THE DESERT MOTHERS
At a steady pace below the moon
the cotton-soled tread of our carters
pad-pads across a waste of grit and boulders.
Cart-wheels revolve with constellations
all night through.
Soon wives at home will wake
to stitch and counter-stitch the soles
for next month’s trek
holding the shape of a husband’s foot
steady in one hand.
Among the sand-mounds demons cry
as a man would shout if he wanted help
but those who turn from the track to answer
will never find a single soul –
and the next cry always a little further
from the path to lead you on
but never call you back to the right way.
But I must go, for I seek the lost
and some of them are out there.
A dusty oasis, River of Sand.
The women are pleased we can chat
in their own tongue and word goes round:
‘Come and see them. They are just like us.
They wear our clothes and eat our food,
and they have fathers and mothers too,
brothers and sisters. No difference at all!’
Our ancient hostess guards her door,
dispensing information to the crowd:
‘These two are sisters, look – just the same.
The other is a friend but they are all like sisters –
their money in the one purse and their food
cooked in one pot. Their country is England,
just over the mountains. Near Hindustan.
They are people of Allah.’
The blind boy sat on the ground
and with a quiet absorbed air said simply:
‘This is the male eagle’s call’.
Out came a cry we knew from mountain ranges,
followed by the pitched notes of the female
and chicks in the nest calling for food.
And then he gave us the wild pigeon, pheasant,
magpie, kingfisher, water-wagtail and hoopoe
and the travel-call of geese cleaving the air
on their way towards southern marshes.
A full half-hour of liquid notes and delicate trills
and warbling sounds that filled the grimy courtyard
with melody from shady woods he could not see.
Day and night were nothing to him
except a change of word and temperature,
and human squalor nothing. He turned away,
treading daintily through the filth of our inn yard,
his face alight in the gleam of artistic achievement.
Vast plains, then tumbled battlements.
The caravan track enters an enclave
where a city gate used to be, and departs
through an opposite gap.
Remnants of houses no-one can rebuild –
every drop of water has withdrawn
from these cities of the dead, the well-holes
choked to the brim with sand and debris.
Our silent moonlit progress through these haunts.
He taught me how to walk by starlight.
At first I stumbled, stubbing feet on stones
while he walked quickly, freely and securely
by night as by day. He had used his daylight senses
to train the knack that served him in the dark.
I learned the art of it, and trusting instinct
now felt well-founded in the clear darkness,
the only darkness that this desert knows.
These poems have their origin in themes and incidents recorded by Mildred Cable and Francesca French in The Gobi Desert (1942; reissued by Virago Press, 1984). With Evaline French, they worked as medical missionaries in China from 1901 until 1939. In 1923 they were granted permission to preach to the nomadic tribes of the Gobi Desert, and the book records their hard travels there in objective but often luminous detail.
James McGonigal is a Glasgow-based poet and editor. He is Edwin Morgan’s literary executor, wrote Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press, 2012), and co-edited Edwin Morgan: The Midnight Letterbox (Carcanet Press, 2015), a selection of his correspondence 1950–2010. He has published several chapbook collections, of which Cloud Pibroch (Mariscat Press, 2010) won the Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlet Award. His first full collection is The Camphill Wren (Red Squirrel Press, 2016).