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03 October 2016 @ 05:44 pm
Review of "Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older" ed. Lizzie MacGregor pub Polygon 2016  


Disclaimer: I have a poem in this, but have decided that one poem does not constitute a reason not to review the rest of the anthology.

Well, this is interesting. Last year, I reviewed two individual poetry collections whose main focus was ageing (Philip Gross's Love Songs of Carbon and Tamar Yoseloff's A Formula for Night) and one anthology of poems about ageing – also Scottish, Second Wind: new poems by Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver and Diana Hendry, pub. The Saltire Society. Indeed, a few poems from that anthology also cropped up in this one…. So there would seem to be a current fashion for poems on this topic.

Second Wind's remit was specifically to be "creative" about ageing, and judging by Sally Magnusson's foreword to Whatever the Sea, I wouldn't be surprised if this one too had been determined from the start to be basically upbeat rather than depress the customers. Magnusson describes the general tone as "pleasingly bracing". Even in the section entitled "Old Age Blues", the poems rarely get darker than wistful, and there isn't that much Timor Mortis in the final section, entitled "As Time Draws Near". Those who know my Eeyoreish tendencies will not be surprised to learn that the two bleak exceptions in these sections, Helena Nelson's "Blight" and Edwin Muir's "The Way" were among my favourites in the book.

The title, as many will recall, comes from one of the wonderful late poems of Edwin Morgan, "At Eighty", from his last collection Cathures:
Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.

Other gems include Elma Mitchell, one of the several mature women poets so encouraged by the much-lamented Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets. In "Good Old Days", having forensically dissected her body's failings, she ends:
But up here, at the top of the spine, behind the eyes,
Curtained a little but not blind,
Sits a young and laughing mind
Wondering which part of me is telling lies.

This disconnect between physical fact and mental self-image also cries out of Nelson's "Blight", which I can't resist quoting in full:
Each of us is old
and our brave silks begin
to fall from us. Draw close
in the chapterhouse of skin.

How shall we be glad?
We were young, young – we knew
it would happen as it happens
but not like this. Not to

us, not to the silk-sellers,
the bearers of spice and gold.
Our tales were bright in the telling
but this was not foretold.

There are poems in the anthology which are cosier, and which please me less, because they can get perilously close to cheery homespun philosophy. Mostly this consists of the odd clichéd line or phrase in an otherwise interesting poem, but a few poems, like Helen Cruickshank's "Autumn Compensations", seem to be pretty much made up of cottage gardens, slippered feet and irredeemable cosiness. Cruickshank, who could write much better than this, seems to have been left out of the author biogs at the end, which is a shame as hers would have been one of the more interesting ones.

But there is some fine work in here – apart from those I've already mentioned, there is Iain Crichton Smith, always a reflective, thought-provoking joy, Vicki Feaver and Alastair Reid among many others. Plus that chilling, exact Muir poem, which I didn't know before and now can't forget:
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

I'm wondering now when the next anthology on this topic will come up, and what the trend means…
 
 
 
(Anonymous) on October 4th, 2016 05:20 am (UTC)
Helena Nelson's 'Blight' really resonated with me (no longer in the first - or fifth - flush of youth), when she wrote:

'it would happen, as it happens,
but Not like this. Not to

us, not to the silk-sellers,
the bearers of spice and gold.'

I love those images, of silk and spice and gold. And how we still feel like those bright hopeful purveyors of richness and spirit!

I really enjoyed this review. Will look out for these anthologies. They often take a while to reach the darkest Antipodes.