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The Light Comes Back: ‘The white bird’ by Norman MacCaig

  16 Feb '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

‘Every year, in the third week of February,’ Kathleen Jamie writes in her collection Sightlines, ‘there is a day, or, more usually a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back.’ Well, here we are and yes it is. Jamie’s observation, though, has an interesting literary backstory. It nods to Norman MacCaig‘s February poem, ‘The white bird’, which sits at the centre of a cluster of Scottish writing about the return of the light. Looking ahead to this moment, Liz Lochhead quotes MacCaig powerfully in her solstice poem ‘In the Mid-Midwinter’ and groups a brilliant collection of poems under the heading ‘The light comes back’ in her Makar collection, Fugitive Colours.

Here’s MacCaig’s original. It’s marvellously spare and a little ambivalent about the on-rushing of the seasons and the cyclicality of life, death and renewal: relentless, invigorating, necessary, beautiful.

The white bird
Norman MacCaig

The light comes back.
The light always comes back.

No need, I say to myself,
to creep into a nutshell –
that won't keep the light 
from coming back.

The white bird
lay dead on my doorstep.
Was it a dove? I don't think so.
It lay there
like the sorrows of the world.

No need, I say to myself, 
to make a cave and 
hide in it. That won't keep the rain
from coming back, from
ending a dry season.

Scavengers took away
the white dove, if it was one.

No need, I say to myself,
to be glad of its beauty. That won't keep
the sorrows of the world
from coming back
pitiful and beautiful
like a white bird
that might be a dove.

                   [February, 1972]
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