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Roderick Watson

Roderick Watson is an academic and poet and has written about Scottish Literature and Poetry. He is Professor Emeritus in English Studies at the University of Stirling.

Still Lives 

I think the world had always had its zen moments for me, though I only knew about Zen Buddhism itself when –like so many teenagers of my generation in the 1960s, I suspect— I read Christmas Humphreys’ book of that name. Its focus on the irreducibly actual, in a world of small details that somehow spoke of much larger matters, in a very quiet voice, was sympathetic and somehow already deeply familiar.  Or at least that’s how it seemed. 

So, in the way that you do, I found its flashes everywhere, not least in other writers when you come to certain passages and you say ‘Yes, that’s it. Right there. That’s right.’   

Whatever ‘it’  is, and it will be different for each of us, for me it was small and mundane details, however humble or neglected that could be suddenly immanent. It could be the hilarity of MacCaig’s hen that  ‘stares at nothing with one eye, / Then picks it up’; or in later years it could the catalogue of descriptive details in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Bight’, in a crowded little harbour where ‘All the untidy activity continues / awful but cheerful’. Those two lines (the last in Bishop’s poem)  are great poetry for me, in keeping with the plainness that MacDiarmid admired so much in Burns’ verse —‘Ye are na Mary Morison’.

And then there’s Neil Gunn and water and light, plentiful enough in Scotland, after all,  and always changing. (I you’re interested, John Burns wrote an excellent study of Zen in Gunn’s novels , A Celebration of the Light, Canongate, 1988). The denouement of Highland River is especially telling. To seek the ‘waterhead’, the one true source, only to find an oozy bog and poke it with a stick, is a special zen  joke. —Until the seeker looks up, to find himself under ‘planetary light’ on the shores of another loch in the ‘chasm of space’. 

Then there’s the ‘Well at the World’s End’ in Gunn’s novel of that name, with ‘water so clear we thought it wasn’t there’. The protagonist asks himself:

      That extraordinary moment when the invisible water moves in the well—is it as rare as all that? Do people, ordinary folk, ever stand

      tranced before some wonder that not only takes their breath away, but, for an instant, the human boundary itself away?

Surely the answer is ‘yes’? We all know these  flashes of previously unrealised but suddenly recognised homecoming.  Small immanences, like the bloom on the skin of a plum in an old still life, the modulation to a different key in a passage of music, the break in the line of a well-made poem.  And Neil Gunn’s fiction is rich in such moments, especially in the effects of water and light, in the northern landscapes he loved so much. 

As a small homage, here are a couple of my own such moments, remembering that Neil Gunn was there first. 

The Painter Knows

Watercolour lays the horizon 

in the sweep of a single stroke

and when the paper swells 

it can never be    


Walking to the end 

of another evening 

we found ourselves 

under this suddenly                    




One touch only.

The Silence

Barbed wire in the morning frost

     has every galvanised thorn

         turned at the tip

              to a crystal star.

The water bead swells

      in the evening light

         on the lip of the tap

              and holds.                


The song’s last line 

     must be spoken not sung.

         Throw it away 

              to break the spell –


In a saucer in sunlight

by the garden window

a pool of rounded stones dreams of water

back in the sea 

              that made them perfect. 

We hardly know our nature 

any more

says the sage in tears 

riven by desire    detachment 

             and the wholeness of stones.

Roderick Watson: Past Events
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