The Gaelic Garden of the Dead

an excerpt



A I L M — F I R

I. First Witness: Sweetness of Fire

I open with a mouth of burning coal,
burst from the bitter bone of my skull
so suicides will come down to drink.

Forespoken water, rubbed on astonished eyes of the future,
scarred the horses with lovers’ curses,
drew the wershness out of voices, whispered
into quenched ashes —

Love’s eyes are colourless:
a motive for moving through underworlds.

Voice-walker, I open speech —

demolishing the Antonine Wall, Pictish scribes,
Latin scrawlings — I deciphered them all,
reminiscing on disappearance
of Roman legions in a Caledonian forest
led by Picti into hazel thickets.
Those were true hieroglyphs.

A body language of human sacrifice:
the skeleton’s articulate dust.

II. Second Witness: Ash Feòlach

Wild tinder of bone,
young charcoal marrow.

Bone char of sugar,
tendon pyre,

Black heather suffumigation.
I drown in smoke

Like the young centurion
who lit the char bone god —
His tree has shout,
His tree is raked in oak:

In historia vision
Est historia exspiravit —

The history of vision
Is the history of ghost.

III. Third Witness: Stauncher of Shade

Will fire turn jealous of wood?
Wood be consumed by envious smoke?

Throat to spirit throat
I rose,
beheld my head bones cross-wise broken,
hung in the burnt flesh of morning.

Colourless bestiaries pant at my feet,
Temperatures rising, rust my face.

I taught my shadow to rest for a while,
to rest in the shade from the heat.

But shade is only the surface
it is cast upon made darker;
saturation by shadow.
A mountain made blue by distance
when sleet climbs the pines. A haunting
by hue. Colour, expanse, accident,
temperatures of darkness seep
beyond that which keeps my gaze —
sight-locked time did not witness
terse tints my own shadow moved
therein double crossing the spectrum
with additives of rowan, rainbow oil
of peat water, broken blackthorn —
this shadow cum silt reflection
rises and swills at the back of my throat.

Now water’s fiery modulation, bottle filled flame-water,
finds the voice grain in the singer, rising up unto itself.

Pitched to the green horses’ frenzy, fetlock
to fetlock. I fixed them up myself.
Horses, whose strong backs
boys stood upon. Roped still, for hanging.

I undo my eyes, my mouth, my coat.

NOVEMBER 2018 MacGillivray MONK

About this excerpt    This image of MacGillivray is taken in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Cave on Elgol, Isle of Skye. Taking five separate excursions to locate, MacGillivray took a young MacDonald piper to record his reels in the cave for her Gaelic film: ‘Aisling Sheòrais MhicDhòmhnaill: George MacDonald’s Dream’, shot on Skye in 2014. 

MacGillivray’s forthcoming book ‘The Gaelic Garden of the Dead’ (Bloodaxe, February 2019), tracks some of the experiences on Skye in an alphabet of trees which witness a Highland hanging. Here too, is Mary Queen of Scots. MacGillivray wrote 35 sonnets in situ at Fortheringhay on the anniversary of MQS’ execution and then muttered, chewed and ground them up for the fifteen minutes. Mary’s lips were said to move after decapitation.

The excerpt is the beginning of the ‘The Gaelic Garden of the Dead’ and the first tree in the alphabet of trees.


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