.
But she aften hauds his haunds and pats them
and blethers at him lyk he’s a bairn.
She’s been daein ut fur years
sae ut huz tae be luve.
Noo meh faither apes meh wee dochter.
In fact, he’s thi son Eh niver hud.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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