James Armstrong


Postcards from Scotland

A Queen’s Own Highlander in a pleated skirt
and ostrich feathers grasps his service carbine
like a drover’s stick, stares across the Victorian
high street in front of the ScotRail station.
Couched at his stockinged knee, an unlikely
miniature Sphinx surveys the neatly
chiseled names of those on expedition
to Khartoum, the battle of Tel-El Kabir:
half of them died from fever and dysentery.
Down the street, the Highland Formal Wear
rent shop offers sporrans, Prince Charlie cutaways,
sgian dubhs, thistle cufflinks, the complete
drag show of imperial ethnicity.
The square reeks of sausage rolls and burnt coffee.
The highland forest was a sodden sponge;
the path squelched beneath us as we clung
to the stoss and corkscrewed up the plunge
of Precambrian grindstones covered in moss
and midges. Then the view cleared off
to well-spaced birches and the barren loft
of knee-eying heath, the woody, tough
shrubs that kept their heads down, had just enough
ingenious flies to court them. Perhaps they found
the dreich invigorating, for what
they could distill of it,
all that upland vacancy, drear and hushed.
Perhaps no-one else wanted it?
Someone had though, once—fair-haired or not.
Someone had been pushed off, leaving us
the Loch’s blue look, and plenty of desolation.
Twenty-six miles of glacial trench
shivered with peatish water—torn gusts
drove squadrons of foam across the reach
barren as it was deep. The relict forest
clung to the glen’s drop like a green kilt.
The villages were stony, somnolent;
Urquhart Castle, a dynamited remnant—
such basalt abandonments
demand, like any void, a compensation
which the brochures hastened to depict:
a phantom, offered to the camera’s click
or appearing as a sonar blip,
a smudged dragon, corporeally aloof,
equally derided as a slick
of motor oil, a sea bird, or a joke—
the infinite regress, the veiled face of proof.

JAMES ARMSTRONG is the author of two poetry books, Monument in a Summer Hat (New Issues Press, 1999) and Blue Lash (Milkweed Editions, 2006) and is the co-author of a book of essays, Nature, Culture and Two Friends Talking (North Star Press 2015). Armstrong is a recipient of the PEN-New England Discovery Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship in poetry. He is a Professor of English at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. He was Winona’s first Poet Laureate. He posts essays and drawings at https://thinearth.blog/