home page

Poems from Inside the Brightness of Red

  Buy Inside the Brigtness of Red

Poems from As Birds Do

As Birds Do now out of print

We are aware of only one recording of Mary reading one of her poems: her poem Virgin and Child from Issue 34 of Magma magazine, which was recorded under the Poetry Library’s digitisation project, ‘Poetry Magazines’. Listen to Mary MacRae reading her poem here.
The poem appears in her posthumous collection, Inside the Brightness of Red.

Poems from Inside the Brightness of Red               go to Poems from As Birds Do

Inside the Brightness of Red     Unborn      Song     Wild Garlic
Kérkyra 1961     Villanelle      Figures in a Landscape     Sea Glose

Inside the Brightness of Red

Mid-August, cold and grey-sodden; even
the Mexican sunflowers and the yellowy-green
of not yet fully ripened quinces are mute.
I’ve been protected so far by numb disbelief
as if this disease belongs to somebody else;
I’m a bit afraid and lonely, stepped back from life.
Later we leave a room, a voice that speaks
of drugs, the possibility of remission
and wander the streets side by side, speechless.
I feel your unhappiness seep into my ribs.
In the café are trays of red-gold peaches,
wooden tables, solid stools and benches;
the coffee smells of freshly-roasted beans,
the carrot cake’s flecked with orange, crusted on top,
as if the world’s set right, all as it should be.
But when I think of the dead – not as dead –
but as they were when alive or what they wrote
I know that all we can keep is their underlight.
I’m not heart-broken; that the cancer’s come back
is natural but it makes me want to ask
what Heaven would be like if we could choose.
A scarlet boat-hull, blue-grey mud: the colours
on Oare Marsh today are so spacious,
and have such depth they’re like lighted rooms
we could go into. Among the long-stemmed reeds
birds I’ve never seen before are hidden
in silky fronds then swing down to feed.
And if I want all this to last for ever,
never to end, it’s not that I want to be
outside, merely a passive looker-on –
I want to be inside the brightness of red,
blow with the salty wind and feel the mud
press and ooze around an egret’s foot;
more than that, to be conscious, to understand
what it is to be these things as only a god
can know. And yet I’m certain this isn’t a good
answer to my question. Time to come down
to earth where we both still live, to what remains,
to finish our walk and watch the bearded tits
flit among the creamy-tasselled seed-heads;
but when I think of you left alone –
if it has to be – then, yes, I’m heart-broken.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top


I never really understood it. In the shadow
of Daisen’s holy peak, little piles of stones,
cairns, on the dry river bed, hundreds of them, hundreds
to be swept down in the flow when the river was in spate,
each – I was told – a lost child, the pebbles chosen,
placed, one by one, with an empty sound,
small memorials
to the unborn.
So when a girl surfaced in my dream, half-drowned
and stretched out her hand, I thought of children –
all the ones I’d never had – as seed-pearls that hadn’t caught
the light, washed away in their hundreds
and distant as the spread of stars that shone
borrowed gleams on my dark window.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top


When I think of being in the mountains with you
it’s not Tivoli – rich blues of olive and cypress,
grape hyacinhs in the grass, groves
drowned in the haze of their own blue leaves –
that I want, but a black lake that wells up
high in a Welsh cwm, ravens overhead
heard but not seen, the love song
of their harsh voices calling
and like reaching down into the cold
of Llyn Y Fan Fach for pebbles, I grasp at words,
dark-coloured, hold them in my palm
and feel how heavy they are for their size,
how fine the grain: quartz, jasper,
basalt, basanite, touchstone
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top

Wild Garlic

Allium ursinum, ramson, sometimes ransom,
Old English hramsa: all Northern Europe
has a name for wild garlic, that startling white,
its pungency. Pick and they quickly fade
but in the mass – and waht mass! – overwhelming.
In Cornwall they form thick banks along the lanes
and fill damp woods, making me long to be
propped on beds of amaranth and moly
and truly I find they’re magic: the moly-garlic
Hermes gave Odysseus to protect him.
Now hostage to fortune, how willingly
I’d pay a king’s ransom – in ramsons, of course,
whole armfuls of them, a wild cornucopia –
for the smallest chance of release, remission.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top

Kérkyra 1961

I’m full of power, nineteen and immortal.
We want for nothing. We sleep in the open air
under olive trees, and when we bathe at night
we’re heroes clothed in silver phosphorescence.
Evenings, we make a fire of dry driftwood
and brew cocoa with the brackish spring water
from the far end of the beach. The air’s velvet,
fragrant with sea and land smells, the moon glitters.
Then from the steep hills, two princes come
with talk and laughter; there’s no need of names.
Overhead there’s an arch of constellations,
the same I saw at home, but wider here
where gods live among them. What matter, now,
if princes become old men or kings or exiles?
What matter if I look back down the years
and guild and shame confront me? Entirely changed,
I’m still that girl, sometimes the fire burns on
and I feel its warmth, glad that it is so.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top


Papery ghost, why do you haunt me so?
You slip between my pages day and night;
I’m half angry, half afraid. Let me go.
Yours is the face against the dark window,
you conjure me in dreams, won’t let me write.
Uneasy ghost, why do you haunt me so?
Who’s in control? In sleep’s dark undertow
we’re swept away, cut off from the light
till I’m angry, half afraid; let me go.
What have you come to say? You miss me? No.
That’s not your message. Yet, perhaps, you might.
Quiet ghost, why do you haunt me so?
You thread your life through mine and although
those silky spider strands are plaited tight
I’m still half afraid you’ll let me go.
So late to visit. So much that you know
I want to ask. Silent, you smile. Goodnight,
familiar ghost; why do you haunt me so? –
don’t be afraid I’ll ever let you go.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top

Figures in a Landscape

Out loud, emphatic, though still asleep he says,
‘Parsifal; The Easter Hymn’. How little I know
of his inner life even after all these years,
as if we were shapes moving about in mist,
creatures with weight and form but featureless
with only those gestures we all have in common,
our individuality wearing away
until we’re smooth as a pebble, stripped as a bone.
What will we know, either of us, out there
in the old hum of the garden; who will we greet
among the monoliths? Unstill, neither from
nor towards, we’ll be reabsorbed in the pattern.
And what will remain? A block of unworked stone,
a mud-stained coat hanging behind a door.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top

Sea Glose

     The wind japans the surface. Like a flower,
     each point of contact biggens and is gone.
     And when it rains the senses fold in four.
     No sky, no sea – the whiteness is all one.

          Alice Oswald: Sea Sonnet
As the pilot turns the plane for a second try
the whole watery island’s laid out below
adrift in an icy sea. The wind’s so high
the fragile cabin sways and shakes; the flow
of talk tails off and fear makes our mouths dry.
We land with a lurch feeling the engine’s power
bend our bodies and force the craft to slow –
then the terminal’s warmth, my family.
In the distance the ocean’s shining blur:
the wind japans the surface like a flower.
A flower, an Arum lily, great-niece Lily
in a great big white-wool hooded cardie, you
are the one I crossed the Atlantic to see, newly
born and gorgeous, your eyes the darkest blue
of the sea in dreams, open wide and nearly
ready to smile – at me or the Welsh Dragon
your far-away first-cousin-once-removed
has sent (you can’t tell us apart this early!)
Outside, snow falls on tarmac and paving-stone;
each point of contact biggens and is gone.
Arctic pack ice drifts in overnight
and traps the sealing-boats, rams them together
off the north-east coast. From Cape Spear the white
slob-sheet boils like porridge, snow-water boulders
float on the waves or are sculpted into bright
green castles or blue blancmanges along the shore.
Later the wind swings round and the ice-cream colours
vanish as if by magic; in random sunlight
trees are encased in glass, a silver thaw.
And when it rains the senses fold in four.
The island’s held by the sea, an empty sea
(so many miles for the eagle to fly across);
on Florrie’s deck it’s the smaller birds we feed,
nuthatches come, red squirrels and a mouse.
Rebecca, Deborah, Lily, Grant and Cle
(and not forgetting the furry lime-green dragon),
I’ll miss you all, the young ones’ clapboard house,
Cle’s bake-apple jam, the chat, the sea, the sea.
Waving goodbye; I’m going, going, gone.
No sky, no sea – the whiteness is all one.
                     Mary MacRae
                     Inside the Brightness of Red, 2010, Second Light Publications

back to top


Poems from As Birds Do               go to Poems from Inside the Brightness of Red

Gannet     Jury      White Cyclamen     Reading Traherne
Lords and Ladies     Accommodation      Wild Life     Flycatcher


This is what I came to look for
               from the rocks at the very tip
                              of St David’s Head, this bird,
this gannet, so white it reflects the light
               from far out on the open sea,
                              one continuous line of body
aimed towards
               the questing head and sharp beak,
                              its whole being flowing forward
like Braque’s bird, bleached
               and flying over the bay,
                              back to Grassholm.
Suppose I could be re-born
               into that frame, what might I find
                              in the huge plunge seaward,
the crash of entry, the long
               descent to semi-darkness?
                              What fish emerge with?
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do


I’d noticed her hands before, large and quiet
in her lap as she listened through all the words
for the sound she wanted, the call from her scrap
of daughter, fed on demand
while we waited
and I thought of how she’d hold that feather-weight
in one hand while the other cupped the warm head
with its beating fontanelle close to her breast
as if that soft suck and tug
were all the world
and she could forget the knife, (one of a set),
with the serrated edge we’d seen already,
an ordinary kitchen knife, its ten-inch blade
nestling securely inside
a cling-wrapped box.
But it was the photo made me cry – her hand,
in colour, the palm flat for the camera,
fingers stretched apart to show the base of each
cut to the bone, ragged wounds
only half healed:
how painful it must have been to open out
the sheltering fist, uncurl her fingers and feel
the tight scabs crack, exposed for an indifferent
photographer to record
the naked truth.
And the moment all the others led up to
and away from – the moment before her hand
lost its grip on a handle made slippery with
his blood, slid down the blade? – that,
we couldn’t see.
          Mary MacRae
          As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications;
          first published in Orbis and shortlisted for Forward Prize,2007;
          published in the Forward Decades of Poems anthology, 2011

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do

White Cyclamen

I’ve read that in Japanese
there’s a word – yugen – for ‘flower’
that doesn’t mean ‘blossom’ but is an unseen
ghost-flower, breathless, timeless.
Think of white cyclamen
on a window-sill – how they gain
an extra whiteness from the reflected
shine of snow outside
so that although in time their petals
one by one will twist and fade
they still retain a grey shadow, an under-self
more beautiful than brightness –
and it’s hard not to think that flowers have souls
if soul is the breathless, timeless part of us.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do

Reading Traherne

Eternity is a sphere
                         into which we enter
all whose parts are at once
                         standing round about us

but for me it’s more like water –
                         depth rather than surface
slightly salted, thin, a bit clouded,
                         rich with nutrients –
and navigating through the dark
                         with other swimming creatures,
shoals of mackerel, shadowy whales,
                         their blips of radar,
the line swinging round a dial
                         in a green continuum.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do

Lords and Ladies

‘All promises are fleshed
or now they fail.’
                Charles Tomlinson, ‘October’.

Although this pair are making towards wilt-down
          they’re still all sap and go
                     in the late summer scuff of the hedge,
two naked stems springing
          from dusty twigs and dry jumble,
                     the few berries on each tip
in orange clusters, their skins tight
          to bursting, inviting and shiny
                     as if they’d been varnished.
On this dark August day their fruit
          are bright pomegranates
                     packed with seesds, seed-pearls,
pearly eggs, and I remember promises
          fleshed and failed, and how hard it is
                     to feel the freshness of things
but Lords and Ladies know nothing of that;
          their torchlight draws small animals
                     who snuff up ripeness in globules
and carry the seeds safe in their warm gut
          before leaving them, uncovered,
                     to fend for themselves.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do


Imagine this: your father dies.
You bury him under your house, in a hastily
scrabbled place among dirt and stones
and share his silence, his wasting away.
Then your first duty: to take his crumbs
in your mouth, drink the broth of his bones.
Yes, father, that’s Ancient China,
but haven’t you been buried under my floorboards
all this time? It’s twenty years
since you died; a long disincarnation.
Now in my sleep I know you’re there,
huddled in the black earth.
It was your hand stretched out to me
in dream; I know how the blue wrist-veins
run distinct under the blue-white skin.
I couldn’t take it in mine – as I couldn’t
hold your pipe, your specs when you’d died –
threw them – forgive me – straight in the bin.
There were men with your hands on the pier
at Deal, fishing under a purple sky,
deliberate fingers stiff against weights
and tackle, threading worms on hooks.
They had your look, facing out
on emptiness, quietly waiting.
I could have watched them for hours. The sea
was all opaque jade surface
and I thought of cod, the way gold
is splashed on their flanks, how
they make heavy headway through the traffic
of tide and current, in the Atlantic cold.
I’m homing in on you now, father,
picking my way through debris, deposits
from our old life, eac packed layer,
till I can swallow this thing that is you
in a sort of makeshift accommodation
impossible while we shared air.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do

Wild Life

the poster promises, rooted in the broken arches
of the Ponete Rotto, but all we can see from the new bridge
is straggly bushes blowing in the wind.
Disappointed, we look down the embanked ravine
to where the Cloaca Maxima, the Great Drain
discharges into the Tiber, and there on top
on the flat masonry blocks is a building-site hut,
a frame hung with bits of cloth and tarpaulins
so well protected you’d only spot it by chance,
and then I see that some of the cloths are clothes
and the long black stripes are socks hanging to dry,
draped over the side. It’s a camp, a castle;
somebody’s made his home in this dry vault
high above the river. But how does he live?
We hurry down the steps to the disused tow-path
and here he’s visible, but so far up on his arch
he’s hard to see, a small figure eating
and putting food on little trays for the cats.
And, although we’re home again, he grows in my mind;
I remember a cold Spring, petals and snowflakes
floating down together, almond and plum
with scarcely more colour than snow, how calm that made me,
and I think that’s what he wants, above the drain,
the ebb and flow of the river, the water’s motion,
to feel the pull of the sea at night on the lonely
tow-path and walk to the pulse of wind and rain,
slowing his mind to their relentless measure.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do


Thinking about birds, all those lives
parallel to ours, and a word
alights, too heavy
for their slight bodies
unburdened as they are;
what they build is easy
as breath, weightless as the cloud-
shaped cup under leaves
a flycatcher has pieced
together with twigs, threads
and a ragged length of wool
that waves like a banner.
Twice I walk past;
each time she takes me lightly
into her eyes, returns my gaze
so brightly, so creature to creature –
this brown-as-a-mouse bird –
that my soul is shaken
open, expands and takes wing
with only that weighty word to steady it –
tenderness; yes,
tender, as a bruise is.
                     Mary MacRae
                     As Birds Do, 2007, Second Light Publications

back to top               back to Poems from As Birds Do

As Birds Do is now out of print.



Inside the Brightness of Red cover As Birds Do cover Gannet, illustrated poem card Traherne, illustrated poem card Cyclamen, illustrated poem card