from Iona

Mick Imlah

copyright ©Mick Imlah, 2008

My right hand is Nessie’s head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur?
    or fifty million years.
Can the dinosaur sing? No,
too old; but likes to be soothed
    by others singing.

I open her thumb-
    and-finger beak
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
‘Take me to your leader!’
—to which you instantly,
    I haven’t got any leader.

What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Darling—’little’—Mädchen—the same
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.

Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such,
that we can spend an age without
    a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean
prophetics of a closed book.

Notes on the Poem

Scottish poet and editor Mick Imlah passed away at age 53 in January 2009. The following spring, his last poetry collection, The Lost Leader, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. "Iona" comes from that collection. The poem excerpt captures a sweet exchange between gently doting parent and spritely, spirited child. The little game in which they're engaged ... "My right hand is Nessie's head, her neck my dripping arm" evokes the Loch Ness monster, one of the many legends of Scotland referenced throughout the collection. The child charmingly upends the game with her feisty reply: "I haven't got any leader." It's a comment that reinforces a recurring theme in the collection, as observed by the Griffin Poetry Prize judges:
"Haunted by forgotten figures, lost guides, the divided, leaderless, often feckless characters in Imlah’s poems have to make their own way, now that ‘the fire of belonging was out’."
Before the reader can even consider that the child has spoken unwittingly prescient words, Imlah swiftly answers with almost chilling awareness in the last stanza of this excerpt. A mirror reflecting back "white and unrefracted light" is an almost shocking image, especially on the heels of a scene of cozy domesticity. It's redeemed and vanquished, however, because holding Imlah's collection (or the Griffin Poetry Prize anthology that houses this and other selections from his work), the reader is amply reassured that he was determined to leave a powerful antidote to "the mean / prophetics of a closed book."

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