Poembel: Regarding the Higgs Boson

Three years ago I was briefly the poet in residence at the Traverse theatre. This lovely job involved hanging out in the cafe a lot for a month and then compering a new writing night which included me reciting about three of the poems that I had written over that time. Incidentally it also involved me setting a napkin on fire while live on stage, but that wasn’t in the original contract. Not even the small print. I just threw that treat in for free.

It was an incredibly strange experience for me. As someone who didn’t really consider themselves a writer (though I had already been hosting Poetry Schmoetry for a few years, performing my own work every session) sitting down in the cafe to CREATE was daunting at best and A RIDICULOUS WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME at worst. Nothing very much happened until I stopped walking myself into that chthonic bar as a capitalised Poet In Residence and started stumbling in as Ishbel again. I chatted away with staff and heard about what it was like to work there. I became quite pally with the bar manager, who is really friendly for a deity of the underworld. As well as learning all about staffing rotas and how hellish the Fringe can be, I was told, with pride, about one of the most regular lunchtime visitors, one Professor Peter Higgs.

I read up on this quiet and, according to Trav opinion, kindly man. At the time the Large Hadron Collider was complete but had had a few false starts, and much excitement was still surrounding its capabilities stroke potentially world-ending consequences. As well as reading about his early and remarkable thesis on the boson, I found out that Professor Higgs had decided to come to Edinburgh after hitching a ride up as a school pupil. One visit during the Fringe and he’d decided to create a scientific career here. I was absolutely taken by the idea of the the creatively inspired, lift-hitching young man and the noble (and possible Nobel) elder scientist who chooses the atmosphere of the dark and sparky Trav bar. As lay people often are, I was also delighted by the easy poetry of the language of physics that researching this new found land presented to me.

As one might expect, I wrote a poem about it. The best bit? The bar staff told Prof. Higgs that I had done this and he requested a copy, which I provided. I never heard what he thought of my fictionalisation of his lifetime, but I still feel like this remarkable man once took me by the hand and said, ‘Hello Ishbel, I like the world you chose’.


It’s chaos, she said,


Controlled chaos.

It’s very controlled

We’ll get it sparkling,

Like this,

She said

And then a show’ll come out


It’s like

She said

A house of cards.

And quietly, corner bound

With the order he makes

The order she takes

Every day

Chicken wrap

Apple juice

Glass of tap water

No ice

The house spins in around him

Broken symmetry

Words that attract and repel

That have mass


Spoken, heard, noted, registered


Participle accelerators

As table eight is occupied by a scribbler

Chewing the ink-blue on his lip

As a girl at the bar squints at her page

Sucking absent-minded meanings from her hair

As the three mouths near the stair birth a project

Littered with ‘exciting’ and ‘ground-breaking’

And Macbooks in tweed cases,

The quiet mouth around the dripping salad of the wrap

Has a particle in its name.

A particle to sail the seven seas.

Eating, ideas spin, unable to escape the obviousness

Of analogy. Under the ground, the neutral country,

The borderland of his brain

Ideas bounce and collide

New, real, beautiful

But slower, in the very earth

Through which the preparations

For September drilled

From that soil, shifted, and sifted

Come memories

Come a summer in a dozen cars

Come a rucksack which seemed old-fashioned

Even at the time

And still had a name stitched on

For a school barely attended

Come waking up on the crest of the New Town

Where the driver would have to leave him

Pointing the way to the High Street

To the centre of an uncentered universe of creation

Hidden, rotating, revolutionary art forms were


Empirical, symmetrical buildings stepping along

Hanover Street with him, but running, jumping

Dancing on a rock before his hand had taken hold

Of anything in this city.

Before he had touched his hand

To anything.

Come the romance of chemistry, reactions,

Come, that word again,


Quietly, corner bound

With the order he makes

The order she takes

Every day

Every day

Chicken wrap

Apple juice

Glass of tap water

No ice

The house spins in around him

Broken symmetry

There are three days more of this

Three days of this and then


Geneva or bust.


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