Stars and Planets
by Norman MacCaig, 1910-1996
This poem is from MacCaig's 1977 collection titled Trees of Strings. Since his previous collection, The World's Room is dated 1974, I surmise that this piece dates from the mid-1970s, when the poet was in his mid-60s. It is not a "typical" MacCaig poem: he is usually more personal, descriptive, and immediate. This was a very prolific poet, though. My 1993 Chatto & Windus Collected Poems contains nearly 700, and many more were found after MacCaig's death.
"meniscus" — the curved surface of a water droplet or column.
"firth" — a narrow arm of the sea; a fjord (the two words have the same Old Norse root)
"Rolls-Royce" — a British firm manufacturing luxury cars in the first three quarters of the twentieth century. The Rolls-Royce car was colloquially known during my student days in London as a "hemorrhoid," on the grounds that "every arsehole gets one sooner or later." I note in passing the minor pleasure — available in most languages, I think — of seeing a noun, even a proper noun, deployed skilfully as a verb.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.
They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
And migrating in mathematical tribes over
The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.
It's hard to think that the earth is one —
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
Attended only by the loveless moon.