Elliot Family: Poems

Alistair's poems...
first What Did You Do in the War, Mummy?, second The Use of Knees third Networks


My mother was a heroine
   In her own unspoken way.
It had to be done, and she did it
   Was all she had to say.

When I was eight, and my sister Anne
   Was six, and Jean was four,
My mother packed our clothes and dolls
   And took us off to war.

It was on the Furness Withey line,
   The steamship Nova Scotia,
That we stood to be shot at with
   Some passengers that kept kosher.

The destroyers were very lovely.
   I remember their whooping cry,
As they dashed past us to rescue
   A ship about to die.

The Atlantic in late November
   Is a rough place for a swim.
And I guess the u-boat crews threw up
   As they sent the torpedoes in.

We sat below and waited.
   A thin man wearing a hat
Heard I was learning Latin and asked,
   "What's this we're sitting at?"

I told him it was a mensa,
   And "amo, amas, amat".
He gave me an apple, nibbled
   That night by the cabin rat.

We landed safely at Boston
   But because she couldn't stay
We had Christmas presents early
   And a lonely Christmas Day.

My mother waited alone for weeks
   To sail back home to work
She hadn't brought enough money.
   She couldn't enjoy New York.

She was looking forward to sailing
   From a peacetime city hotel
To making-do and rationing,
   Through dangers she knew well.

My nightmares of fifty-odd years ago
   Come back sometimes: I see
My mother on a sinking boat
   In the dark and fizzing sea.

But it was other ships that sank,
   And other children lost
Their dearest person and acquired
   A deep unburied ghost.

We wrote our letters every week,
   Not really writing home -
Communicating with the past
   From a social vacuum.

"It was a great mistake." That's all,
   For the worst year of your life,
When you went out a young mother
   And came back a childless wife.

Alistair Elliot, 1998 

The Use of Knees

Everyone calls it Arthuritis. He
has lost the power of bending, the old king
father of gods and men,
and sits on a low throne
by the window, apparently meditating
in profile, a memorial coin
of sadness as we come carrying our seats.

To me he has never before been Arthur:
I saw him through his unused name,
so fitting for a father
born in a Scottish Eden: Adam.
Caught in the unfamiliar foetal posture
of a bronze age burial,
he tries to uncurl and  honour us with a smile.

Of course he is 'not so dusty'; so he says
when asked, but still his legs,
locked at a regal angle under the gown,
or under sheets, abruptly evoke a coffin
humped in the middle like this eiderdown,
or a succession of little hammer breaks
flattening the folded sediments of those knees.

He will have thought of that. He will
already know how undertakers solve
mortal geometry, keeping calm themselves.
And maybe such a man has even seen
himself finally dusty, and me on the hill
kneeling, releasing the native dust between
Corriekinloch and the sand of Loch an Eircill.

Alistair Elliot

From London Review of Books 13 Feb 92
Also appeared in British Medical Journal as JAE's obituary


End of the party: time to offer friends to the foreigner.
- Where are you going, sir?
- North for a bit, then west.
Ed recommends
An Apache sculptor, aura-balancer,
Wells Fargo money-minder to the stars,
Ethnomusician. Tom and Marion
Give me an acupuncturist near Taos,
A Persian carpet-dealer in Tucson,
A Choctaw woman (pity, no address),
A graphics programmer with a private press.

Such generous social helpings! In a year
I shall have friends to offer these friends to:
Expert on hunger, film~sound-engineer,
Inventor of the Pill, a southern Jew,
A goy psychiatrist, gay classicist,
Redneck philosopher, holist, black girl deck-hand,
Wigmaker, pulmonary therapist,
Yoga carpenter, Chinese diamond-merchant,
Hard-riding, yachting septuagenarians...

At home, I just know poets and librarians.

Alistair Elliot (from "My Country" 1989)