Elizabeth Burns

Elizabeth Burns published four collections of poetry. Ophelia and Other Poems (Polygon) was shortlisted for a Saltire Award for First Book of the Year. Among her many pamphlets, The Shortest Days (Galdragon) won the inaugural Michael Marks Award and Clay (Wayleave) was shortlisted for the 2015 Ted Hughes Award.

A St Andrews graduate, Elizabeth spent much of her life in Scotland, but moved with her family to Lancaster, where she taught creative writing in the community as well as for universities. She died in 2015.



‘There was nothing to mar your days, if you were a boy summering in that part, but the embarrassment of pleasure.’

— Robert Louis Stevenson

Not destined to build lighthouses, as his father’s family do –
but look how he writes about darkness and light, the bucket
the child sees at night time, half full of water and stars;
the lamplighter coming at dusk to illuminate the street.

He is born to this story: the way light in the darkness
can save us, and each childhood summer is spent on the coast,
close by the blink of the Isle of May lighthouse, the Bass,
making up stories of pirates and shipwrecks, climbing Black Rock

as my children do, year after year, the house where we stay
three doors along from the Stevensons’ villa, so I see Louis
head for the rockpools, climb the hill at the back of the houses
or go that way to the cliffpath – his friendly ghost is everywhere.

He’s with us on the boat trip to the Bass Rock, the place
he imprisons his hero. On our way back to land, a haar
breathes suddenly over the sea, swallows the cliffs and the islands,
the harbour, the town. Another boat looms, like something from a dream,

shapes appear out of whiteness then vanish, like flashes of memory –
our days on this beach, those moments of delight I want to pull clear
of their shadows: our stay here never long enough, the summers
of my daughters’ childhoods slipping through my hands like sand.

Back on land, hot sun eases through fog, the girls shake off
their teenage selves – all week they’ve been combing their wind-tangled hair,
drinking cappuccinos, looking in the shops – and build sandcastles
with moats, potter in rockpools like they used to do. Our last evening

and I walk until the Fidra lighthouse starts flickering across the sea.
The wet sand holds the sunset, makes it liquid. I want to store all this
– landscape, happiness – inside me, preserve it, but it’s fragile as glass,
a lantern-slide lit for a moment, then laid over others and blurred.

I walk along the links, as Stevenson did in the late summer dusks,
meeting other boys at a hollow in the sand where they’d show
the little tin lanterns they’d bought and tied to their belts,
not to shine out like the lights tied to fishing boats, not visible

like the ones policemen wore: the thing was to hide the light
under your coat, and only show it when you met another boy.
Stevenson looks back and sees it as an image of the gleam
that makes us human, the fiery, unquenchable self we all carry

under the guise of our bodies. We’re lightkeepers, making ready
for sundown, revealing that tiny glimmer and refracting it.
We walk back together, he and I, down past the harbour, along
the East beach, the last of the sunset behind us, Black Rock ahead 

our lanterns glowing in the secret dark. The lightbeams
from the islands flare across the sea, beacons in darkness.
We come to the end of the road. His is the last house.
We take what light we can to keep us through the night. 

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