On Scots Poems
Published February 2018 in Bilkent News.
Scottish poetry is beautiful. It has the limp of a wounded language and the slow, steady beat of a dark country’s people. I see a lot of grief, and a lot of war: grief held like stones and wars Scotland never wins. I see affection, too, a very pure, plain kind of affection, the sort given only when its object looks away, direct and simple, sated, tender. The poetry is that of a people who have learned how to live over a very long time eating the gristle of the world. It is the poetry of defeat.
The affection of the poems is clear and constant, as if the poet is taking love as it is, as love, and not shying away from it, not making things out of it, telling it without any flair or pretense, telling only what is the most natural thing in the world. It is affection that waits for its object with the patience of a hill-dweller. It is affection that sits down and burnishes its own eyes and ears. It is self-aware, measured, unmeasured; it understands itself: “Ho, my little sparrow! For well I know / The profound and subtle soft lights in your eyes / Mean no more than two grains of wheat / In a basin full of water.” The self-awareness grows in clumps like vetch, it peers through every crack of the stones of poems and strikes Scotland in the face: “My eye is / on a room in Edinburgh, / a room of poverty and pain, / where the diseased infant / writhes and wallows till death.” Scotland is a soft spot and an object of profound suffering. Scotland keeps getting torn down: “Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride / Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation / We, fanatics of the frustrate and half, / sham bards of a sham nation”; and its children keep getting torn down: “I go westwards in the Desert / with my shame on my shoulders, / that I was made a laughing-stock, / since I was as my people were.” And the myth of Scotland, its old, slow shadows, are draped over the deadness to heal it: “Girl of the yellow, heavy-yellow, gold-yellow hair, / the disgrace of our day would not be bitter in your kiss. / Would your song and splendid beauty take / from me the dead loathsomeness of these ways, / and the feebleness of our dismal Scotland?”
But there are also whole fields of life. Childbirth and children are common themes, and the woman who weaves through these things is plain, like Scotland, and not wretched, unlike it. “Anerly wives ken / the ruits o joy and tene, / the march o daith and birth, / the tryst o love and strife / fire, air, water, yirth / mellan to mak new life,”(1) life nurtured by “Women / scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards / Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered, / Pulpy, tepid.” Poets are quiet watchers who become disillusioned with wars. “Ma darlin liggs amang the dunes / Wi mony a mither’s son.”(2) It always comes back to the moors. “Doutless he deed for Scotland’s life.”(3) When it comes back it is always bittersweet.
Nature is not bitter. “The old ice is loosed. The old seeds are awake.” The sun and heat dip in and out of the poems. “They like the warm cliffs of man.” The highlands frame and carry every poem and every word, except for the clever ones, which focus on other things, abstractions. There is a piece about a renowned flutist training a pupil in his art, and it is protuberant in the most unexpected recesses with the most unexpected things: “You are early this morning. What we have to do / Today is think of you as a little creator / After the big creator.” “Play me the dance you made for the barge-master. / Stop stop Karl. Play it as you first thought / Of it in the hot boat-kitchen. That is a pleasure / For me. I can see I am making you good. / Karl, I can still put on a good flute-mouth / And show you in this high cold room something / You will be famous to have said you heard.” But a little nature pokes through anyway: “When you come, bring / Me five herrings. Watch your fingers. Spring / Is apparent but it is still chilblain weather.” The bracken, the heather, the thistle, the mountains, the springtime, the sun. The rainfall, the mud-slopes, the shepherds, the fountains, the rivers, the burials, the dogs. Nature is not bitter. These poems are natural, and slow, filled with “such understanding that it feels like love.”
Scottish poetry is stand-alone and it is self-sufficient. It is the poetry of “A difficult land. Here things miscarry / Whether we care, or do not care enough,” a land that is tall and alive, ever in some mourning, connected with too much of its dead and their struggling to be solitary. The poems remember themselves: “Fergusson, tho twa-hunder year / awa, your image is mair clear / nor monie things that nou appear / in braid daylicht.”(4) They breathe, making light, making “Laughter, like sunlight in the cucumber, / The innermost resource, that does not fail.” They treat the poet and his sorrow just like his anger and his love, which is to say they do not treat, they say: “The glaur / that haps his banes glowres back. Strang, present dool / ruggs at my hairt.”(5) And the measure in the poems never wavers from its natural, sorrowful, complete moving, in the poet’s passion and his grief, moderate, threadbare, assaulted with the thought of how big and how wild and how spindly Scotland is, how alone, how steeped in old sadness, and how beautiful, how scattered, undiluted and cold. All emotions are washed clean with the water of age and labor, and beauty, and death which is washed. The poems will always beat a return to the thorns and Gaelic cliffs, “For we can love even the wandering seasons / In their inhuman circuit. And the dead / Who lodge in us so strangely, unremembered. / And how refrain from love? / This is a difficult country, and our home.” There always comes a “Time tae gae back tae the darg, machines and tools / and beasts and seeds, the things men uis tae live, / and lea the puir lass thair in her state o Grace.”(6)
(1) And only wives know the roots of joy and despair, the march of death and birth, the tryst of love and strife; fire, air, water, earth, mixing to make new life.
(2) My darling lies among the dunes with many a mother’s son.
(3 )Doubtless he died for Scotland’s life.
(4) Fergusson, though two hundred years away, your image is more clear than many things that now appear in broad daylight.
(5) The mud that covers his bones glowers back. Strange, present sorrow tugs at my heart.
(6) Time to go back to the labor, machines and tools and beasts and seeds, the things men use to live, and leave the poor girl there in her state of Grace.