THE DIVIDED SELF
‘When’er my muse does on me glance, I jingle at her.’ (Robert Burns).
Such an eye in a human head,
from the toothless baby
to the toothless man,
the Edinburgh wynds
Through all the Daft Days,
we drink and gree
in the local howffs,
Like burns with Burns
these gutters run;
where Fergusson once tripped,
his shaking glass
in our inky fingers,
at our bardish tongues;
we dribble down
a crafty double
for Burke & Hare,
heckle a Deacon Brodie
on the end
of the hangman’s rope.
In all these great and flitting streets
awash with cadies,
this poet’s dust
like distemper to our bones.
We’re walking through
the dark and daylight,
of lost ideals.
Where is the leader of the mob Joe Smith,
that bowlegged cobbler
who snuffed it on these cobbles,
from this stagecoach pissed?
Where is the gold
of Jinglin’ George Heriot?
Is it in the sunglow on the Forth?
We’re looking for girls of amazing beauty
and whores of unutterable filth:
‘And in the Abbotsford
like gabbing asses
they scale the heights
of Ben Parnassus.’
Oh Hugh me lad
we’ve seen some changes.
In Milne’s, your great brow scowls the louder;
your glass of bitterness
deep as a loch:
‘Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun.’
it spits on
Still hope in her light meadows
and in her volcanic smiles.
And we’ve sung with Hamish
in Sandy Bell’s
and Nicky Tams’
a long hard sup
along the cobbles
to the dregs
at the World’s End:
‘Whene’er my muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her.’
Bright as silver,
sharp as ice,
this Edinburgh of all places,
home to a raving melancholia
among the ghosts
of Scotland’s Bedlam:
‘Auld Reekie’s sons blythe faces’,
shades of Fergusson in Canongate.
And the blee-e’ed sun,
the reaming ale
our hearts to heal;
the muse of Rose Street
seeping through us boozy bards,
us snuff snorters
in coughing clouds.
in this Edinburgh dream:
the polished monocle
of Sydney Goodsir Smith,
his stained inhaler;
and the black velvet jacket
a battered straw hat.
along Waterloo Place;
on Arthur’s Seat:
see Edinburgh rise.
from her eyes.
LEITH WALK, EDINBURGH
Leith Walk it was
where Thomas Carlyle realised
that God did not exist:
where Stevenson lit
his student pipe
after a shopgirl’s arse.
at dashing businessmen,
and he loved
the swinging hips,
and lifted dresses;
the tartaned whores spread
over a wild Scots wasteland,
showing their floodlit thighs,
in expert hands,
ready to unlock,
the strangest dreams;
in full sight
of a devilish moon,
and a nonexistent God.
The whisky’s on my breath again,
The High Street’s soaked in sunshine gin,
I’ve forgotten what it is to pray,
I’ve pilfered more sad lines today,
Why does she touch my heart that way?
I thought I’d thrown her love away,
The moon scoffs at my life tonight,
I’ve lost my way in this fading light,
Thrown away the keys to fortune,
Lost the gift of a brilliant tune,
It’s dark in this infested room,
Each night I sleep in a cold museum,
I’m looking for a lifting swagger,
Somewhere to stick a nation’s dagger,
It’s a stab town we’re living in,
Can’t catch the truth in my begging tin,
Oh what’s the point of a lifetime’s pain?
All it leaves is a useless stain,
Whatever the heartache they track you down,
Tear the shreds from your fancy gown,
Catch you with a lovely flame,
In an electric chair or Amsterdam,
We’ve missed the ship to Freedomsville,
We’re drowning in this poetry swill,
On the streets of bloody Europe,
Running away from the hangman’s rope,
Dead or alive it’s stuck in history,
Whistling away in Edinburgh’s mystery,
How can we hide the dark inside?
We need the thrill of one last ride,
And what lurks within that smile?
I see stars dying for many a mile,
Aye, and pay the price the very next time,
It’s still a crazy pantomime,
Deacon Brodie's tavern is named after William Brodie, one of the inspirations for Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde. Born in 1741 Brodie was a deacon of the Guild of Wrights. By day, he was a respectable citizen, a member of the town council but by night, he consorted with lowlife; gambling and drinking. His dark side meant he had to take to burglary to pay his gambling debts, leading to his hanging in 1788.
STELLA OF ROSE STREET
(in memory of Stella Cartwright, 1937-1985)
“Dear George, it is so strange, our souls seem to fly together joyously over mountains and seas while each of us in our mutual way suffers agonies.”
"An orgasm with Miss Cartwright was metaphysical, transcendental, like nothing else you can ever imagine. She seemed built for love."
(Stanley Roger Green)
“You placed me on a pedestal / according to my lights / but what you didn’t know, my dear / I have no head for heights.”
It was so much gabble,
fantasies of genius in the Little Kremlin.
Once, I fell for it myself,
tottering along the red carpet,
poetry dribbling into my own vomit,
or maybe it was Hugh’s,
all mixed up
in the whisky of empty promises.
I talked in Milne’s Bar to a shop steward
who’d help build MacDiarmid’s bog.
He said the workmen had their tea in Grieve’s posh wee cups
and saw the reckoning in the leaves.
He yapped as auld poets glowered from their photos
and we downed chilled ale
to drown the memories of a Juniper Green girl
with a pint of that Muse again.
They must have seen joy in you our Stella
to wrench them from their word play,
to take a lovely shag to brighten up their anxious lines.
Och the happiness and the pain
that smiler with the knife
come to get us all.
And that lonely honey George
must have driven you nuts
romancing you in the Pentland Hills
and kissing you full on your lips
one damp Saturday afternoon
by the Water of Leith.
They say ‘the best poem is silence’
but you were a shriek in the ecstasy
of loving and of agony,
a naked drunken howl.
The saintly saviour of hurt animals
and a shopper for the sick,
you wanted to wrap yourself around
something you could trust,
wanted a photograph of a true poetry lover
held to your lovely breasts
to make a change from the piss
of Milne’s Bar
and the daily Abbotsford drivel.
What you found was madness in a Zimmer Frame at thirty,
splashes of alcohol and tears lit
by the sudden flashes of beautiful orgasms,
the sunshine today
in all the muck
along Rose Street.
We stand concealed in roped-off rooms.
Dead eyes of the blind old monarchs of Scotland
from frozen palace walls.
No one lives in this giant doll’s house,
no one lusts any more.
The furniture lies draped in frost.
Stiff dummies of the lingering past
hunch drearily in padded chairs;
the electric veins of Kings and Queens
become dead rivers, frozen streams.
They dragged Rizzio’s punctured body through here,
trailing the thick claret wine
now worn bare by footsore tourists
who have gouged out chunks
of the bloodstained wood
and slipped them
into suburban drawers:
in the debris of their murderous minds;
of a hunchback’s blood.
This is a disinfected past.
The sheets on the bed are dry.
The monument stands like a broken tree,
tugged dead by howling Lothian winds.
As thistles wilt on the backs of bent hills,
another party shuffles round:
in one ear,
out the other,
through the head of a corpse,
ringed by the flashing crown of Edinburgh:
a throb of a city
alive in the evening sun.
And cloud drifts,
spear of our history,
sucker of our blood.
CASTLE STAIR REEL
Down all these steps,
I reach with my feet
for a moon
I know isn’t mine:
a spiral fall to a last gasp,
an early death,
a rushed breath;
aware that my next step could be my last,
a trip into Edinburgh or into hell,
with only a mothering guard-rail to save me,
only my steep inhibitions to save me
from something I want and don’t want,
something, some shadow,
at the foot of these cascading stairs
for me to hit it,
out of step with life,
for my feet to run
out of steps.
I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THE FORTH BRIDGE
the span of my ambition,
shore to shore
you link me with the old bones,
the new ways,
the true trains that take me
down the path of all my loves.
You lift up your wide arms
to take in the tide,
roll with the shaking wind
that whistles in the rushes
of the wild banks.
You thrill me with your size,
your strong embrace;
you roar with achievement,
you make me proud:
I could hug you.
Let me take the Queensferry train,
slide through you to freedom.
The pipes play
and the kilts sway
to greet us.
You are the opening,
the gap we streak through
to the woolly wilds
of Auld Reekie
and Bonnie Old Dundee;
to the sea of workers’ blood,
the red rust of the past that clings
and hugs the bones of dead engineers.
In the Albert Hotel,
tucked up, I hear you moan in the darkness.
I pull back the curtains
and see you floodlit
in all your entrancing glory.
Shine on, shine
you crazy bridge.
You have my devotion,
you have my deepest darkest love.
I would climb you stripped;
I would feel you breathe in the Firth wind.
I give you my heart and soul,
I am frail against your depth.
You will outlive me,
do not mock me,
you are superb.
You are my outstretched lovely;
I will breathe through you,
long for you,
die for you.
and inspire me.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher, Doctor Keith Armstrong now resides in the seaside town of Whitley Bay. He has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events. He is coordinator of the Northern Voices Community Projects creative writing and community publishing enterprise and was founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Poets and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series.
He recently compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham, the market town of Hexham and the heritage of North Tyneside. He has been a self employed writer since 1986 and he was awarded a doctorate in 2007 for his work on Newcastle writer Jack Common at the University of Durham where he received a BA Honours Degree in Sociology in 1995 and Masters Degree in 1998 for his studies on regional culture in the North East of England. His biography of Jack Common was published by the University of Sunderland Press in 2009.
He was Year of the Artist 2000 poet-in-residence at Hexham Races, working with artist Kathleen Sisterson. He has also written for music-theatre productions, including ‘Fire & Brimstone’ (on painter John Martin), 1989, and ‘The Hexham Celebration’, 1992, both for the Hexham Abbey Festival. He appeared again at the Hexham Abbey Festival in 2008 reciting the poetry of Hexham poet Wilfrid Gibson.
His poetry has been extensively published in magazines such as New Statesman, Poetry Review, Dream Catcher, and Other Poetry, as well as in the collections The Jingling Geordie, Dreaming North, Pains of Class, Imagined Corners, Splinters (2011) and The Month of the Asparagus (2011), on cassette, LP & CD, and on radio & TV. He has performed his poetry on several occasions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at Festivals in Aberdeen, Bradford, Cardiff, Cheltenham (twice at the Festival of Literature - with Liz Lochhead and with 'Sounds North'), Durham, Newcastle upon Tyne, Greenwich, Lancaster, and throughout Britain.
In his youth, he travelled to Paris to seek out the grave of poet Charles Baudelaire and he has been making cultural pilgrimages abroad ever since. He has toured to Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Iceland (including readings during the Cod War), Denmark, France, Germany (including readings at the Universities of Hamburg, Kiel, Oldenburg, Trier and Tuebingen), Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Cuba, Jamaica and Kenya.
He has read several times in Limerick and in Cork, Dublin, Kinvara, Fermoy and Galway. His irish adventures have inspired him to write a sequence of poems based on the places he has visited and the people he has met. With Dominic Taylor, he co-edited the anthology ‘Two Rivers Meet, poetry from the Shannon and the Tyne’ which was published by Revival Press as part of the exchange between Limerick and Keith’s home city.
'In another part of the field, another field, let's
face it, sits Keith Armstrong's rakish gaff. (His)
poems are rooted in the Tyneside music hall tradition,
closely behind which was the august balladry of the
Borders. His is an unashamed bardic stance, actor
rather than commentator. His politics are personal.
Throughout the collection the authentic lyrical note
of this northern poet is struck.' (Michael Standen,
'I really enjoyed reading your Edinburgh poems, all your work to me is always full to the brim with enthusiasm about the particular subject and I always get swept along with that enthusiasm and really do enjoy reading the poems. You have a great love and excitement for your native Newcastle and this is always evident in your work and I did sense the same experience when reading the Edinburgh work, your love for the place is quite obvious. To be honest, the name Armstrong is often to be found in the Northumbria/Border region, even when I crossed the border into Coldstream (across the same bridge as Robbie Burns himself ) I ran into the Armstrong name quite often and I thought then of the Celtic nature contained in your work. I found the poems a great pleasure to read and I will re-read them at various times, you have to in order to fully appreciate their content. I am a great fan of your work Keith and I think maybe you should include the Edinburgh poems in your set.'