John Beaton was raised in the Highlands of Scotland and now lives in the town of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, Canada. He is an actuary
by profession and, at age 56 in 2007, he retired from a career in the pensions industry.
After immigration to Canada in 1979, he quickly became a director of a highly successful actuarial consulting business in Calgary, Alberta.
After the sale of that business, John, his wife, and their four children moved to Vancouver Island in 1988. They settled on an acreage and
had a fifth child. John continued to work from Vancouver Island and eventually became the Canadian Retirement Practice leader for one of the
world’s largest human resource consulting firms.
From 2006 to 2010, John was a Moderator of an online metrical poetry workshop: The Deep End at Eratosphere. His poetry has been widely
published in literary and non-literary newspapers, magazines, and journals, and has won poetry competitions. He is a regular spoken word
performer at Celtic events, Burns Suppers, and literary gatherings.
There is a blackness like a furl of smoke
hurtling and twisting fast across the sky—
it shudders and explodes
and shards of shrapnel fly
upwards, bursting, bursting, then condense,
cascading down, and cresting to bespatter
the air above us as the starlings scatter,
and then the flock implodes,
flattens once again, and forms a cloak
of undulating wing-beats, recompense
for having had the sense
to go outside and see the things that matter.
Won first place in the Able Muse Write Prize for Poetry, 2012. Published in the 2012 Winter edition of
Christmas Party, December 21, 2010
Around the fire-flame, ruby wine
flashes as our Bacchanal
like jaguar blood in Solstice sun
purpling the Pyramid of the Moon.
Today, aligned, at Maes Howe’s dome
that sun beamed through the passageway
and struck the tomb
as if to threaten: “Sacrifice
your avarice or icecaps warm.”
A slippery slope. The Aztec priests
increased the kill-rate year by year
till human hearts,
beating to myths and azimuths,
by thousands filled the altar plates.
Though Christmas brings us Christ to drain
our altar slabs—a proxy who
a full eclipse now winks at us:
Earth’s eyelid closes on the Moon.
Though space-eyes watch that satellite
switch off then on they cannot pierce
and here the sky is blindfold dark—
this could be any rainy night.
Our home is nestled in the woods
and firewood gives us heat and light—
I toast: “To clouds!
To friends and joy and Christmas cheer!
And, to the heavens: Keep your gods!”
The sun has smouldered low. Its flaxen light
drizzles through the birches to the snow
where sheep stand still as hay-bales, beige on white.
A shepherd with a shoulderful of straw,
brindled by the shadows, softly walks.
The sheep flock round; he swings his load to strew
the strands on pillowed drifts like yellow locks,
then hastens homeward bearing sustenance
against the ghostly dark. He holds small hands
and spins his children tales of happenstance
and golden fleeces in enchanted lands.
Their minds woolgather. Snuggled down in bed,
they drift on snowy pillows; yellow strands
of hair glow like the hay their father spread.
To the Bluenose
With a hundred and forty feet of hull
and a quarter acre of sail,
you'd forge up under four lowers against
head seas in a fifty-knot gale
with a ballast load of Atlantic cod
and, pitching to the rail,
you'd stand on, with the strength of a church
and the heft of a breaching whale.
And never had such a spectacle graced
the Nova Scotian coast
as your flying jib off Lunenberg;
it was Canada's pride and a boast
that our great salt banker could fly as fleet
as an ice-filled Gloucester ghost;
and you'd lead past the highflyer poles then schoon
wing and wing to the finishing-post.
But the price of the cod was crosstree high —
to harvest your Grand Banks quarry
you'd launch and loose your flying sets
and, with flambeaux lit, each dory
would anchor a mile of baited line
as their crews hallooed in the hoary
vapors that rolled from Labrador.
Then they'd lead-line for death or glory.
They that go down to the sea in ships
is inscribed on The Man At The Wheel
in Gloucester to mourn the five thousand drowned
in filling a continent's creel.
And in Lunenberg harbor twelve hundred names more
are dancing a stony reel
in a compass of pillars — if ever they rise,
may they climb with your top men and feel
your halyards thrum and your backstays strain
on the breakers of Banquereau
as you close-haul with a bone in your teeth
and your weather-bilge bared to the blow.
This evening’s sunset, though ethereal rose,
is not unique — I’ve seen its like before
emblazoning this shore;
others eclipse it, robed and grandiose,
descending suns which, as they disappear,
draw a train
across the polar ice for half a year —
long, silken night that lets in astral rain.
I see no Ellesmere, but islands smolder,
anthracite to bank the sunset’s fire.
As clouds make ready to retire
the ebb-tide bares a sandbar like a shoulder
and ingle-benches empty — seabird flocks
seek nooks of calm;
they search for marsh and carr with goodnight squawks
and sky and sea close like a carmine clam.
In another life I’d clamber Brooks Range talus
or run the Sagavanirktok by canoe,
my paddle breaking through
the sunset and aurora borealis.
But this is my life, this fair coast, my home,
and this setting sun
deserves to be viewed, not with an eye to roam,
but as if it were the first and only one.
When I Am Old
Hie me to the hill-ground,
the high hill ground of Scotland,
to battle bladed wind-blasts
my forebears fought before me,
to stagger stammer-footed
across the ancient highlands,
across their schists and drifting bones,
across their shifting ruin-stones,
where, witchily, the gray pine crones
still call me to my history.
Leave me there to wayfare
the curlew-plainted wild moor,
to smell the sweet bog-myrtle
beside the peaty burn;
to stumble crumbling scree slopes
that roll with rutting stag roars
and rediscover drove roads
and moss embossing lost abodes
where blood-fed drovers rested loads
bound south and trudging their return.
Let me find a lone shore
where fishermen lie buried
in graves of wave-flung flotsam
with neither name nor past:
to stand there like a Culdee
as mist-trails move unhurried
on island hills and holms and voes
where headlands creaked with yells of crows
as birlinns swooned in hell-bent blows
that heaved the shore and cleaved the mast.
Bear me to the black shed
where the blacksmith shod the plough-horse
to plod long narrow furrows
that pleat the folding field,
and when my storm approaches,
I'll stand before its raw force
by furnace flames of bygone ways,
and anvils ringing down the days
that forged my soul and bent these bays;
I’m of this land — it’s here I’ll yield,
to the stubble and seeds of the past.
Woman In The Wind
Sheets of rusted corrugated iron
clatter in the gusts against its walls —
the black house mossed with memories of childhood.
It passed like sunsets blushed across the kyles.
A teenaged bride, she wed her next-door neighbor;
one gateway and she crossed her line of blood.
Today that field-gate lies unhinged and fallen,
half-sunk in a half a lifetime’s puddled mud
and only washing-line connects the gate-posts.
Three shirts with arms extended tug and flap —
a man, two boys. She sees three crucifixions
and thinks of all the prayers and benedictions
they've counted on to save them from mishap.
Their row-boat rounds the Cregan to the Sound
of Raasay out of Camustianavaig Bay.
Black cormorants, like mourners, watch them pass
behind Ben Tianavaig then fade away.
At tide-change there’s a hush as waters still;
red cod, in congregations, prey and gulp
the eels that undulate like blowing rags
as hand-lines search their sanctuaries of kelp.
Clouds glisten, haloed by a hidden sun;
the brightness weakens to the creak of oars.
Then wingless shadows fly across the heather —
gray waves of swelling rain bring foul weather
as storms begin to sweep the open moors.
This morning and each morning since she married
she’s borne the water-buckets from the burn
to wash away the woad of savage living
expecting neither respite nor return.
From unrelenting slime and sweat and smearings,
she keeps the gate and dares the coming squalls,
extracts the wind's last spit-less drying breath;
but now both rain and iron rattle on walls.
In headscarf, tallowed boots, and threadbare coat
she wears for milking and when going for peat
she pulls the clothes-pegs, hoping that it brightens;
instead the cowl of gloom draws in and tightens,
and rainspots on the clothes seal her defeat.
Now serried whitecaps charge the assembled leagues
of shoreline cliffs then crash like cracks of doomsday
and rise as giant clamshells on the rocks;
though bow to blow, four oars can make no headway.
They slash their grounded lines and blisters tear
from callused hands; and torsos, limbs and wood,
one streaming sinewed beast impelled by fear,
resist the pounded Cregan's beatitude.
No bell. Just
stony silence from the kirk
where ministers tell all they’re unforgiven
until they die, then say they’ve gone to heaven,
cold comfort as the combers go berserk.
She steps inside and fights to shut the door.
Outside the ravens huddle under haystacks
and seagulls switchback into battering gales.
The iron sheeting flies. She finds some sacks
to caulk the draughty door, then lifts the wash
and squeezes hard to feel if it's still moist
with water hauled before her men-folk rose;
then clasps these family icons to her breast,
damp armfuls of limp empty cloth; and knows,
as surely as the sun will set forever
beyond the kyles, as surely as the kirk
will keep its foregone verdicts under cover,
that, whether she must face a widow’s grief,
or they return expecting her relief,
until she dies, one of two hells awaits her.
I’m wakened, drawn towards the ice-thin window
to witness scenes as faint and still as death.
How bleak the moon; how bare the trees and meadows;
sky’s pale maw overhangs
earth bleached beneath star fangs.
Night’s curled lip sneers on shadows
of mountains set like teeth.
Two bow-waves shear the median of the valley;
iced hayfield yields as feral muscles glide,
hoar-frost disturbed by wakes of live torpedoes —
grey shoulders breach and lope,
implode and telescope,
impelled by ruthless credos
of chilled and vicious pride.
The wolves tear savage furrows down the nightscape,
their eyes are shined with blood, their mission clear;
grass springs back shocked to green behind their passage,
twin tracks traverse the vales,
cold comets trailing tails
leave, scarred in frost, their message:
the wolves, the wolves passed here.
Close to Coho
I walk the beach by light of pre-dawn stars,
discern the creek and track its shoreline swale
along a trace where rocks and gravel meet
and shells lie still as ivory in graves.
The tide is low and freshly off the turn.
I note a surface seam, fresh water's trail.
And through the silver dulse-weed at its mouth
I wade to level sandy-bottomed ground.
The eel-grass lies in patches, swaying east:
the tide begins to move along the coast
and salmon schools align to face its flow;
I've judged that here a run will swing around.
I cast my fly into the sun's first blush.
A morning breeze begins to grate its sheen,
and then I see a single coho jump,
full clear and fresh above that steely seam.
And nothing happens after that, no fish
shows elsewhere in this panoramic scene.
I stand in broad salt water to my waist
and sunset fires the mainland crags like coals;
mergansers dive for bait-fish, smooth as lead,
and coho leap to greet October skies —
their spangling splashes ring the mirrored sea;
they spring and slap, high-spirited as foals.
I see a racing bulge.
I'm in its path;
a bolting coho flashes into view —
it barrels breakneck to the shallow shore,
careening past a yard from my two legs;
its chevroned wake humps by; I feel the sway,
and then the sea before me breaks in two.
About to collide, the sea-lion skids to a turn
and whorls the water hugely where I wade;
his flipper rudders strain to turn his bulk
from plunging on at closing killing speed —
upsurges gurgle as he arcs, submerged.
I stand, a one-man save-the-fish stockade.
Did you ever fall in love with a river
and feel her sinews slide across the land?
Did her undercurrents ever make you quiver
and suck you down and down
through breathless dreams to drown
in turbulence of bubbles and glistening sand?
Is she the wild Stikine or Tatshenshini,
is she the summer-silked Similkameen,
is she the lithe long-legended Homathko,
are her eyes the glacier melting turquoise-green?
Did you ever let her flowing sweep you downstream
and lose your stone-held footing in the spate?
Did she flush you through a canyon on a sunbeam,
sluice raceways through your mind,
careen you fast and blind,
then glide you down her pools, now so sedate?
Were you ever cradled softly in her valley,
borne on a straining sheet of shining light,
turned slowly in a silent swan-like ballet
rocks sliding by below,
the land an upstream flow,
your thoughts a swirling haze of green and white?
Yes, she’s the wild Stikine and Tatshenshini,
yes she’s the summer-silked Similkameen,
yes she’s the lithe long-legended Homathko,
her eyes are the glacier melted, turquoise-green.
Songs of the Isles
It’s Celtic Chaos at Loch Duich. The music session’s finishing
the barman pours folks out the door. They drive away
vanishing into darkening glens, where Clearances once
the homes and lives of crofting peoples; the sheep now
like grace-notes fallen from fiddle-airs, or from songs of
bygone aeons —
of Flodden’s and Culloden’s fields, and spray-sodden
All night they stamped their musical feet and swirled the
smoke and ale,
with claps and birls and hoochs and skirls, now silent, still
And I return to Plockton’s shore, where I sit on a stone and
whether I would’ve made a man among men, in the days of plight
in the days when allegiances could shift, like seafarers under
changing course to avail themselves of the winds that would
This very dawn I stood upon the buttress across the Bay,
the watch-crag of Loch Carron's narrows, where lookouts
perhaps one day
had sentried these Viking longship routes from Ivar
as his ravaging bands swung inland to ravish the wives of
Before me lie the sheltered coves where the sailboats raced
Now their wooden hulls heave sideways, as the tide-wash ebbs
but their lapstrake lines and their gleaming curves seem to
come alive again
to take to the waves of the Inner Sound like a timeless song’s
And I see two square sails billowing as they swallow long
the dragon-ship of Somerled, Lord of all these Isles,
passes Eilann Donan’s fort; one hundred and twenty-eight
bend their arms to the beat of the gong to ram the fleeing
And Cathula beats that gong in tune to muscle and sweat and
her tawny hair howls in the dark; she’s his mistress and his
second-mate in battles and surprise night-time attacks
that set the coarse invaders to their oars with flailing
With two hundred Irish gallowglasses, and with smoke and
sleight of hand,
he routed a thousand Vikings; and with the will to understand
the needs of men who rally to the stronger shield and blade
he won his frays in minds, not bays, by allegiances he made.
I see beached goblet sterns becalmed, like the locals’
sleeping faces —
our hearts in song’s communion rose; I saw the shimmering
of unfulfilled but fervent longing, in glances, bare and
watching sea-lochs simmering red, dark as quaichs of mulled
And I realize that just like them, I’m another whose dreams of
are doomed to nullity for they come too late in history’s
that I can love their songs and tunes, but I’ll never swear an
or wager countless lives upon a wind-blown clansman’s troth,
or snap my neck from the axe’s path, or swing my sword in
or walk among the dead and maimed in the battle’s aftermath,
or choose my friends for their usefulness, or repute of
or commit my hand to venturings where death awaits all who
And so I rise from my foreshore stone with a drowsiness in my
and I cross the road and I climb the stairs, and I go to my
safe warm bed,
while the mute musicians lie in theirs in their glens of
and dream of fiddles, the wind-filled flute, the bodhran and
The Combustion Of Apples
Old Gravenstein, your boughs are scabbed and mossy
but you expand them graciously, a host
inviting passers-by to share the glossy
hospitality your bushels boast.
Your blossom spangled spring rain's spectrumed prism
and dropped; green stippled you and turned to reds
and golds. They coalesce — spring's pointillism
is smeared as autumn's flaring wildfire spreads.
Now fanning winds gust leaves — sparks float to earth
and apples fall like coals. They’ll leave a tortured
candelabrum etched above a hearth
where ash still smokes — the frosted misty orchard.
Dusk. Across the mural of the sky
your portraitist depicts another scene:
he specks and flecks your boughs with nebulae
in blooms of carmine, salmon, gilt, and green.
And they too blend as space-dust avalanches
down columns light-years tall and then combines
in worlds that fall, like apples from your branches,
decaying as their core-stored sun declines.
Thus apple-trees and galaxies expire —
in dappled glades of universal fire.