Angel with Lute

High on the vaulting as though levitating,
for five centuries I have gazed down
at a blur of straining adam's apples,
gaping nostrils and goggle-eyes focusing
on the frescoes for long enough to take in
my soft colour tones, my wings' pale
transparency, my fingers on the strings.

Against the hair-line cracks in the sky,
faded through the ages, only traces remain
of my halo's gilding. But no disruption
of my features, thanks to my master
having properly prepared his pigments
before drawing my curls and straight nose-line,
the powdery red and green of my costume.

Not just the fee (though that filled his belly),
or religious conviction. I'll tell you a secret.
Invisible from ground level is a small smudge
on my cheek. His last brush-stroke complete
and before they dismantled the scaffolding
my master leaned up and kissed me gently.
After all those years, that still sustains me.

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What the critics say

The title of Conn's poetry collection reflects its themes.  The legend refers to the cockerel that sends ghosts back to their domain;  yet, as an image, it captures the precarious beauty of his work, its departures and beginnings, its lingerings and resurrections...  With his almost trademark filigree assonances and half rhymes, wry asides and sudden details, Conn conjures up the lost poet Roull of Corstorphin, and gives him the loveliest lines about marriage I've read for a while:  "Loving you for what you are - / not just for what you were."  Anger, art, angst, guilt and guile, the humane and the human are all here.  Conn is currently Edinburgh's makar:  they'll have to search long and hard for a worthy successor.— Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

Visiting Barcelona, Burgundy and 15th-century Edinburgh before returning to the Scotland of the present day, Conn turns again and again to the subject of our vulnerability.  His spare, clean language and discursive style, however, are not conducive to self-pity...  His poetry is intensely visual, with a strong sense of place;  frequent reimaginings of works of art, themselves "'reminders of impermanence', in turn give rise to further thoughts of temporality.  Like pictures, his poems capture and preserve individual moments while tacitly drawing attention to the fact that these moments, although recorded, are gone for ever. — Sarah Crown, The Guardian

His work is attuned to fading ways of life, especially in his native Ayrshire and in France.... Not all ghosts are sad ones, however.  In a particularly charming sequence, 'Roull of Corstorphin', Conn imagines a benevolent phantom at the Royal Court.  In other poems, Conn offers thought-provoking reflections on Kosovo, on paintings and on journeys, and a striking translation of Euripides' opening to Hecuba … That tone of danger behind and ahead echoes back throughout this book, a collection which manages to be both touching and sombre. — Richard Price, Times Literary Supplement

Stewart Conn proffers his beautiful Ghosts at Cockcrow in a spirit that evokes some words of WS Graham, which Conn chooses as epigraph to his poem 'Cornwall Landscape':  The Poet or painter steers his life to maim / Himself somehow for the job.  His job is love.  Here is a mature poet, often explicitly autumnal, and, while wry about the fixes of older age, self-harvesting... — Candia McWilliam, The Scotsman

Ghosts at Cockcrow is a wonderful collection, and there are a large number of poems here to enjoy.  Their beauty lies in the way they are grounded in the real world, of the past and present, addressing love, the passing of time, the transience of life with humour, rich language and memorable imagery. — Kara Kellar Bell, The New Review