Mairi MacInnes

About the Poetry

Book Cover for Ghostwriter written by Mairi MacInnes About The House on the Ridge Road: (1988), Richard Wilbur wrote: ‘A strong sensibility capable of fierce attachments to familiar and natural things, and of indignation at cruelty or mindless change… her language enjoys itself, catching the precise look and sound of things… a thoroughly fine book of poems, the real thing.’

And Theodore Weiss: ‘She demonstrates a tough, noble appetite for place, for nature and its creatures, in a rugged language that accurately matches its occasions as her heart and her mind inform her senses and her words.’

About Ghostwriter (1999) Frank Kermode wrote:
' Well, these are not to be called “intolerably rough and ready approximations” … It is very good to see you thriving in the present as you did in the past…We are lucky to be alive, writing and reading, after so much living. That’s what you’ve been good at.’

Wilfrid Mellers wrote: ‘I always thought you were a good poet; now I know you’re a Very Good Poet Indeed; and I liked the prose epilogue - which made me both laugh and cry out loud - just as much.’

About Elsewhere & Back (1993) Sorley MacLean wrote: ‘It fully deserves the blurbs by Weiss and Wilbur; and [the poems] are admirably different and complementary.’

About The Pebble (2000): Frank Kermode wrote: ‘I was very impressed. Everything calls out for re-reading - ‘The Pebble’ itself but also whatever offers itself when one opens the book. And this is as true of the new poems as of the old.’

Laurence Lieberman wrote: ‘So many of your new poems are among my all-time favorites in your wonderfully diverse and original body of work.’

And Anne Stevenson wrote: ‘Simple, moving, lovely sweep to the lines.’

Fred Chappell wrote: 'There is something Hardyesque in its tone, an ability to hold in a calm but desperate aesthetic distance the most intimate and professional recollections and injuries. Beneath a determined stoic exterior throbs the warmest of romantic sensibilities.’

Of the poem that follows, Donald Davie wrote on its first publication:‘Let me say how much I admire this poem; how important it is, as a statement; and how beautifully means are adapted to ends in the saying of it…’

Hardly Anything Bears Watching

Hardly anything bears watching.
Bricks and stone
Have lost their intense surprise.
For years I kept my trust in things.

Even beyond the last parishes
Fringed with refuse,
Hills drown beneath the surveyor’s rod.
They too lie perfectly numb.

The old parabolas of socialism,
Spirals of love,
Make hope the habitat of the soul.
But hope’s not native to the blood.

No comfort from the boy who draws
Upon my memory of bombs.
The man recalls
Brave days on a far-off sea.

Picture after picture fails.
When I was young,
The pavement kerbs were made of stone,
A substance like my fingernails.

It is not like that any more.
I do not see
The essential life of inorganic things.
Humanity has covered all.


Poor old Cat,
She gives me the tender kiss
Of antiquity. She smells
Like a pensioner on a bus
Asking a girl to supper,
A fish supper in a back room.
Her teeth like his are rotten.
She’s sixteen years old,
Poor old Cat.

She sidles down when the fire is lit
And sniffs the muzzles
Of the sleeping dogs
As if they were juveniles.
One whiff of her ancient breath
And they’re rigid.
She stretches out on the rug
To coil and uncoil
Until she is warm.
And then she’ll leap to my lap
And stretch her black paw
To my face and pat it,
As if she still smelled
Of grass and roses.

At Five the Train…

At five the train left Hendaye
And trundled inland, across
The foothills of the Pyrenees,
Bound for Marseilles.

At dusk it drew up somewhere,
Earth dark, horizon high,
A greenness in the air,
And stars over the hills.

Half the passengers dismounted,
And doors slammed on crowds.
That’s how we knew it was Lourdes,
That and the little fires
Carried up under the stars.

We sat in the dark carriage,
Broke bread and drank wine,
Until we couldn’t see
What was flame and what star,
And the train took us off to Marseilles
In secret, as before.

November Digging

I am cutting the clearing free from its roots
Garden will float
free from the adventitious
the glistening goutweed suckers
ganglias that sprout nettles
ivy’s furred hawsers
the fibrillations of bramble

Sweet light tents me as I fork
yet what mote flits
into the corner of my eye and out
hides and reappears and hides
a small brown knowing bird
drawn to an exposé of flies
three sharp notes
but there again he hides

When the black crumb’s clear
I’ll plant bushes
gooseberry blackcurrant raspberry
and one day cheat him of their fruit
punnets of soft
emerald onyx ruby
for all the pies of summer

But in the interim I fork up
knobs of clenched bulbs
snowdrop garlic aconite
and china in blue and white
chipped lustreware and famille rose
crude pottery with painted bands
a flint sharp as a knife
a horseshoe oxshoe hinge key bottle
five four-inch nails handmade
the upper of a boot
who lives down there to need such things

Would he hear if I sang out
and push up through the soil
his two white hands to clasp my neck
and show his white face for a kiss
a kiss that would taste of raspberries

The Sleeve

You took your arm out of its sleeve last night

with a sigh like a train
about to exit
from York’s Victorian station—
arc of cast iron, plate glass and air—
leaving so quietly it seems to disappear,
so brilliant that lunette
of expeditionary light
beyond the platforms,

so bright that hand of yours
entering the arc
of the lamp, the tweedy semi-dark
of the sleeve abandoned and falling to the floor
as a building might crumple
in the soundless shockwave
following an explosion.


God had nothing to do with Auschwitz.
I know that—you taught me, Levi, Primo Levi,
Master, master of suffering who wrote its primer.
God had nothing to do, you say, either,
with their fine retributions, years later
in Palestine, the bombings they inflict,
or the camps at Shatila and Sabra,
nor with gulags earlier, nor the present terror.
What’s God served with? Death? Hunger?
He’s as absent from your life when you’re hungry
as when your stomach is full. Look, reader,
feed me. Don’t send me hungry away from your door.

Let me not pray to you, beloved God,
when planes fly over and the children cry out
that their hair is on fire, and our eyes fill with ash.
Never before has there been such suffering,
they say, but it’s ordinary. It was predictable.
Let me not pray to you when shadows turn bright
and stars vanish and silence cannot be heard,
so I may not insult you, Lord, so I may praise you, Maker.

Photograph of Mairi MacInnes taking a well earned rest in her room The author resting after her labours.

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