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piobaireachd

July 7, 2010

by Andrew McCallum

i ùrlar

boy meets girl
girl bites boy
boy sees doctor

this is fact
we can verify this

ii siubhal

boy is intrigued
girl moves away
his curiosity unsatisfied

with its motives and suggestions
this is narrative

iii lemluath

boy works days
moonlights as a gumshoe to
earn enough money to
follow his girl to
oz

girl works too
without declaring whether she
is saving to move back
or move on

this is plot
notoriously wordy
seductive
a trap for the unwary

iv taorluath

boy is coming down with something

from a dark car
across the street from the house of a man
— his client —
whose fortune comes from vending machines
boy watches for indiscretion

the wife is home
her lover steers into the driveway
like the night before
light from the streetlamp
glints across his hatchet face

lover enters the house
boy is right behind him
i don’t need much he tells them
five hundred notes and I’m on my way
husband need never know

girl meets boy at the airport
i’m sick – he tells her – over you
she bites him like a flu jab
high on his arm
that’s — he bites her back — better

his bite drives a stake into the ground
her bite turns the boy into a man
the man into a meal
a meal she sends back to the kitchen

v crunluath

this is poetry
friendless
not a good listener
not to be trusted when there are
facts to be established
a story to tell

boy meets girl
they cannot kiss
except by locking teeth
they eat
but they do not eat from hunger
with or without her he cannot be well
she is a girl who likes to bite

Note: Piobaireachd is a classical music genre native to the Scottish Highlands and performed on the Great Highland Bagpipe. This poem came about when, at a ceilidh at the late Hugh MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank Cottage during the Biggar Little Festival in 2008, Ann Matheson challenged the writer to make a poem that imitates the musical structure of piobaireachd.


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Andrew McCallum is a fat, middle-aged, married man with a dicky ticker and Nietzschean aspirations. When not striking classical poses on hilltops in the Scottish Southern Uplands, he writes deep into the night sustained by outrageous amounts of caffeine and tobacco.

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  1. July 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Andrew,
    Though I have no idea what you’re talking about, really, I don’t care. It’s wonderful stuff.

  2. July 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you, Robbi. I don’t profess to understand it myself. It’s a poem, after all, and it isn’t a poem’s job to say anything (that’s the job of prose) but is simply to be a pleasing linguistic artifact. I set out to mimic the structure of piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland bagpipes. Piobaireachd begins with a simple theme (ùrlar or ‘ground’), which develops in dramatic complexity through a succession of variations (siubhal, lemluath, taorluath, etc.) until it reaches a climax, after which the simple ‘ground’ is restated. In the poem I try to develop a story according to this structure, beginning with a couple of simple statements which are then taken up into a narrative to become part of a plot, in a process of story-making that (according to the commentary) may or may not be trustworthy, the idea being that the further we move away from experience through the ever more tangled thickets of metaphor, plot and narrative (the bewitchments of language), the more susceptible we may be to losing what is revealed in experience – supposedly the thing itself, the original phenomenon. What is beautiful about piobaireachd is that, after all the drama and virtuosity of the successive and increasingly complex variations, we are finally offered the simple and elemental ‘ground’ again, the whole piece becoming a kind of musical hermeneutic circle which returns us (enriched by the journey?) to where we began.

    Or some such Heideggerian nonsense!

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