Desperate Fishwives Lindsay Macgregor (Molecular Press; UK distribution by Red Squirrel Press); Space Baby Suzannah Evans (Nine Arches Press)
Out of nowhere, while I was reading through Lindsay Macgregor’s impressive first collection, walked a vision of Emily Dickinson in hiking boots. Clearly these two poets bear little resemblance to one another. The nineteenth-century American was famously reclusive, constrained within the doctrinal and patriarchal habits of small-town Amherst, Massachusetts, whereas the contemporary Scottish poet strides confidently out and about, casting a sharp eye on the flora and fauna she sees, and on human foibles. Compared to the rhymed quatrains of Dickinson, fascinatingly punctuated as they are, Macgregor’s forms are as wide-ranging as the wild landscapes she explores.
She has the ability to make us see these with fresh eyes, without going in for the sort of expostulation Hugh MacDiarmid deploys in, for example, ‘Scotland small? Our multiform Scotland small?’ – before answering his own questions with a tour through the spectrum of species and shades where the casual visitor might see ‘Nothing but heather!’. MacDiarmid has a walk-on part in this collection, very neatly contained (as few managed to do with him in life) within ‘Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait’ (p. 21). It’s the presence of women that tames this ‘shock of a man, humming / his hymns to Lenin and Lorca, / scratching at letters framed by the grayscale / of sharps from an absent piano / tuned to the weather’. Those women are his wife Valda, Margaret Tait (1918–1999) the Scottish doctor, poet and film-maker (with her soundtrack of piano sharps), and Lindsay Macgregor too. She has the measure of him, I’d say, in that slide from his scratchy handwriting to a slightly weathered and discordant music.
Macgregor’s determined intelligence is everywhere evident. Her poems combine an intuitive approach with close observation to probe the flaws and potential of humankind. She has clearly grasped Emily Dickinson’s advice to poets:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise […]
Ah, it must have been that ‘superb surprise’ which conjured the vision of a poet hiking for freedom from the mundane and the socially acceptable. Here is Macgregor’s surprising ‘Ties’, both as family connections and as outmoded office-wear:
I was told he was my father.
And sure enough he had my nose,
my mouth, my frown. Like me
he always seemed too old,
spoke the language of elective
mutes. He shuffled round
the house, replacing fuses,
lagging pipes, sharpening knives.
I raised him as my own.
Working towards all the truth here, keen as a knife, is an ironic awareness of the duty, usually laid upon daughters, to handle the emotional alteration from paterfamilias to pottering dependent. Her collection’s title is also sardonic, proudly adopting the name of fishwife. Desperate Housewives this is not, though like that US television drama series of the early 21st century it contains some time-shifting. For ‘fishwives’ were the sturdy teams of women, possibly foul-mouthed or maybe just nattering away in Gaelic, whose itinerant work was to follow the fishing fleets and to gut, salt and sometimes sell the off-loaded catches of herring. They became a byword for sharp-tongued and uppity (female) attitudes.
Macgregor encourages her readers in that sharpness. Social and environmental changes are our business, and their impact should be looked into. Her lack of endnotes deliberately leads us to research the habitat, botany and mythology of, for example, whaup (curlew) and cowbane (pp. 8-9). Her range of forms makes us follow a cast of mind that discovers its own subtle direction through experiment and precise observation of emotion as well as of fact:
Being the kind of man who dates snow,
he rattles off the mountain’s rational numbers,
tells her he has climbed its contour lines, made it
to the trig point at the summit. When he says
Ben MacDui, she hears Beinn MacDuibh,
sees grey matter above a green loch in golden light.
She perceives a field of elevation with a high degree
of vagueness, a plane of immanence, delirium and drift
parsed for individuation where there is only
a continuum of landform, a continuum of mind.
‘Saying Ben Macdui’ (39):
Tuning into this ‘conversation’ between two mountain climbers, it’s clear that only one of them appreciates the claims of both mind and deep matter, of rational numbers but also of ‘immanence, delirium and drift’, of English orthography and also the ancient hinterland of Gaelic meaning and naming.
This is a fascinating, probing and beautifully organised collection from Peter McCarey’s Molecular Press, with fine design by poet and naturalist Gerry Cambridge. The intelligence that sparkles throughout may be audacious, unsettling or playful, but it brings joy, too, in its breadth and deployment. These are indeed, as Scottish poet and mentor John Glenday remarks on the back cover, ‘poems for a world out of kilter’.
Swop hiking footwear for space-boots, and one Emily for another. The Yorkshire poet who could partner Suzannah Evans most familiarly is Emily Brontë, whose too short life overlapped briefly with Emily Dickinson’s. When in 1846 the three Brontë sisters gathered their verse as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, Emily’s poems were distinctive in their starry focus, energy and brio: ‘Thought followed thought, star followed star / Through boundless regions, on […]’ (‘Stars’).
No wonder that she was a favourite of another explorer of space-time, Edwin Morgan (1920–2010), whose ‘Last Message’ provides an epigraph for Space Baby. Morgan’s optimistic vision of human potential is closer to the tone of this collection, I’d say, than the back-page blurb’s description of a ‘dystopian, searching book […] vivid, prescient poems of existence and survival, which ask how we can still find joy on a ruined planet’. Nine Arches Press is entitled to alert a concerned readership to this attractively produced collection, of course. And it’s true that there are ruins to be found here – but rather more of vitality and delight. The titular poem opens with the vivid continuities of new life and an energetic human voice:
Bungeeing in zero-G on the umbilicus.
SPACE BABY! In silver nappy
on a cockpit chair, fat little hands
on the steering column. Look,
she’s driving! SPACE BABY! […] The first to learn
to talk, to sing, to count in space […].
Such liveliness is immediately countered by the existential uncertainties of ‘Timeline of the Far Future’ (12), as earth and the universe drift uncontrollably apart ‘and you still haven’t decided / if you’re going to procreate’. But I find myself heartened by this poet’s blending of the cosmic and the domestic. While the putative parent tries to ‘decide at what age / it should be allowed a mobile phone’, the universe goes on expanding:
inevitably the Milky Way
will knit themselves
across the sky
into one single garment.
The homely comparison with knitting is nicely and wryly judged. There’s a great deal of skill to admire throughout, particularly where aspects poetry in performance shape the rhythms and unfolding. Some of the poems are like lively musical scores in that sense, calling for enactment.
As with Lindsay Macgregor, there’s a deep awareness of ecological fragility. In ‘That smile is yours’ (26-27) the parental burdens and slapstick of child rearing (‘we smell faintly of rusks’) are set against species loss: ‘Pamba he says Polabear, Sealine / and as he learns their names / they disappear forever’. Evans writes affectingly in ‘Lonely Hearts, Endlings’ (44-45) of the last survivors of various species, such as the Lake Constance Whitefish or the Pinta Island Tortoise. The form is a call and response, a dialogue with the dead made more affecting by the brevity of its three-line stanzas, as the last individual life in each species is itself cut short.
To the final words of animals we can add the voices of machines, such as the ‘Cassini Love Poem’ (52-53) from a space probe that disappeared into Saturn’s atmosphere. Or the earth language of trees as they take over what humans have finally abandoned: ‘The saplings these days / wouldn’t recognise tarmac / don’t remember those revolution weeks / when we first split the roads’ (‘How We Miss Them’, 46). To Evans’s interests in astronomy and biology can be added philosophy, drawing upon Thomas Nagel’s questions about the nature of consciousness in ‘What is it Like to be a Bat? (37).
Endnotes direct us to websites and news stories that reveal how strangely varied our world is. Such breadth of interest works well in more ‘conventional’ poems too, such as ‘The Moth Count’ (34-35) where emotional tension and precise description are combined with the menace of climate change. Her contemplation of the connectedness of the human and natural world leads her towards some beautiful intersections of contemporary and ancient lives, as in ‘In Nova Scotia’, p. 58. The notion of rebirth is extended finally into the visionary idea (as yet theoretical, but …) that entire universes could be created, that ‘Inside each universe is another universe’ (59). This is a perfect counterbalance to the bouncing Space Baby of the opening poem. This idea that humans might choose a new and spacious place in which to begin again leaves us with the positive vision of a future that is different, yet wonderfully the same:
a long spring morning
tiny yellow flowers like constellations among the grass
on the verge of a new idea the breeze drying our wet hair
Suzannah Evans and Lindsay Macgregor are excellent intelligencers for these days. As the two Emilys brought profound changes in 19th-century life into their art – whether Arctic exploration, steam locomotion, the slave trade, or social-class strife – so their 21st-century successors work admirably within the turmoil of our own times. They possess enough science, philosophy, empathy and sheer poetic skill to set a world out of kilter upright again – or, at the very least, to convince us as we tune in to their bright voices that this might just well be possible.
James McGonigal is a poet and editor, as well as Edwin Morgan’s biographer. His latest collection is In Good Time, from Red Squirrel.