Arrivals of Light, Robin Fulton Macpherson (Shearsman Books); How To Wash A Heart Bhanu Kapil (Liverpool University Press)
I have followed Robin Fulton Macpherson’s poetry since 1968, or it has followed me. He was Robin Fulton then. He read a neat selection of poems to our student Literary Society in the University of Glasgow, being already known as a poet, critic and cultural journalist, active in a resurgence of internationally-minded Scottish writing in that decade. He had contributed prose and poetry to Scottish International, a new journal co-edited by Edwin Morgan, and was editor (1967–76) of Lines Review, the finest poetry magazine in Scotland in those years.
I have always remembered this young poet’s quiet determination not to be self-indulgent or open to flattery. ‘Thrawn’ is the Scots word for it, meaning a sort of bloody-minded refusal to be accommodating to the desires of others. A few years later with a young family to support, and unable to find a suitable job in Scotland, Robin Fulton sailed beyond the horizon to teach in the University College of Stavanger in Norway. From there he continued to edit Lines Review, and to publish essays and reviews, and Selected Poems of Robert Garioch and Iain Crichton Smith. Beyond these were his translations of Scandinavian poetry: by Tomas Tranströmer, Kjell Espmark and Östen Sjöstrand in Sweden, and by Olav H. Hauge in Norway, recognised by several awards from the Swedish Academy. Collections of his own poetry appeared in Scotland, England and North America in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was clearly productive. And yet, writing at a distance in a foreign land, he seemed somehow to have been pushed to the edge of things. And when Robin Fulton Macpherson’s hefty Complete Poems (Michigan: Marick Press) finally appeared in 2015 it was to a somewhat surprised reception at its sheer quality in depth. Unseen Isles and Other Poems (Marick Press, 2018) and now Arrivals of Light have extended that range.
Bhanu Kapil’s work was unknown to me until she won the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize for How To Wash A Heart. Both her collection from Liverpool University Press and Fulton Macpherson’s from Shearsman Books are well designed and produced. Each enhances its poet’s vision and reputation. Born in England of Indian parents, Kapil is a poet who has worked internationally in higher education, caught between worlds and the tensions that arise in mind and heart. Both poets are outsiders, really. They are well placed, because displaced, to explore current issues of culture and identity. What they share, perhaps, are several of the less common meanings of the word ‘translation’: namely, to be removed to another place; to express in another artistic medium; to interpret; to transform or to make new from old. Removed to a different culture and finding their individual identity in the process of alteration, they each put their poetic gift itself under surveillance.
Both poets use formal dimensions of layout to keep under control any excess of emotion or loss. Fulton Macpherson uses short poems of two or three stanzas each, set out two per page in a ‘chaste’ and often luminous language. Objects are intricately examined – trees, stones, loch and burn waters, shadows, flowers, shore lines and skies. These images are revisited and may be familiar to any reader of his earlier work. Yet set against familiarity is his remarkable ability to find new ways of describing them. Unsettling biographical details are to be found embedded in the beauty, often from a perceptive child’s view of reality and difference.
The poet’s mind appears to have been imprinted by the shock of dislocation, as he was pulled away from loved landscapes when his father, a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland, moved his family between parishes: from the island of Arran (where the poet was born), to Glasgow, and finally to the kirk of Helmsdale in Sutherland, a county on the northernmost rim of the mainland. Kirk, Helmsdale and Sutherland are all words of Norse origin. Sutherland was ‘suth’ because it lies to the south of Orkney, seat of a powerful Norse earldom for many centuries. So even in his teenage years Fulton Macpherson was moving linguistically in a Scandinavian ambiance. Stavanger lies about 350 nautical miles due east of Helmsdale across the North Sea, about as far as to Newcastle upon Tyne by road. In his ferry voyages east and west throughout this collection, the poet like some ancient pilot has a keen eye for the behaviour and import of waves:
Like a beginning.
Or like an ending.
spills without wasting.
Round wave-backs rounding:
darkness won’t stop them.
(Light On The North Sea, p.80)
Because of his determination to preserve memories shaken by dislocation, we discover past and present incidents, local and cosmic details, 1947 and 2017, Scottish and Scandinavian landscapes co-existing across neighbouring pages, or within a single poem. Time behaves differently in age.
Will I go back in space, only to find
the village is now in another time?
Will I go back in time, only to find
I’m looking through thick glass and I can’t breathe?
I drive to a village I’ve never seen.
When I arrive I set my watch at Now
and wander about for a while in Here.
There won’t be a village for me to leave.
A minister’s son could find himself isolated within the community, with his behaviour being slyly monitored to see how far it matched the morality in his father’s sermons. Some poems suggest a rather lonely existence, with loch fishing and almost obsessive piano practice of Bach as private pursuits: a gifted, intelligent and meditative boy, then, sensitive not only to music but also to the silences that lie beneath:
The closer it moves towards silence
the more it enables us to hear.
We eavesdrop on sounds not meant for us.
(Late Quartet, p.51)
Such musical underpinning suggests that Arrivals of Light might be read as a fugue, with places and natural objects serving as themes and variations. The first 75 pages provide almost 150 poems. This is followed by a recapitulation in ‘21 Miniatures’, generally of four to six lines in length, set three to a page. The final Afterword, ‘Remembering Östen Sjöstrand’ is a parting glance at themes of translation and religion, to which I will return.
Kapil’s act of translation is to take the imagery of contemporary anxieties about migration and to intersect these with her own life and with earlier artistic performances in mixed media. There is genuine revelation in the prose narratives of ‘Note on the Title’ and ‘Acknowledgements’ (pp. 47–51), where she outlines the spurs to this collection. These included events at the ICA, London in 2002 and 2019 combining elements of poetry, drama, declamation and ritual, but also involved email discussion of cardiomyopathy (‘broken heart syndrome’) with a cardiologist, and the memory of a (now lost) newsfeed image of a Californian couple adopting a daughter from the Philippines. Such information from the online world matches the ensemble nature of the performances from which How To Wash A Heart emerged. The Scandinavian world played its part too, in lines inspired by the inflight viewing of an Icelandic film while returning from a literary festival in Moss, Norway.
The internet also allows the older poet to revisit the worlds of his childhood, including detailed images of the parish manses where he once lived, posted online when they are put up for sale, or of the surrounding moorlands with their ever-mobile weather:
Seen online, nowhere is remote.
Here is the hour-by-hour forecast
for Loch Airichlinie today:
breeze gentle, rain none. Nobody
will notice the miniature waves
noticing the gentleness of the breeze.
It seems that there were connections with Helmsdale in earlier days, and gravestones thereabouts now provide a family history, of Macleod, Sutherland and Shearer. In poems hinting at the Gaelic culture that existed before an ancestral glen became a Norse dale, the poet’s sense of alienation seems deepened by identification with ancestors we might now describe as displaced persons or economic migrants, ‘cleared’ from their small inland farms to make way for more profitable sheep. The later addition to his Fulton surname now admits a Macpherson history, so that past and present are visibly entwined every time a poem is published.
Like him, Kapil explores the here/there world of dreams:
I dreamed my grandmother
Was lying face down
In a cave, immersed
In the lightly flowing water.
I dreamed my grandfather
Was riding a motorbike
Without a head.[…]
I dreamed my mother
Was crocheting the sun
Into a dress of copper, blue and yellow
smiling and nodding
Even as a man
Span my body
From a rusted hook.
Her poem ends with overt political violence – a knock on the door and a hand on the migrant’s arm: ‘There’s a break in the scream. / The scream is mine. / My scream is at hand’. Kapil’s voice is not meditative but prophetic. Against betrayal and the Department of Repatriation, however, there is in the end the final prose statement that asserts the oppositional powers of creativity and shared artistic performance. This may not wholly wash the heart clean, but it certainly lifts it. Fulton Macpherson’s final word is also one of creative conversation in the act of translation. He recalls spending days in Mariefred with Östen Sjöstrand ‘rearranging verbs in the gap / between languages’. Now, decades later, on the final ferry journey of this collection, he views from the upper deck ‘a horizon-thread: / that’s his Bohuslän’. Death and life are marvelously intertwined here as he re-enters a poet-partner’s imagination, which had finally ‘tugged him away down / into underwater forests’ to encounter the liberating music that resounds there, a rapture of the deep.
James McGonigal is a poet, editor and biographer based in Glasgow. Recent publications include Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language. A New Prose Collection 1950–2005 (ASLS, 2020) and a poetry collection, In Good Time (Red Squirrel Press, 2020). This article also appears in Painted, spoken 35 (2021).