Famous Paintings

Alan Riach: Poetry books to bring pleasure amid self-serving politics

Alan Riach: Poetry books to bring pleasure amid self-serving politics
Written by Noah Roy

IN his essay “The Serious Artist” Ezra Pound says this: “Beauty in art reminds one what is worthwhile. I am not now speaking of shams. I mean beauty, not slither, not sentimentalizing about beauty, not telling people that beauty is the proper and respectable thing. I mean beauty.

“You don’t argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it. You feel bucked up when you come on a swift moving thought in Plato or on a fine line in a statue… Satire reminds one that certain things are not worthwhile. It draws one to consider time wasted.” For Pound, beauty is “the hygiene, the sun, air and sea and the rain and lake bathing”.

There is something of this beauty, as Pound describes it, in the poems in the books considered here, but if we take them as antidotes to the violence and ugliness of the things that surround us, there is a constant and implicit scorn and satire in the priorities they raise up. We are all privileged to be able to choose what we read, what we spend our time on, how we work for this “immaterial” gain, wealth beyond spondulicks.

The simplest choices of the day, if we are wealthy enough to eat a meal, an apple, to drink a glass of cold, fresh water from the tap, to go for a walk and look at particular trees, identify them, and the animals , and birds – that wren over there, that blue tit, that robin.

The time we choose to give to such things is ours to make use of, if we have it, but we need to look after it. Otherwise, the 24/7 warfare of mass media compels us into an irretrievable loss, a context of ruthless taking.

Let’s pause a while with some fugitive books of poetry that won’t be on public parade and note a few virtues you probably won’t see much, or indeed anything, of, elsewhere.

[Cover] is a book by Amy Todman, published at Buckquoy, Harray, Orkney by Brae Editions, in 2011. The square brackets around the title are part of the title. Brae Editions books are available from Stromness Books & Prints, 1 Graham Place, Stromness, KW16 3BY. stromnessbooksandprints.wordpress.com/

The shop itself is a phenomenon worth reading about and visiting, the next time you’re in the Orkney archipelago, or even just online.

It opened in the 1970s, run by Charles Senior, whose poems were published in a slim volume by M Macdonald in 1966. It was then run by John Broom, the local librarian, whose pioneering biography of the revolutionary Clydeside teacher, pacifist and Marxist John Maclean remains essential reading.

Successive owners expanded the shop’s remit to include maps, new publications and books written and made by local people, whethers or blow-ins, native equally welcome, valued by intrinsic worth and delivered commitment. Something of the ecumenical spirit of the most famous local writer-resident George Mackay Brown animates the spirit of happy, open and serious curiosity that the shop embodies. My own experience of it started in 1976, so it’s high time I paid some small tribute, and [Cover] is a good place to begin.

It’s a book of understated paragraphs, poems and observations, a dialogue between letters of the alphabet, objectivities, similarities and simulacra, love, discussions and reconsiderations, originality and death, information and feelings and inspiration, distance and strong, the island of Hoy and the creation of understanding through drawings, sketching, re-evaluation.

Finding an object – a piece of wood, for example – initiates the question of how a group of people might relate to it, whereas placing another object upon that piece of wood creates the necessity of choice. By such simple observations, we choose what meanings to make. And these near-abstractions have palpable application, as in this beautiful elegy:

sat together across the kitchen table
he scraped his knife through a grapefruit
till two pieces and their juices
lay on one plate
we ate and then he looked
right at me
The colors on your shirt are beautiful
we wet his lips many times
that last night
unguarded, my brothers
held his hand

The book is an elegy on the death of a father that recognises and tries to negotiate a re-imagining of what that means for selfhood, the identity of the succeeding generations. It’s a demonstration of how the slow work of art, drawing, painting, writing, is essential in that realisation of selfhood.

Sentimental evocation of mourning is not depicted as the book itself is enactment, not melancholy self-indulgence. Those square brackets indicate the sense of erasure and reconciliation in that enactment, covering over, covering up, but at the same time, opening out, quietly revealing.

Ecstatics: A Language of Birds, by Laura Drever (illustrations) and Lesley Harrison (poems) is likewise beautifully produced by Brae Editions and similarly is made up of images and words. The curlew is “a bone flute / the nestlings grow from air”. And the swift is:

high pitched,
a glide in the cold blue air.
transparent in the rain.

The line drawings accompanying these tiny slivers of poems are literally that, charting imaginary flight patterns or the tracks of such birds on a wet sandy beach, both poems and images tracing their slender existences on the shorelines of actuality.

The National: A curlewA curlew

Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds in Scots, produced in Edinburgh in 2020 by another independent small publisher, Scotland Street Press, collects illustrations by Alexander Wilson and poems by Hamish MacDonald, with an introduction by Paul Walton.

This marries the solidity of images, full-color portraits of such marvels as the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the Yellow-Throated Flycatcher and the Purple Finch, alongside the Glasgow Starling or Glesga Stookie, the Hauchty Mavis or Hoity-Toity Thrush. The poems are garrulous, gallus, charming and sharp, as in “Moth Hawk / Nightjar”:

The Moch Hawk haunts the rowthie wid
Tae wing wi the gloamin star
Chackin oot an antrin sang
An seal the nicht in a jar

Also published by Scotland Street Press is the 2021 volume Patient Dignity, poems by Bashabi Fraser with artwork by Vibha Pankaj. As with Wilson’s Ornithology & Burns, this book combines vivid and lovely images of paintings with poems of immediate and lasting effect.

Bashabi Fraser is one of Scotland’s most multi-faceted contemporary poets and scholars, renowned for her work on Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes and for poems which bring together her sense of belonging to two multi-dimensional nations, Scotland and India.

The poems in Patient Dignity arise from the last two years of living with the Covid contagion, of her care and love for family, new and older generations, of ideals rising above societies so badly damaged, if not wrecked, by corrupt governments and policies of fatal ineptitude and murderous consequences.

And yet nothing in the poems or paintings is shrill or extreme. Their gentleness of touch is matched by assurance of purpose and confidence of utterance. Here are the opening lines of “Missives of music”: “These rivers with their wilful whim have flowed through the centuries / Their waters replenished by the gifts poured in by tributaries.” And in “Moments of Truth and Hope” we are given

The moment when the pensive sky
Broods over the burning earth
And the shadows roll over plain and hill
Till the monsoons burst with mirth.

Fraser takes risks with the straightforwardness of rhythm and rhyme, the clarity of her aspirations, the old-fashioned virtues of immediacy of address, to her father, her grandson, her husband. And the poems, in balance with the images, work as a testament to sensitivity, without self-indulgence, without sentimentality. Emotional truth must be faced up to squarely, and in this book – as in all these books – the quality of life is so affirmed and enhanced is a permanent unstated condemnation of the brutalities of the daily unmerry-go-round political.

Poetry, paintings, the art of publishing books that are pleasing to the hands that will hold them, tenderly, and the eyes that will search them, carefully, are antidotes to the violence that surrounds us.

We might keep that in mind.

About the author

Noah Roy

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