Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Scotia Extremis, eds Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone, pub. Luath Press

This is an anthology of poems inspired by aspects of Scotland and predicated on the idea that Scotland is a place with a split personality, veering between extremes. The editors put up online a list of topics, which were then chosen by individual poets. In fact the topics came in pairs, though the poets worked alone, to suggest these extremes.

I'm not sure the idea itself convinces me, because the older I get, the less I believe in so-called national characteristics and the more I incline to the view of Confucius – "people's natures are alike; it is their habits that drive them far apart". Yes, Scots, or some of them, have "attitude", as several poems suggest; so do Danes and Russians and no doubt so did ancient Babylonians. But because the poets chose their topics, rather than being set them, there is a lot of interest in how each interpreted the aspect they chose.

In fact, over and over, the chosen aspect evokes not so much a place as a place in time and a family member associated with that time: mothers, fathers, grandparents and indeed childhoods haunt these poems. The garment in Mandy Haggith's "Tweed", long gone to some jumble sale, is craved for its connection with a now-dead mother:

     So now, although I hunger to shrug it over my shoulders,
     put my hands into her pockets

This is moving, because most of us have been there and can identify with the situation, but its power, indeed its universality, comes from the lost garment's connection with the lost person: the fact that its fabric was tweed is incidental – habit rather than nature, as Confucius would have it. John Glenday's "The Numbers Stations", allegedly about the Arbroath smokie, in fact uses it as an image in a sombre poem about a childhood of the 50s and 60s, haunted by fears of what used to be called the shadow of the bomb:

    smoke-grey rucks of skin sloughing from his flesh

    and the cured flesh peeling easily from the bone.

Here again, though local references abound, the experience was universal; Anne Berkeley's collection The Men from Praga (Salt 2009) records just such a bomb-haunted 60s childhood at the other end of Britain.

Some poems, of course, do focus more on their particular, nominal subjects. Dawn Wood and Marjorie Lotfi Gill, paired to write about artists Joan Eardley and Eduardo Paolozzi, both enter sensitively into their subjects' ways of working, while Angus Peter Campbell in "William Topaz McGonagall", does a fine job of imitating his subject's cadences without, I'm glad to say, mocking him, for he was a man who deserved better than mockery.

I was glad also to see a concrete poem a la Edwin Morgan – Rebecca Sharp's "The Declaration of Barrbru"- for one problem with this project was that Mr Morgan had already dealt so well with some of these topics that I was hearing his voice instead of those on the page. He needed to echo in this book somewhere. The most interesting poems, perhaps, were those that somehow managed to find an unexpected angle on their subject, and where how something was said became at least as important as what was said. Tracey Herd's gripping little psychodrama "Bible Joanne", Tessa Berring's freewheeling "Caryatid" and Gerry Loose's incantatory "Gruinard Island" are among them.

With this format – different aspects of a nation – there will be both something to please most people, also something that goes over their heads, for generational or other reasons (from the poems where they appear, I gather Orange Juice and Arab Strap must be bands, but frankly they might be Chinese emperors for all I knew). It's a very diverse, lively anthology and very nicely produced. A deil o a broth, as Dilys Rose remarks in "Cullen Skink".
Tags: anthologies, book reviews, poetry
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