Alistair Elliot

Alistair Elliot is a poet and translator (Verlaine, Heine) who has recently completed a version of Sophocles’s Oedipus plays for the National Theatre.

Poem: ‘Slugs’

Alistair Elliot, 3 April 1997

They used to come out at night and leave on the hairy carpet a diagram of their moves, dance-steps, perhaps loves – like a record of the moon’s light peeled off the sea, to frame in the honeymoon album.

One gastropod put its foot by mistake on the Welcome mat, such painful terrain to cross it was still there at sunrise like a long turd, the fruit of some wall-passing intruder who...

Poem: ‘Auks in the Minch’

Alistair Elliot, 5 September 1996

The green and purple bergs of Scotland melt so slowly the millennia seem equal: on such a day Columba could have paddled      here in his coracle.

In such light airs you approach the razorbills on breaths of silence, till they patter away or plunge abruptly at the flap of sails –     as if they couldn’t fly.

Perhaps they can’t, in...

Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 14 December 1995


The three letters of his name suddenly resurrect him, lounging on some horizon, much like the long corpse of Christ in Michelangelo’s Deposition.

There was something ideal about him: the naked male of Greek stone, the Amazon man about the jungle, face and body matched, lone playboy in the sun –

Ned in his Jantzen swimwear was spear-carrier as star. He could speak, though. The...

Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 3 August 1995

A Family Wireless

You switch it on, pour out a cup of tea, drink it, and finally sounds of outer space clearing its throat blow from the vizored face; pause; then the swelling voice of history refills our kitchen from the B.B.C.

It’s full of static and authority. I daren’t re-tune it: set before the war on Home, it doesn’t know it’s Radio Four. It never knew the Third, or...

Poem: ‘Watches’

Alistair Elliot, 18 August 1994

I wear my father’s last but one wristwatch, having broken my own. Its crazed face, its wild cricketer’s strap always slipping off, its inability to keep up with the regular and not excessive

marching speed of the universe explain his buying one of those self-winders: he was a busy man and couldn’t afford the soft unclear evaporation of minutes, a day or two a year.

The busy...

Poem: ‘Facing South’

Alistair Elliot, 23 June 1994

for Tony Harrison

Happiness, therefore, must be some form of theoria.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.8

Theoria: ... a looking at, viewing, beholding ... ‘to go abroad to see the world’ (Herodotus) ... 2. of the mind, contemplation, speculation, philosophic reasoning ... theory ... II. the being a spectator at the theatre or the games ...

Liddell and Scott, A...

Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 26 May 1994


Things are turning up today. First, the tomato knife – God how we missed it! – After six months away In some underworld life Is back – I hope, for more than a visit.

Then, my best travel trousers, Immobilised by zip failures, Have got over their shame – I searched for them in three houses, A boat, and their manufacturer’s – They appeared on...

Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 22 July 1993


Somewhere among the roots of England my mother found her rules. Some shy Shakespearean aunt taught her to eat from fairy circles and how to name a tracehorse: Forrest or Homer –

coins from the wordhoard of our tribe buried in the angelic angles around home: in Long Chase, the Top, the Forty-Acre, the Pikel. School spread on this the alphabet and the best lines of Scott,

and a...

Poem: ‘A Memorial Service’

Alistair Elliot, 25 March 1993

The cathedral was not great. You were a better poet Than it was a building. I forgot To look for the graffiti of imprisoned Scots, My possible ancestors – and yours – And stood there in my Sunday best Wondering if it had been spoilt by the restorers Or if it had always looked like red fudge A little mouthed by the weather of the north-west.

Hundreds of us were in our best To...

Poem: ‘Highland Hospitality’

Alistair Elliot, 6 August 1992

When the two youngest Elliots, not yet in their teens, were sent to school at Stoer, they lodged, like the unmarried minister, near the kirk, with old Mrs Mackenzie and her daughters in a house called ‘The Rage of Cats’.

Mrs Mackenzie fed them porridge and milk; potatoes and milk and oatcakes; perhaps a bite of potatoes and herring ... This powered them through four hours of...

Poem: ‘On the Great North Road’

Alistair Elliot, 14 May 1992

Here hedges used to move off thoughtfully, at an angle, like green sheep in single file, or seemed to. Now they really have, taking the grass as well, leaving the land stripped to the buff.

What we see is pure substrate, the abstract thing plants grow on, the start-line of a calculation. I think it is a dusty mat someone has spread on the slow ocean of rock. Is this my planet?

The wind is...

Poem: ‘The Use of Knees’

Alistair Elliot, 13 February 1992

Everyone calls it Arthuritis. He has lost the power of bending, the old king father of gods and men, and sits on a low throne by the window, apparently meditating in profile, a memorial coin of sadness as we come carrying our seats.

To me he has never before been Arthur: I saw him through his unused name, so fitting for a father born in a Scottish Eden: Adam. Caught in the unfamiliar foetal...

Poem: ‘On Broadway’

Alistair Elliot, 24 October 1991

There are some small shops left. The name over the door was half a physics textbook. A little bell announced me. I began by showing that my watch, or time itself, had worn away its strap, the animal skin that holds the disc of Chronos where I see it.

The man was older than me, and grey where I am reddish, the pommettes not ripened by glances of the sun: a prisoner of commerce in his twilit...

Three Poems

Alistair Elliot, 11 July 1991

Seeing things

Late afternoon on the prairie. We were looking for birds. My old friend Michael was amazed at what we said we saw: such far-off dots, how could we pick them out? still less remark, ‘eastern and western kingbirds.’ We all three wore specs. ‘You must have great peripheral vision,’ he finally pronounced – as if we scanned the field like radar with a...

Poem: ‘A Family Wireless’

Alistair Elliot, 27 June 1991

You switch it on, pour out a cup of tea, drink it, and finally sounds of outer space clearing its throat blow from the vizored face; pause; then the swelling voice of history refills our kitchen from the BBC.

I daren’t retune it: set before the war on Home, it doesn’t know it’s Radio Four. It never knew the Third, or Radio Three. It had the Light, but mostly what has stained the...

Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 21 March 1991

Ganning back to the Beginning

for Martin and Diana


HWAET! This is what we   wanted to hear:

The floating one swings   still among rocks, hovering on hemp,   the embracing boat fast at anchor.   The coastguard on horseback guides them to Heorot   the shining hall – the loom of it lightens   the...

Poem: ‘The Scribes’

Alistair Elliot, 25 January 1990

More and more often, knowing that you’re dying, I think of the letter-writers at the post office in that hot square, with their low desks and dip-pens waiting in the shade of their municipal trees for the illiterate victims of time and distance – the dealers in words, renewing or untying.

Whenever I passed them I would think of paying to have my raw wish wrapped in the empty nets...

Poem: ‘Recognition’

Alistair Elliot, 28 September 1989

On the Town Moor the butchers keep their cows, A healthy hospice near the abattoirs. Something is strange here, but they calmly browse, Flicking flies with the nameplate in their ears, And ruminate without conclusion, till I cross the skyline.

                   In my grey and blue They recognise me...

Poem: ‘The Question of Food’

Alistair Elliot, 27 July 1989

Sunday October 26, 1986

How do these things become us? – orange juice as we cast off, fudge as we meet the ocean funnelling into the inlet of Cape May, then boiled chestnuts, grey and wrinkled as the seas our stomachs ride (the heaving field of Delaware Bay) all morning, and for lunch a chocolate kiss and an apple from the pollen of two trees sensibly rooted, restaurants of bees ...


Two Poems

Alistair Elliot, 19 January 1989


My favourite lavatory was on Ischia. It was a small round tower on a flat roof, Covered with plaster, vines and happy bees. The humming might have been the sun, its rays Shuffled in by the winking of a leaf In the arrow-slit, or else mild snoring from a Calmly-digesting-upside-down lucertola. It was a shit-house nothing could improve. It was my first Mediterranean summer.

If I could...

Poem: ‘One of our Submarines’

Alistair Elliot, 23 June 1988

We met a school, a family, or, we guessed, a little university of dolphins, that rolled around us, looking up with interest at the full sails that pulled us by so fast, with a sweet tickling, not the rub of engines.

I talked to them, but what have we to say to the smiling scholars of the Scottish coast? I was rude or boring. They took their children away

into the endless heaven of the sea,...

Poem: ‘Some Scottish Music’

Alistair Elliot, 4 June 1987

Behind the voices of di Stefano And Callas, others sing. I seem to hear In the same stream an earlier Lucia Filling another room with love and woe.

The fire, the sons, their parents smell of peat, The fume of family; their chairs scrape, on flags Awkwardly covered with the skins of stags; Is the wax cylinder too near the heat?

The sextet or the summers of their glen Stored up and now released...

Puck’s Dream

Mark Ford, 14 June 1990

D.J. Enright recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In commemoration, Oxford University Press have prepared a rather lean Selected Poems, and a volume of personal reminiscences and critical...

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