Remember that ancient Chinese saying –

And may you live in interesting times?

It sounds like benediction, blessing,

but no, it’s contrary, not what it seems.

Alan Spence Interesting Times: 2021

Alan Spence the fifth Makar of Edinburgh has written a poem to be buried in the ground. A time capsule poem for future generations. It was his last official commission at the end of his four years as poet laureate for the capital city (the original three year term was extended by a year thanks to Covid).

With the Makar’s blessing, I had started to post this wryly gentle poem before Putin invaded Ukraine. A time capsule poem reflecting on our shared experience of the last two years seemed to belong in what was likely to be the last scheduled publication of Sceptical Scot [and it came to pass, see Sceptical shuts up Shop statement – not buried but safely secured in the archive of the National Library of Scotland]. With obscene cruelty the President of Russia had added his own crude lines to the Chinese curse.

May you live in interesting times? It’s a ‘malediction” as Spence describes the ancient saying in his 2021 verse: ‘A hope that things are bad, and getting worse.’ So here we are in 2022. Putin rains careless destruction on fellow Russians and Ukrainians with promises of much worse to come. We might look back on those early days of the pandemic as a kind of innocent childhood when we emerged from lockdown to find streets so quiet we could hear birds sing. Now, as the BBC’s Lyse Doucet writes from Kyiv for the New Statesman: “A dead silence hangs in the air, the streets eerily empty. Everyone can recognise that feeling of living in lockdown after our battle against a deadly virus. But this is a whole lot darker.”

From our safe but troubled distance, bewildered and frightened, we look on and sometimes up. Bird song can seem out of place.

What are you

singing? What are you

singing for?

Kathleen Jamie

Our shared humanity

What can poets do? In February Kathleen Jamie writes a Poem for Today of stark simplicity in her official role as Scotland’s Makar. In March she begins to collect lines from Scottish people to curate a poem-letter to Ukraine from Scotland. Just as she did for the National Nature poem during COP26 in Glasgow, Jamie asks for words – no more than 12 – in English, Scots or Gaelic. The words can be “defiant or celebratory, quiet, fearful, heartfelt, supportive. Do try to capture some real things you value in the world; grandchildren, daffodils, football, beer – whatever; people the other side of the Continent will share that with you.”

Perhaps, I wonder, mothers might read poems along with bedtime stories to their children in basements and bomb shelters. Poetry and storytelling has the power to reconcile, connect, to create a sense of belonging, confirm our shared humanity, and it is the lasting essence of national identity.  Last week, as Putin’s bombing intensified, I watched Simon Schama’s extraordinarily prescient series, Romanticism and Us, a BBC repeat from 2020.

The third episode, Tribes, on the link between Romanticism and Nationalism, has particular significance for our here and now. In the birth and patriotic pride of nations, poetry, storytelling and music can keep national identity alive and survive even when the national borders have been obliterated from the map: disappeared but not destroyed. Poland – now opening its borders to so many Ukrainian refugees – is testament to life after death. Even now, Schama concludes, with the ‘roar of angry tribes once again heard on the streets…’ the Romantics have left us with a message that “it is possible to belong to the family of our country – with its stories, traditions, ballads, music, poetry – and yet at the same time to belong to humanity.”

Wild apricots in bloom

Apricot Blossom: image Simon Williams CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

we will walk back, even with bare feet
if we don’t find our home in the place where we left it
we will build another one in an apricot tree
out of luscious clouds, out of azure ether

Lyuba Yakimchuk

Survival, war, poetry. What is it like to fight for your motherland with words and on the streets? An audience gathers with the new Edinburgh Makar Hannah Lavery at Stanza poetry festival in St Andrews on 10th March to hear readings and discussions of Ukrainian poets in translation: Beyond Borders. One of those poets – Lyuba Yakimchuk – is in Kyiv with her husband. “Our plan is to stay in Kyiv and try to be helpful,” she tells CBC Radio in a remarkable interview recorded shortly after the invasion: Lyuba Yakimchuk reflects on war and the burden of motherland. “Tomorrow, we are going to donate blood for Ukrainian soldiers. I guess it won’t be easy for us, but … Putin’s regime will fall apart,” she said. “We will be witnesses.”

It’s a gripping interview which challenges the role of storytelling and the harmful idea that only the dead can be truly heroic. Yakimchuk’s book Apricots of Donbastranslated from Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky, and Svetlana Lavochkina, is rooted in the ongoing war that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. 

In her poem decomposition,  the names of places like Luhansk, Donetsk, and her hometown of Pervomaisk literally fall apart.  

CBC Radio

Since the last edition of Sceptical Scot, Yakimchuk has written for the New Statesman describing the gut-wrenching reality of life in bomb-blasted Ukraine. There is simple relief in swearing: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The words shouted by Ukrainian soldiers from Snake Island in the Black Sea now appear “Throughout the province of Kyiv on electronic displays, from bus stops to billboards, sometimes in an abbreviated version, depending on the size of the display. Then the quote gets even punchier: “Russian, fuck yourself.” [See full article: Letter from Kyiv: to keep from weeping we start cursing]

 Echoing through time

How will we remember this time? How will future generations see us? Will we survive the triple onslaught of pandemic, war and climate change?

I listen again to Alan Spence reading his time capsule poem on the Scottish Poetry Library website. It. was commissioned by Edinburgh Trams to be buried beneath the statue of Robert Burns in Constitution Street. How ordinary? The very idea of public transport carrying people to work, home and shops seems almost ludicrously mundane. And yet that is why it matters. There was already a time capsule beneath the Burns statue, first placed there in 1898 and temporarily removed for the tramworks. Spence loved the idea of adding a poem: to be discovered decades or centuries in the future. “What’s a poem, what’s any work of art but a time capsule,” he asks. Times change (and how we need the right kind of change!) but human connection transcends differences in time and place. “Remember this:” Alan Spence urges his future readers: “We were, we lived, we loved.”


Remember that ancient Chinese saying –

And may you live in interesting times?

It sounds like benediction, blessing,

but no, it’s contrary, not what it seems.

In fact it’s wry, ironic, it’s a curse,

backhanded, yes, a malediction,

a hope that things are bad and getting worse.

So here we are in 2021.

Year of the pandemic, plague, contagion,

of quarantine and sheltering in place.

Year of lockdown, shielding, isolation,

of sanitising, face-masks, track-and-trace.

Now, what to place here in this time capsule?

(This time, this place, the here and now of it).

We need the true, the real, the actual.

(History will tell the why and how of it).

A poem’s a time capsule, can hold it all –

the empty city streets, the quiet skies.

You’d walk a mile and hardly meet a soul.

then see it new with suddenly fresh eyes.  

Graffiti told it straight: Hold to the light.

And this will pass. Jesiste, Keep safe. Hello.

And this, chalked up in yellow, bold and bright:

On the withered branch a new flower grows

And somehow we survive, get through, go on,

keep fighting extinction – we’re no deid yet.

The city re-awakens, the old stone

warmed by the sun. Hear the word on the street.   

They’ll bury this poem at the crossroads

in Leith underneath that statue of Burns,   

tapping his feet in their tackety boots

to the beat, the clang of the tram as it turns.

Do you still read Burns in the far future,

still sing his songs? Do they still break the heart?

(Who else would rhyme sever and forever,

remind us that we meet only to part?)

So here’s a hand across the years between

for a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns and auld lang syne.

Know only this – we were, we lived, we loved.

Remember this. We were, we lived, we loved.

Images: Apricot Blossom: Simon Williams CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ; In the fire of images, lines from George Mackay Brown ‘buried’ in Makar’s Court, Edinburgh, picture FY

This poem and the others written in Alan Spence’s time as Makar will be published in July by Scotland Street Press. The collection will be called Edinburgh Come All Ye.

Apricots of Donbas from UWA Press

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot