Poetry

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Iain Crichton Smith: The Leaf and the Marble (Carcanet Pounds 6.95). Kevin MacNeil: Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides (Canongate Pounds 7.99). Colin Mackay: Cold Night Lullaby (Chapman Pounds 6.95). New Writing Scotland: The Glory Signs: Eds Kathleen JamieDonny O'Rourke (Association for Scottish Literary Studies Pounds 8.95). Autumn saw the death of the poet and novelist Iain Crichton Smith. Frequently he rejoiced in the American term, "the fall", a time when sharp light saw earth nurture falling leaves, to gain strength for winter. His poems, even when dealing with history's disasters, always had a breath of regeneration. Secular but spiritual. One of his great poems is Deer on the High Hills (1962). Its personal nature, as a mnemonic for despair, has only been revealed in recent interviews.

It means its mirror image of contentment, illuminated by happiness in love, in his last publication The Leaf and the Marble. It, too, is an extended sequence of poems. A holiday in Italy leads to a meditation on the human element in classical legends. Then "Freed from the weight of Rome, the deaths of Egypt the song of Spring is dazzling." A man for all seasons, indeed.

New to me was Kevin MacNeil. His first collection Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides is a permanent reminder of that occasion. The title captures theemotional and physical impetus. Icicle clear, orchid exquisite. Using the three languages of Scotland, MacNeil articulates remoteness while never being obscurely distancing. A marvellous debut.

Colin Mackay, a fine lyrical novelist and poet, draws inspiration from his time as a humanitarian volunteer in Bosnia for the poems in Cold Night Lullaby. The provenance of these experiences has been questioned, but Mackay's quiet authority to notate with passion, in imaginative ways, the decay of dignity makes factual reportage secondary. His partisan approach may be irritating in a most uncivil war but the fury at loss and wastage makes for unforgettable poetry. Another approach can be read in Chris Agee's Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe Pounds 8.95).

New Writing Scotland 16 marks the retirement of Catherine McInerney as managing editor. In her five-year tenure this series has become a focus of new writing rather than an extended literary magazine.

As befits an issue edited by two poets the verse content is the strongest in years. Valerie Gillies, Hugh McMillan and David Kinloch are at their best. There are fine Scots translations by John Manson and William Neill. Interesting newcomers (to me) were Anna Crowe, Ken Angus and Billy Watt.

Submissions for New Writing Scotland 17 are welcome by next January 31 (ASLS, Dept. of Scottish History, 9 University Gardens, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QH).

Hayden Murphy

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