Example poetry

Alan Riach: Poetry Books to Bring Pleasure Amid Selfish Politics

In his essay “The Serious Artist”, Ezra Pound says this: “Beauty in art reminds us of what is worth. I am not speaking now of imposture. I mean beauty, not slipping, not sentimentalizing beauty, not telling people that beauty is the proper and respectable thing. I mean beauty.

“You don’t discuss an April wind, you feel uplifted when you meet it. We feel uplifted when we come across a rapidly moving thought in Plato or a fine line in a statue… Satire reminds us that some things aren’t worth it. This encourages us to consider wasted time. For Pound, beauty is “hygiene, sun, air and sea and rain and lake baths”.

There is something of this beauty, as Pound describes it, in the poems of the books considered here, but if we take them as antidotes to the violence and ugliness of the things around us, there is a contempt and a constant and implicit satire in the priorities they elicit. 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 the spondulicks.

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

The time we choose to devote to such things is ours, if we have it, but we must take care of it. Otherwise, the 24/7 warfare of the mass media compels us to irreparable loss, a backdrop of ruthless grip.

Let’s pause for a moment with some fugitive poetry books that won’t be on public parade and note some virtues that you probably won’t see much, if anything, elsewhere.

[Cover] is a book by Amy Todman, published in 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 well worth reading and visiting, next time you are in the Orkney Islands, or even just online.

It opened in the 1970s, run by Charles Senior, whose poems were published in a small volume by Mr Macdonald in 1966. It was later run by John Broom, the local librarian, whose pioneer biography of the teacher Clydeside revolutionary, pacifist and Marxist John Maclean remains a must-read.

Successive owners have expanded the remit of the shop to include maps, new publications and books written and made by local people, whether indigenous or not, also welcome, valued by their intrinsic value and commitment. Something of the ecumenical spirit of the most famous local writer George Mackay Brown animates the spirit of happy, open and serious curiosity that the shop embodies. My own experience began in 1976, so it is high time that I pay him a little tribute, and [Cover] is a good starting point.

It is a book of sober paragraphs, poems and observations, a dialogue between the letters of the alphabet, objectivities, similarities and simulacra, love, discussions and reconsiderations, originality and death, information and inspiration, distance and strong feelings, the Isle of Hoy and the creations of understanding through drawings, sketches, reassessment.

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

sitting together on the kitchen table
he scratched his knife in a grapefruit
up to two pieces and their juices
put on a plate
we ate and then he looked
right on me
the colors of your shirt are beautiful
we wet her lips several times
this last night
without supervision, my brothers
held her hand

The book is an elegy on the death of a father who recognizes and tries to negotiate a reimagining of what it means for the individuality, the identity of the following generations. It is a demonstration of how the slow work of art, drawing, painting, writing, is essential in this realization of individuality.

The sentimental evocation of mourning is not portrayed because the book itself is a dramatization, not a melancholic self-indulgence. These hooks indicate the sense of erasure and reconciliation in this staging, covering, concealing, but at the same time opening up, quietly revealing.

Ecstatics: A Language of Birds, by Laura Drever (illustrations) and Lesley Harrison (poems) is also beautifully produced by Brae Editions and is equally composed of images and words. The curlew is “a bone flute / the chicks grow from the air”. And the fast one is:

a glide through the cold blue air.
transparent in the rain.

The line drawings accompanying these tiny fragments of poems are literally that, tracing imaginary flight patterns or the tracks of such birds on a wet sandy beach, both poems and images tracing their soaring existences on the shores of the reality.

A curlew

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

This one marries solid imagery, color portraits of marvels such as the Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Flycatcher and Purple Finch, alongside Glasgow’s European Starling or Glesga Stookie, haughty Mavis or Hoity-Toity’s Thrush. The poems are talkative, gallus, charming and sharp, as in “Moth Hawk / Nightjar”:

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

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

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

Patient Dignity’s poems stem from the last two years of living with the contagion of Covid, from her care and love for family, new and old generations, from ideals rising above societies so badly damaged , if not destroyed, by corrupt governments and policies of deadly ineptitude and murderous consequence.

And yet nothing in the poems or the paintings is strident or extreme. Their softness of touch goes hand in hand with assurance of purpose and confidence of utterance. Here are the first verses of the “Missives of music”: “These rivers of voluntary whim have crossed the centuries / Their waters have been replenished by the gifts poured out by the tributaries”. And in “Moments of Truth and Hope” we are given

The moment when the pensive sky
nestled in the burning earth
And the shadows roll over the plain and the hill
Until the monsoons burst with joy.

Fraser takes risks with the simplicity 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, function as a testimony of sensitivity, without complacency, without sentimentality. Emotional truth must be confronted head-on, and in this book – as in all such books – the quality of life thus affirmed and enhanced is a permanent and unspoken condemnation of the brutalities of the daily political game.

Poetry, painting, the art of publishing books that please the hands that hold them tenderly and the eyes that scrutinize them attentively are antidotes to the violence that surrounds us.

We could keep that in mind.

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