The Birth of the Foal

My eyes still fought with sleep. Out over the fields
Mist lay in grey folds, from vague somewheres
Curlews rose up with thin trails of crying. Our lanterns
Rocked in soft globes of yellow, our feet
Slushed through the early morning thickness of the grass.

She lay on her side, exhausted by her long night;
The hot smell of flanks and head and breath
Ghosted from her spread length.
Sunlight cracked from the broken yolk of the skies,
Ruptured the hills, spangled our eyes and blinded us,
Flooded the pale glows of our lanterns.

There he lay in a pool of his own wetness:
Four long spindles scrabbling, the bigness of his head, a bag of a body –
All struggling to find one another, to join up, to glue
Into the single flow of a birthright. He fought
For the first air of his life, noised like a child.

His mother, still raw and torn from the scar of his birth,
Turned, and her eyes held him –
The great harsh softness of her tongue stilled his struggle.

We knelt in the wet grass, dumbed
By a miracle, by something bigger than the sun.

The poem is published in the collection Wild Horses, and in Kenneth Steven’s volume of selected poems, Island – both from Saint Andrew Press.

The Horses

The Horses

Edwin Muir was born at the end of the 19th Century on the tiny island of Wyre in the Orkneys. Mechanisation had not come to the island: he grew up in a little world that had not changed for hundreds of years. It was a magical childhood: no doors were locked and there was a kindness and trust between people the like of which he never experienced again.

But the family fell on hard times and had to move to mainland Orkney first of all, and was then plunged into the horrors of industrial Glasgow. One after another, the closest members of his family died until he alone was left. The trauma of what he experienced in those first years never left him, nor did his yearning for the Eden of that island home. Essentially through all the rest of his life as a poet he was searching and searching for Wyre, and for all that he had lost.

In the last years of his life he wrote a deeply haunting poem entitled ‘The Horses’. It’s a poem of the new nuclear age: a devastating war has destroyed the nations, and a little huddle of people are left on what might be an island. Their tractors lie useless in the fields: their radios are dumb. They wait in the silence, wondering what will happen next.

And what happens is that a great wave of horses flows into their midst. They have come unbidden, horses having been sold for tractors long years before. But the horses come of their own volition, as though in answer to some unheard call. They come willing to pull their ploughs and bear their loads.

I believe that through this poem Muir finds his way back to the island of his childhood. The paradox is that he finds it through the imagining of nuclear winter and a post apocalyptic state. For that is the only way the detritus of our modern clutter can be cleared away and there can be a beginning again. This is what is necessary for a healing to happen, for the noise to be stilled and for listening to begin.

Find the poem and read it as an Easter meditation. And my programme on the whole story of Muir’s life, and on the poem, will be broadcast this Easter Sunday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. If you miss it, the programme will be available for a number of days via Listen Again.

Vanguard

Vanguard

Almost every week I travel to the west coast of Scotland by one of the finest railway lines I’ve ever experienced – that linking Glasgow and Oban. It passes through some of the most beautiful landscape Scotland possesses, until it arrives at the western edge, where an island-studded coastline begins.
It’s because of that journey it’s all the more poignant and painful to travel right past the Faslane nuclear base where the Trident submarine fleet is deployed. Were it to be unleashed, it would result in the equivalent of two thousand Hiroshimas. I find the obscenity of that horror, set against the purity and the fragility of the landscape which surrounds it, almost too much to bear.It’s one of the main reasons I am passionately committed to Scottish independence, because Scotland never voted for the deployment of the Trident fleet, nor did Scotland have any say in that deployment. It was decided in London. The nuclear base is sited just half an hour from Glasgow, the second largest conurbation in the British Isles. The people of Scotland would not have voted for Trident had they been given the choice: it’s as simple as that.In a post 9/11 world, the nuclear base at Faslane becomes the biggest imaginable target for a suicide bomber. This submarine fleet might have been appropriate (just and no more) in the bad old days of the Cold War, but in a new age of rogue states and rogue militants, it’s nothing more than a target waiting for a dart.I believe nuclear weapons, and the industry that gave them birth, to be nothing less than an obscenity. I cannot reconcile a nuclear armed world with a God who stands behind the creation of this priceless planet. To think that we would contemplate its destruction with the depression of a single button (for that is what we do when we deploy such weapons’ systems) is beyond all belief.

If a man should come now to your door
selling motorways, a rustle of money in his eyes;
do not buy his road, for it leads
to all our lost riches, our need of God.

(From A Poem for Ivars, published in Island, the selected poems of Kenneth Steven, Saint Andrew Press)

Easter Lilies

Easter Lilies

We forget all about them
in the year’s darkness, in the long winter.

Without a sound they are there one morning;
a kind of sunlight grown from the ground –

as if some call had woken them
from the underworld of their sleep,

out into the middle of March
to Easter the earth with their heads.

Flapped and flayed by the wind,
broken yolks splashing the air;

all that we had hoped for –
an answer to prayer.

From Kenneth Steven’s 2014 collection from SPCK in London, Coracle

Lapwings

Lapwings

Once upon a time they came in clouds
to dip and swivel over opened fields;

the spring wind, patched with sunlight,
and lapwings up above and all around –

a shimmer of iridescent green.
Now there are no more.

I hear their absence, waken in the early light
knowing they are gone and won’t return.

I watch for them still, wishful,
but all the fields are bare and silent.

We called them peewits, the name made
to try to catch that sweep of soft call –

and we heard a hundred all at once;
they wove into one another, made a knot

as if from cotton, soft, across the skies.
I’ll keep that safe, somewhere inside my head.

But what will I tell my child happened to the lapwings?

From the collection Coracle, published in London by SPCK

Summer 2015

The first volume of short fiction which I put together over six or seven years was entitled The Ice and other stories. It was a sheer labour of love. I wanted all the stories to have a track record, to have appeared in literary journals both at home and abroad. That wasn’t easy to begin with because the short story was suffering hard times and outlets were few and far between.

But I got there in the end. A number of the stories were broadcast on BBC Radio; several appeared in the US and Canada. The title story, The Ice, was nominated for a Pushcart in America. That meant a huge amount because this was the story that was most important to me.

Now the collection has sold out (though it is still very much available through the library system here in the UK). But I’ve put many of the stories onto Kindle: The Ice, Billy and Lemon Ice Cream being just three. There are newer stories too: The Listener, Out and The Raven’s Nest.

And there is other work too, much of which I hope will be used by primary schools. Because of cuts I am almost never in schools any more: a sad thing indeed for a children’s author! But there are whole number of picture book stories on my Kindle site would love to think will be downloaded and used in classrooms.

There’s also my novel The Fall, and a volume of my selected poems Second Nature. All these works are available for next to nothing.

Thanks to all of you who have contacted me recently. I look forward very much to new messages.