By Joseph Charles MacKenzie

On the massacre of sixteen children and their teacher at the Dunblane Primary School near Stirling, Scotland, March 13, 1996

LOVE’s light lost the bleak night breathes a black breeze of loss.
The dread dawn dons dusk’s vale. “Is death dead?” the bells
Ask across the mourning morn’s moors. The sound swells,
Proclaiming Mary’s anguish at the Child-God’s cross.

My horror walks in hermit’s weeds where children skipped,
My skull’s sick sky sinks shaken shocked beyond the leaves
Light lilting leaward as my grieving silence weaves
A wreath of white where once a tortured heaven wept.

Your quiet walls and choir stalls fall muffled muted,
As all around resound your bells whose concerts call
Only the broken to an altered altar’s gall,
Their proud pearl peels by palsied pain’s pall diluted.

A cold enfolding sigh of waning winter’s white
Wails a winding-sheet of wind over the wide waste.
With ice-frosted moss the old year’s grey gown is laced
And spring entombed awaits the blooming of the light.

Come, pure hands, come, sinless hands, gather the good birth
Of glad glowing firstlings to the day’s faultless flock,
And come, guiltless Heart, guide us to your sacred rock
Whence your bright beam’s gleam breaks across the planet’s girth!

For the mid-March musings of the marsh marges melt
The slow-flowing Allan. The swift-sweeping swallow
Swerves now, now swoops, swinging above my dark fallow
Dreams. O singing ark of endlessness where once dwelt

The children. O green grace wrapped in the bud’s tight fold!
O writhing world, how my woe-weary Virgin grieves!
O red wreath of wrath wrought of thorns and new-born leaves!
O Shepherd’s warm wounds wrung on gleaming glens of gold!

Mothers and midwives of Levi, the Nile floods fill
With your tears. For, your fair rows of white roses
The Pharaoh’s anger drowns in brown streams, while Moses
Wends his sweet wean’s way by the Weaver’s hand and will.

And Rachel’s vain veiled voice from Ramah’s ramparts cries
To Bethlehem, as the sword’s fierce fire falls like rain
On milk-fed flesh of silk. Though Herods reign,
My Savior roves through red ravines and ravaged skies,

Fleeing into Egypt. Though the slayers of stars
Slithering slink like slick serpents through the slow slime
Of senselessness; though smiling America’s grime
Smudges our song with its grim grisly sludge and scars

The infinite in man; though beauty’s butchers crown
Their barren brows with manufactured tinsel-boughs,
While a stark starving world in prostrate bondage bows
Before the lords of emptiness and false renown;

Though swine-faced fakes swindle faith from feigned pulpit-chairs,
Parading chained Eternity on auction-blocks,
While private spite behind a seraph’s mask mocks
The souls it splits and spits upon with pious airs;

Though trite trivial trifles triumph over truth
And artists assist assassins of the sublime;
Though we are slapped and slashed and sliced and slugged while Time
Lies blank and bleeding in the gardens of our youth,

Yet, we are returning forever, with arms full
Of everyday flowers waving the old ways home.
We run beneath our secret suns, but never roam
Too far from the folds of familiar wool.

From Bute’s mute stones He shall run with us again,
O partisans of miracles! Our crossed kites rise
Wafted on west wind’s wings, beyond auld Scotland’s skies
Wondering on a child revived by gentle Blane.

…And I hear their green music through the tortured leaves.
Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei genetrix,
Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei genetrix.
…And I hear their green music through the tortured leaves.


Joseph Charles MacKenzie is the first and last American to win First Place in the Long Poem Section of the Scottish International Poetry Competition, Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize.

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6 Responses

  1. Terence Marin

    An intensely beautiful poem. There is such pain and suffering so bare and plainly confronting the mind, as with the endless terrorist attacks and mass shootings that seem to be occurring more and more in the last 20 years. Yet if that were all, then this wouldn’t be such a great poem. Through the lush alliteration, contemplative rhyme scheme, and inspiringly broad perspective we are given hope in heart-filling abundance.

    Excellent poem!

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, Sir. Indeed, my purpose was to make use of the Greek meters I encountered translating the tragic choruses and the almost infinite variety of meters one finds in the Greek in general, to create the atmosphere of the elegiac. Is our language capable? This was the question for me. So, every single line had to be crafted just so. And I am very pleased that you noted the alliterative aspect. I have always considered Fr. Gerard Hopkins a proto-modernist (certainly modernists agree with me on that) who was much more involved in tearing down England’s classic poetry than building upon it, and so I had to find a way of deepening the alliteration without falling into his excesses, such as we see in Wreck of the Deutschland, which exploits a tragedy for a false poetic end. And there the answer was quite simple: Technique is the servant of inspiration, not inspiration technique. I realized that Hopkins’s world is the reverse. And so, I decided that the children of Dunblane would determine everything about Dunblane Cathedral, that I would have to surrender my technique to them and let them speak through it.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you. In fact, I have recited this poem from memory twice in public and I can tell you that it is quite an emotional struggle to refrain from tears, even on my part. Because, ultimately, the children of Dunblane are the poem’s true source. From there one goes to childhood itself, and to innocence, and fragility, and the coldness of our times. Already the first line is difficult to get out. If you read it aloud you will see how it stops the voice and really, really slows it down. I went ahead and used three of the longest syllables in the English language in the third verse with “mourning morn’s moors.” One one completes a poem, it is as if it is no longer one’s and then one recites it as if it were really someone else’s. So, I myself have experienced what you are talking about.

  2. Corey Browning

    This poem is enticingly haunting. It’s elegant alliteration reminds me much of the early old-English poems like sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which relied much on alliteration for form, rather than meter or ryhme. Beautifully done. The imagery is astounding and thoroughly thought provoking. I find myself re-reading this poem over and over, understanding it better each time and thoroughly enjoying it’s character. Bravo!

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you. You actually caught me red-handed since part of my graduate work was, indeed, the history of the French language which naturally led me to the Old English masters by extension. And so the doctrine, for me (and I love having a doctrine), is simply that English poetry is at its best when it returns to its most ancient rites. I really had to think out each word. For example, I could not start out with “Love” as a simple noun. It occurred to me that the essential of love is the aspect of possessing, possession, the desire to possess. And so I open with a possessive form of the noun, “Love’s.” And then the next step was to consider the nature of the object of possession. Since the highest form of love is intellective, according to the Schoolmen who have always influenced me, and since the intellect is a kind of light which reads the essence of things within the soul (inter = “within” + lectus, legere “to read”), I then placed the word “light” after the possessive form of Love. And this process went on and on, building one word at a time, and meanwhile constructing the entire 24 stanza structure the meanwhile. This is why you even have visual components, such as the mirror image of “Savior” and “roves.” And I did think of Old English ornamental calligraphy with my “p’s” in the third quatrain. Yes, I want the reader to think of the wheel of a church’s bell mounting (the letter p’s round part) and the rope hanging down from it (the letter p’s vertical part), and I want the repetition of this visual to symbolize the succession of rings. So, yes, much is informed by the earliest concepts of our poetry.


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