Cagney’s Last Curtain Call

Words shape my lips, words that I shall borrow,
Pre-dawn, the sun, yet to fully arise,
Caresses land edged by a bustling sea;
Joy’s tears form, for I may weep tomorrow,
I watch lighthouse lights blink and realise
They are beacons guiding boats to the pier,
From thence to a safe berth, but there, dancing
Like James Cagney, a lone figure performs,
Evoking memories from yesteryear;
I must be mad, or a ghost goes prancing
Along the quay, spins around, and grins. Storms
Threaten today, with heavy seas tonight,
Spray breast’s the barricade, his shoulder-capes
Are silvered by bright sequins, wetly strewn,
James dances on, bathed in a blue spotlight,
Dreams thus drenched, deters not yon jackanapes,
A lively reel robs scenes from Brig O’ Doon.

Daylight; binoculars bring his face
Into full focus, I feel a pang of guilt
And lay the invasive lenses aside;
Neptune and Nereid waltz with easy grace,
Salt-chemic spatters high, gleaming with silt,
Light applause is lost in that surfing sound;
Cagney drops to one knee, arms held wide,
Creamy bosomed wave-tops add to the show,
Dainty curtseys, adorned by stunning spume,
Endorse his magic; misty nymphs abound,
Diadems glisten in dawn’s afterglow,
He bows, lets the sea’s endless dance resume.

nota bene:

Later, I met him in a sea-front bar,
He said, ‘Used to be on a Broadway stage,
Hustling for the big break, the best agent,
Never once poised as a potential star,
Kelly, Astaire, Cagney, were all the rage;
I longed to lead the Hollywood pageant,
Danced in smash-hit musicals, dusk till dawn,
Lithe, silver-screen paramours partnered me
As I craved a top trouper’s self-esteem,
The done deal, the cinema pantheon
Where self-delusion drip-fed vanity,
Gaunt film directors ditched a dancer’s dream.
Now I strut on that sea-girt stage, nightly,
And a has-been hoofer’s star beams brightly.’



Cagney’s Hinmaist Happin Caa

Original in Lallans

Wurds girn ma gams, blashes A maun borrow,
Fause-daw, Titan, yit tae steir an craw crouse,
Cuittles links braisit bi babbin green swaws,
Blythe teirs fleit, for A maun greit the morrow,
A glisk lichthoose lemes winkin, an jalouse
Thay ward-fires airt dredgers tae beildy waa’s
Therefrae tae a sauf berth, bot thare, dauncin
Lyke Jimmy Cagney, a lane figur swirks,
Caa’in auld myndyns frae yersteryere,
A maun be gyte, or a ghaist gaes poncin
Alang the sea-wa, birls roon, an smirks,
Stouries daur the day; havy watter’s near,
Spunedrift breist’s the backhaud, his shouther capes
Gleid wi sequins syne watly cast aroon,
James jigs oan, lihtent bi Titan’s chawed ee,
Dremes dangit doon dant no this jackanapes,
Ae gey skeich reel rypes scenes frae Brig O Doon,
He prinks tae pier’s en, an prigs at the sea.

Daylicht. Faur keekin glesses bring his face
Til fou focus, A hae a stoun o guilt
An lay the sleekit lenses tae ae side,
Neptune an Nereid waltz wi souple grace,
Saut chemic splairges heich, skinklin wi silt,
Cagney draps tae yae knee, airms oot wide,
Claschit huuns gang quate neth that surfin soun,
Creamy bosom’d swaws, eikit tae the schaw,
Gie a heize tae magic, misty nymphs cour,
Dainty fuit tappin, frae siccan droukit loun,
Gars raindraps glent in Titan’s efterglow,
He bous, lats the swaws doolie-daunce glower.

Gloamin. A met him by the harbour baur,
He sayd, ‘Yased tae trauchle oan Braodwey stage,
Fluisterin for the big brek, the gryte agent,
Nevir yince mairched furth as a spunkie staur,
Kelly, Astair, Cagney, wer aa the rage;
A yarnyt tae wyse yon Hollywood pageant,
Daunced daft i’ smash-hit sangschaws, dusk tae daw,
Bonnie staurlet paramours pairtnert me,
A green’d for a tap touper’s self-esteem,
The duin deal, flauchterin pantheon’s draw;
Ainsel’s mirligo spune-fed vanity,
Movie mogul’s dichtit oot a duanser’s dreme.
Noo A jeeg oan that sea-jauped jet, nichtly,
Whaur a hende-hoofer’s staur bleizes brichtly.




© Sam Gilliland.

Residing in Scotland, Sam Gilliland is a champion of Lallans (the Scottish language) poetry and a recipient of Sangschaw’s prestigious MacDiarmid Tassie. With three previous collections of poetry published his work in Scots includes A Rickle O Banes (Penny Wheep Press). Founder/Secretary of Ayrshire Writers & Artists Society the organisation became the home of The Scottish International Open Poetry Competition, to which he devoted twenty eight years of his life as co-administrator and judge.

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15 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Dona Fox has given us two operative words: “enchanting” and “marvel.” These words are the first that come to mind whenever my illustrious mentor, Scotland’s last true bard, deigns to share his immortal verses with this most unworthy, American sonneteer.

    The enchantment of verses like:

    Neptune and Nereid waltz with easy grace,
    Salt-chemic spatters high, gleaming with silt,
    Light applause is lost in that surfing sound;

    And the marvel of a pure, cascading Lallans—music such as Scotland has not enjoyed its whole history before or since the coming of Gilliland.

    Wurds girn ma gams, blashes A maun borrow,
    Fause-daw, Titan, yit tae steir an craw crouse,
    Cuittles links braisit bi babbin green swaws,
    Blythe teirs fleit, for A maun greit the morrow

    For me, having heard Samuel Gillilan’s voice in person, a voice that was placed in the poet’s throat as it were for the sole purpose of singing (his spoken English is as self-consciously euphonious as his poems), reading the Scots of his “Cagney” is to enter that realm of memory which the great bard invites everyone to explore.

    We Americans have under-appreciated our Cagney. He was, indeed, a phenomenon of nature and of art. And that is what this poem is about.

    It is about the exuberance of art itself and the artistic nature. It is about the leaping and dancing of the human soul before a divine presence. It is about the unity of creation mirrored in the perfection of self-perfecting genius. This, and much, much more—as it always is with Gilliland whose works are a perpetual feast.

    Read a Gilliland poem ninety-nine times and your hundredth reading will still be your first!

    It’s very much like Norman MacCaig “turning up ace after ace” in one of his finest poems. Gilliland’s deck is all aces—loaded against your every preconception.

    And you have no choice when you read him: Gilliland removes you from your world and places you in his, where love, death, and memory accord their golden harps. You never want to leave!

    For lyricism in its undiluted purity, Gilliland has no peer. I doubt he ever will have one.

    Too young to have been anything but a loving apprentice, a loyal page, and a faithful friend to the giants of the 20th-century Scottish Renaissance (who, as I learned one day in Irvine, considered him the worthiest of colleagues), and too old to be appreciated by a younger generation of untutored phonies whose modernist elitism is an insult to Scottish letters, Gilliland has been the unsung hero of the Scottish poetry movement—unsung, perhaps, but always admired, and by all without exception.

    With Evan Mantyk’s paradigm-changing publication of “Cagney’s Hinmaist Happin Caa” I can say, and do say, recalling Boileau’s verses about Malherbe in the Art Poétique:

    At last, Gilliland is here!

    • Sam Gilliland

      But to my speiche he tuke grute heid;
      Neirness of blude he sett at nocht.
      Then weill I thocht,
      Quhan I for sibnes to him socht,
      It wes the richt wey that I yeid.
      Sir Richard Maitland (1586) Aye & aye, Sam.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Gavin Douglas and Robbie Burns must be smiling down from the heavens. What a testimony to the vitality of Lallans! And what a fine poet!

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        I do think that Dr. Salemi is right, however, as perhaps Gilliland “makes up for” the economic and cultural situation that had forced Burns to work quite often outside of his native language—so Burns would indeed smile that his first love is given pride of place in Gilliland’s Scots. In this case, in particular, we can think of the subject of the Cagney verses—Burns would have approved it as it is in many ways Burnsian, in the sense of drawing the sublime out of something which at first appearance is not necessarily so. Or, is it not that the Scottish poetic genius is simply like that? No matter, Gilliland has “grabbed” the phantasm for us, even as it grabbed him. Now we, the readers, are grabbed by it.

    • Sam Gilliland

      Would have preferred our national bard to have written, wholly, in Scots, his natural tongue. Our language dances naturally, much like the ‘romance’ languages of Provencal and Catalonia, my pleasure lies in establishing mood, and yes, love, in reader and critic alike. I delight in passions freely expressed within a good piece as well as that expressed by folk to whom the joy of living results in awareness of the soul’s poetic needs. Aye & aye, Sam.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        But perhaps it was within God’s providence that our limping and impoverished “language” of English—O miserable and least euphonious of tongues!—should receive precisely that fresh infusion of dance-like joy that only the genius of Burns could have bestowed upon it with such excellence and charm.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    One of the bad effects of the disappearance of Scottish sovereignty after 1603 (and definitely by the later Act of Union) was the evaporation of the possibility that Scots might have become the official language of an independent nation. Bishop Gavin Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid showed that Scots was well equipped to be such a tongue. Official status would have meant that Scots would have been taught in the classroom, used for legal documents, employed in the courts, accepted as the national idiom at the same level as French or High German, and be supported by the production of dictionaries, grammars, and high literary composition. Like Afrikaans (original known as “Cape Dutch”), it would have developed as the official speech of an independent political entity.

    I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a dialect or a patois. They are excellent in their own right, and have produced world-class literature. But when a language is recognized as having national status of the sort mentioned above, it gains much that dialects never seem to achieve.

    As my old linguistics professor Alan Hubbell used to say, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

    • Sam Gilliland

      Sir, I Thank you for your comments on our ancient tongue. During the wars of independence Lallans and Gaelic were our languages. When, during a battle, Sir William Wallace was asked to attend a peace conference he asked that an interpreter be present ‘for I hae nae Inglis!’ Quite frankly, we have never forsaken our heritage even though assimilation into another land seems to be seen by many in the wider world as complete. As far as I, and many others are concerned, our Scottish identity is as unique and powerful now as it was during the times when Bruce and Wallace embodied what it really meant to be Scottish. I shall ever be so.

  4. James Sale

    I have just got to Cagney’s Last Curtain Call and what a wonderful poem it is; it is so difficult to – syntactically – keep the movement of verse interesting, varied, and compelling, and that is exactly what Sam does. Well done, sir, well done.

  5. Sam Gilliland

    I thank you James. As one who completely understands the need to communicate using the poetic medium and confronts self so very often, using the rich complex of emotions and passion that exist within us, your comment is very greatly appreciated.
    Aye & aye, Sam.


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