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I feel very iffy about reviewing this anthology, because I have some poems in it. But it seems to me to have a far more interesting organising principle than your average anthology of "poets under 30" or "women poets", who don't necessarily have a damn thing in common. This is an anthology of poets who came from, or live on, Scottish islands (not just visitors on holiday) and as the thoughtful intro makes clear, this liminality does give their writing traits in common. "The islander's sense of being removed from the heart of things relates, I think, to the writer's sense of being an observer as much as a participant". This is true, though it should not be taken to mean that island poets are unaware of what is going on at the heart of things, just that they can view it with a certain amount of detachment. Jim Mainland's scorching, careering satire "Prestidigitator", which I've blogged about before here, is as committed a modern political poem as you'll find:

Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,

but the same writer, in "The Gunnister Man", is acutely conscious of the massive timeline, reaching back centuries, on which he is a point and which connects him to everyone else who has ever lived there. Those who live in small communities are more apt, I think, to have this sense of connectedness to the past; it appears in the poems by which George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean are represented here (MacLean's "Hallaig", in both the Gaelic original and the English translation, being a bright particular star).

It is in fact thought-provoking to consider the roll of famous names who fit this anthology's criteria: MacLean, Brown, Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, MacDiarmuid, and in more contemporary times the recent T S Eliot winner Jen Hadfield. But there are many others less well known, like Jim Mainland, Laureen Johnson, William J ("Billy") Tait, Laurence Graham, who deserve to be more widely read than they are and who should come as a salty surprise to those who maybe picked up the anthology for other reasons but happen on something like James Andrew Sinclair's "Immigrant":

Fill my pockets with lochs
the wind will fit snug in my wallet.
I will weave a scarf of mackerel, haddock and trout
the good fit of sheep on my feet.
My jacket, knitted peat and heather
with a bottle of good humour for the journey.
Planks of fishing boat bound tight as a belt
the sails making dandy trousers.
My back-pack holds the entire ocean
and last but certainly not least
I will wear the sky beneath my hat.


These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Island Poetry is published by Polygon.

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December 2011

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