THE WINTER BOOK By Alan Riach Luath Press, £8.99
WASHING HUGH MacDIARMID’S SOCKS By Magi Gibson Luath Press, £7.99
DOVES By Lachlan Mackinnon Faber, £14.99
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SANTIAGO By Cheryl Follon Bloodaxe, £9.95
THE scholar-poet has become an important and indeed pivotal figure in contemporary Scottish literature. Edwin Morgan let his academic self become the anarchist versifier. Robert Crawford culls his biographical research for sharp, witty, political observations. Alan Riach, now aged 70, allows his lucid analysis of mid-20th century writing in this country to inform poems of autumnal maturity and winter bleakness in his first major collection since Homecoming (2010).
That “bleakness” is meant as a compliment to his willingness to examine rather than conclude an argument between his scholarly self and his poetic other: “reckoning and judgement are acquired by experience and character ... Literature shows us how to ask questions in ways like nothing else”. Over seven defined sections, Riach explores change in both climatic and personal terms, what he terms “domestic topography”.
There are prose introductions to many of his themes: “Translations./Transmissions./ Transitive verbs. Word trains in the Starryveldt, as he writes in a poem for Edwin Morgan, The Art of Careful Giving. When writing of Whalsay in Shetland he speaks of “the specific echo-chambers of inhabited settlements”. His poems “inhabit” his preoccupations, most succinctly in Suileachan which he explains “means ‘warning’ or perhaps ‘vision’”. I love that “perhaps”. He concludes that despite the “expediency of the moment or political urgency of the day ... we must break to improve things, retrieving and renewing as we do”. He then continues to do so in assured and well-crafted verse. This is an important volume, rich with “lines of incessantly passing information” from a considerable writer in these times of flux: “pebbles in a cave keep the memory of the sea”.
My admiration for Riach’s informed commentaries on Hugh MacDiarmid make me curious as to how he will respond to Magi Gibson’s association with the socks worn by Christopher Murray Grieve and washed by his splendid second wife Valda Trevlyn. Inspired by Trevlyn’s letters from Cornwall to her husband, when he was in Whalsay, Shetland, in May 1933, the poem is tender and compassionate.
It catches all the qualities of Gibson’s best writing. Metaphorically juxtaposing the skeletons in her cupboard with the ghosts in her attic Gibson is a joy to read. I still remember the pleasure of meeting a new and invigorating voice when reviewing Wild Women of a Certain Age (Chapman 2000). Syncopated, as oppose to synthetic, Scots gives new life to poems with familiar feminist polemic. It gives power to moments, far from tranquillity, recalled in poems about her father who “taught me how to scan the ridge,/ to spot the dips along the horizontal line, the sags/ that indicate the presence of a broken beam”. Of course there is artistic autonomy between the politics and the poetry: “Survival kicks in. Ye tak big gulps/o thur language an thur wyes”. Poetry wins. The politics survive to be addressed; “Och, Scotland, ma wee cloven country,/sic a Jekyll n Hyde o a nation.”
Lachlan Mackinnon’s fifth collection is odd. Precision supersedes passion, even in the title poem, an elegiac tribute to Seamus Heaney. Two doves appear: “They weren’t symbolic or a message/but simply what they were, a visitation”. They lay an egg. It fails to hatch.
Heaney at an Embassy party in London allows Mackinnon and his wife Wendy to share “bewilderment at the wilderness men make/of what is human or humane.” Wendy reappears towards the closing pages in Home: “we’re in frontier country... You held. You held me through the grey and grey/ days of a long depression./...answering warmth, though leaves of autumn fly”. But for the rest of the 40-plus poems there is a curious emotional famine. He writes of Brodsky: “Sentences taut with syntax, metre/that freezes time like architecture;/what is left of a man is language”. So be it. The references are wide and literary but the tone is arch. In South Seas “a blond dream for Cavafy” may evoke an image from Hockney but speedily becomes an artefact: “a torn blue aerogram,/an encroachment of sand”. Despite the presence of Wendy, this is poor Thom Gunn left without lead in its pistol.
Ayrshire-born, Glasgow-based Cheryl Follon’s third collection is typographically unusual. The contents page is a solid block of titles and pagination. There are 96 pages and 81 titles. Individual pieces are given rectangular space with plenty of what Charles Olson called “white silence”. Bloodaxe are to be complimented on their will to allow the whimsy.
The title poem is the final entry when “Mama said, let’s move to Santiago, and we did” and there “amongst that darkness was the first place they found night owls”. The opening piece, Insomnia, tells of other nights and “plans for the future, its dreams”. In between is a wonderfully zany and pleasurable journey, perfectly caught in Moth.
It offers “the whacky palette of earth ...Browns, blacks, blues, reds, reds, greens, golds ... Vermeer painting a jug of wine because it reminded him of his mother, or a large black velvet hat because it reminded him of his father – pure moth”. Pure poetry. Communication between image and object. Here celluloid moments have their time of literary fulfilment.