Dermot Healy: “The Ballyconnell Colours”

Stark poems, cold form, fierce emotional heat.

The colours of life are often drained, washed-out, running into each other like waters – or storms or skies. Location is impermanent, unmoored (a favourite trope), identity tumbling; perhaps what coalesence there is rests, moves rather, in the acceptance of the flux, the world that will not be held down. This is hard:

Sometimes I am bewildered
By all this foolish energy
Battering away
Miles from people.

I envy those
Who live upriver
At the quiet source.
Here we are forever

Stepping between
The incoming roar
Of life and the tides
That carry death out


Much of the domestic detail – expressed in this collection with precise images – is lost as soon as uttered: a man comes onto the high street, and is split into not only two minds but two people with two directions which will be taken without purpose (although the purpose will come later – the narrative proceeds the happening). It’s not difficult to envisage, as in Rosses Point for instance, the equal claim to existence of the dead, “though you can’t see a soul” among them any more than you can among the living, sense though in the “solitude they lack” the living sense which is a temporary surfeit to existence, the individual consciousness, apart from its practicalities and pleasures, a correlate of the living and dead as one, as vulnerable, open to wounds.

For children in Domestic Lives , section 6:

… you will distrust the tempers of parenthood.
All our arguments to preserve your faith
Mean nothing. You will be forever alone

Notwithstanding the evidence of art and laughter.

These are love poems, love of people and place, not in spite of pain and wounds, emptiness, loss and general suffering but through them, by them, in all their colours. A companion volume to A Goat’s Song, this is largely as resonance of feeling, texture, and imagery but sometimes by direct narrative correlate as in The New Town – echoes of hospitalisation for alcohol recovery, the motif of writing itself being a temporary balm but ultimately leaving the void that all words and stories leave. Even in the intimacy of fulfilled relationship we see – in O Woman:

O woman for whom
I have withdrawn

From naming the brilliant things of the earth
Lest they might lose their vividness,

Can we now without myth
Sustain the emptiness?

It’s the sentimentalities, the convenient phrases of social enjoyment, much as they are important, that are emptied out to an honest celebration, joy and not in the least contradictory melancholy that marks Healy here. It would be wrong to end without pointing out that there are myriad points to be made about each poem; Healy has many ways of writing. Just one point I’d make is that there’s a sense of bordering on imagism of great compression(Li Po/has circles/under his eyes/from the drink….) and more extended imagery that fuses short breaths of expression into fluidity (and see the magnificent Rain is Coming as an example here).

Overall, a great collection. Storming, in fact.


Jackie Kay: Fiere


Alice Neel, Twins

Beautiful sharp and light. Goodness and love to torment a Caliban: wonderful. In these poems the woman, the poet, the human is there, a fiere, companion, friend. Unsullied, unworried by self, she gives and takes in joy, passes through others as they, as we, pass through her. A person – her or us – delighting in routes and roots, vitally sensitive to accident and circumstance, meetings, pains: she, we, losing our way in the woods, alone and dead, being found by the friend, and our finding the lost friend equally. Motifs of life and death, as losing the spark as well as losing our loved ones, always finding resolution, joy after numbing, swirling time that’s fast and slow at once. And walking always with a twin, both clarified as in Longitude and Twins (the latter after Alice Neel’s painting, a detail shown above), and towards the ineffable sense of belonging not only to another but to life itself, perhaps the fullest meaning of love.

Companion to Red Dust Road, the search for biological parents, dissolving place by evoking difference – Glasgow, the elephant grass of Nigeria – always growing, in love, so her lover loves her to bits and in return I love ye tae hale: hale, hearty, whole, healthful. Love poems to friends, son, lover, adoptive parents, Dad and Mum both wonderfully, lovingly let to wander at ease in her mind, never dead. Poems that bring paintings, figurines and statues to life, not a single cleverness used, just the image itself. Always, always letting the sound of words, her Ibo, her native Scots tongues, mix, flow or stand separate (like the black river that does not mix with the blue lake), bring us music: Kamso Ozumba/ We’ll put some whisky in the silver quaich/ and bless your fine and handsome face. Slainte mhath!

The quite remarkable Impromptu is a formal gem, a tribute to music’s power, jazz building, calling up the great Blue Notes, the poem’s turning a piano to a heron to sky, turning sounds to light to revelation that spirit will not, cannot die:They will be alive, as they’ve always been,/Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone.

Very light trills of Burns throughout, more explicitly in Bronze Head from Ife, and tender evocation of Edwin Morgan in Strawberry Meringue: visiting him at 90, he …asked after my son, and Carol Ann./ Love, you said, Ah love wistfully/If you can be friends you’re doing not bad.

Playful, mischievous with MacDiarmid (A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple), she will take his poetry as starting point, as she does paintings and other objects, as in Brockit (which, I think, resonates with MacDiarmid’s The Bonnie Broukit Bairn).

This is a collection of poems upon which to find out something of who you are.

ka udo di, ka ndu di

(let there be peace, let there be life

Road to Amaudo)

Hugh MacDiarmid

After His Death

Norman MacCaig

for Hugh MacDiarmid


It turned out

that the bombs he had thrown

raised buildings:


that the acid he had sprayed

had painfully opened

the eyes of the blind.


Fishermen hauled

prizewinning fish

from the water he had polluted.


We sat with astonishment

enjoying the shade

of the vicious words he had planted.


The government decreed that

on the anniversary of his birth

the people should observe

two minutes pandemonium.


Norman MacCaig: The Many Days

I’d not want 2010 to end without remembering Norman MacCaig. This year has seen the centenary of his birth, and many tributes. There is a good one here

I was privileged to be his student for a time, although I am sure it was his misfortune to encounter yet another gushing sentimentalist with virtually no ear for poetry, and no inkling then of what his poetry would come to mean to me when I eventually grew up. Still, I remember his universally noted courtesy to everybody and even then greatly appreciated his acerbic wit.

I was given at Christmas the new selection of his poems, The Many Days edited by Roderick Watson, Emeritus Professor at Stirling now, and a colleague and friend of MacCaig for many years.  The book is in nine sections, each titled with the poem that begins it. As Watson notes in his introduction, the poems speak  “among themselves, to set up the best kind of creative dialogue, section to section, poem to poem.” So much has been written about MacCaig this year, I just have a few words to say about one aspect of three poems from the first section, Ineducable Me.

Although he described himself as a primary school teacher, was a classics scholar, and taught at universities, he had a view of ‘education’ that was as unadorned and ‘simple’ as his poems appear to be, as his empty desk and bare walls in his university room, uncluttered. The poem that begins the selection, Ineducable Me has the lines:

I learned words, I learned words; but half of them

died from lack of exercise. And the ones I use

often look at me

with a look that whispers, Liar.

The section beginning with Among Scholars is about his ‘real’ education with the people and landscape of Assynt and the Highlands. Fitting with his ice-perfect imagery, elegance of language, often astonishing gymnastics of metaphor and meaning is, I feel, a lightness of touch that’s delicate because for part of him there are things that have far more gravity, and there’s no contradiction here. He sometimes reminds me of Wallace Stevens’  return again and again to the impossibility of expressing, holding ‘the thing itself’ with those very tropes and near metaphysical weavings of language that do reveal an exceptional groundedness, an immanence within the world as it is, each startling and amazing detail unfiltered through orna mentation ‘unadded to’ – perhaps an ideal rather than a possible task of noticing, yet the poems bring the reader, if only negatively, to consider seeing what is rather than projecting any of the whole gamut of possible cognitive jiggery-pokeries that the human mind is capable of. Humorous it may be, but when he described himself as Zen Calvinist there’s a wisp of ludic truth to it.

It isn’t only the tension between experience and expression that is evident: there is  so often the man peeping through the poet. Many of MacCaig’s poems are ‘about’ identity, frequently through a linkage between place and mind, or obliquely through the imagery of travelling between. However, there is also a certain existential tension too (the phrase reflects my own inadequacy of expression rather than a wish to set him spinning with derision in the place he never believed in). There is the man in Private who (as an analogy to his poetry) is but partly “that comfortable MacCaig whose/ small predictions were predictable.” And the total man who may use words instead “in order to say what they mean/when they mean me”. Whatever such words would reveal, his friends, his outward relatings, “How they would wish back/ the clean white bandages/ That hid those ugly wounds.”

Whatever the wounds may be they  occupy the same disturbing opposition  as  in Journeys where there is the dark knowledge of and attraction to that other place:

There are bad journeys, to a bitter place

I can’t go to – yet, I lean towards it,

tugging to get there, and thank God

I’m clogged with the world. It grips me,

I hold it.

There is a tension between the clear, pure, certain apprehension of immanent ‘reality’ and the underlying threat of dispersal. Better to be ‘clogged’ and restricted than to go God knows where. The same idea comes in the poem On the Pier at Kinlochbervie which begins with a typically brilliant MacCaig image then moves towards “My mind is struggling with itself.” The poem ends:

I want an extreme of nearness.

I want boundaries on my mind.

I want to feel the world like a straitjacket.


There’s anti-poetry: it’s a label or name applying to a specific kind of poetry (called anti-poetry). I’d thought there may a similarly recognised species of writing called anti-writing, but can’t find it if it exists famously (fame in literary matters, of course, may only need a thousand or so people involved). Not surprisingly, Derrida comes close to something that is recognised by more than many thousands of people, if only by hearsay, but I’m looking for a literary approach to producing work more than a philosophy (although I can’t entirely ignore the latter).

Anti-writing could be a starkly defined term. Perhaps the preliterate, communal ‘oral’ culture before the printing press and the advent of increased interiority, self-centred individualism and the third dimension if Marshall McLuhan was right. Or, close to this, a Tolstoyan idyll of woodcraft folk living in a sort of Leavisite organic community where authentic humanity returns to a place before the fall. Mention of the fall and authenticity raises possibilities that essence and existence, or at least questions about them, precede and supercede writing. Alas, Sartre, Camus, Tolstoy and Leavis had a certain reliance upon the written word which renders any examination of their work in search of anti-writing to be immediately unsuccessful.

Actually, the phrase  “anti-writing” does occur frequently in pedagogic literature. It refers to a refusal to read and write, mainly by young people, as a leading cause of illiteracy (rather than inadequate teaching methods, lack of educational provision or sending children down mines). It would be possible with such a clear use of the phrase to move it easily to a prorevolutionary and triumphant rebellion against the written word. That is something which may be no bad thing, but although I sometimes think it would be a very good thing, I don’t want to spend time on it here. I am looking for something else.

There are, allegedly “writerly” books read by the few, and “readerly” books read by the many. The “writerly” are often in a category called “literary”, and the “readerly” in one called “popular”, although the boundaries are diffuse. It is also quite possible to read some writerly book in a readerly way, and some embarrassments have occurred by certain refined readers confusing readerly books with writerly ones. There is, however, certainly a sort of movement against “writerly” books (largely led, it must be said, by people who do not read very much anyway) on the basis that not only are they boring and almost totally incomprehensible, they are also elitist and too clever by half. This movement sees writing as the gift of everybody, for everybody is a writer so “anti-writing” here would mean an attack upon the belief that writing per se is something which is a craft and something that can be done more or less badly or well.

There is a school of thought, vaguely located in literary theory where it meets the more arid hinterland of narrative psychology, which sees writing as the circulation, reinforcement and reproduction of things in quotation marks. Obviously the quotation marks are not necessarily visible, and are more usually not which is also when they are at heir most insidious. A thick miasma formed of millions of interpenetrating skeins of phrases and off-the-shelf lexicons of emotional structures hangs like a perpetual fog in which people grope not for vision but for meaning. Writing is the metaphor for all forms of ideological expression; language, in a very broad metaphorical usage, is at once a dynamic of competing phrases and ideas but yet held in miraculous stasis by forces which I suppose are ultimately located in the economic base. I have perhaps over-ornated what is in fact rather dull, but such ideas do still excite the suspicions against the intellectual, and worse, the bourgeois intellectual, and who else but an intellectual would write? On the other hand, I do believe that universal literacy was faced with horror by the bourgeois establishment for untold chaos and anarchy would surely follow if the proletariat ever became educated to read and, god forbid, to write.

But none of this is what I mean by “anti-writing”. It’s simply this. It’s there anyway in irony, satire, humour, the very spirit of writing. It is like apophatic theology or cynical philosophy. It destroys, rips to bits, puts into an acid bath all of its own medium as it is producing itself. Then, and this is the magic part, after destroying everything not worth having it’s discovered in a piece of anti-writing the restoration of the vital value of writing. That’s why it’s true when they say all writing is about writing, all poetry is about poetry, and so on. It’s true, but there’s more, much more, and a lot still needs tearing to shreds before we’ll get near it.

The Ache

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West

I am sure that if I were to recall a dream  what I recall is not ‘the dream’ but the later memory of the ‘dream’, the shaping of it into expression. Similarly, I think that when it comes to the most intense feelings – and for me they are predominantly negative, ‘bad feeling’ – no matter what words I use, I’m for ever caught in a loop that’s always describing other words, ideas, thoughts, representations. Of course, some of these are borrowed from other people, mainly from literature and poetry in my case and also from other art, but there is a complex and dynamic swirl of ideas which are actually more tied to emotions than feelings. The representations come after the feeling.

It’s an interesting area, and  the idea is not new that something akin to depressed feelings can lead to great creativity. I’ll leave aside how such created material gives rise to satisfaction for the originator and recipient of a product, save to note in passing that perhaps there is something like a ‘making sense’ instinct, something which is like a biologically existent syntactic ability which since it is there must be used (as we must run because we can, and if we don’t some part of us atrophies): a refraction of this is to say that an urge to order and form is its own satisfaction when successful, but like all satisfactions is never complete and must be attempted evermore. What after all is an emotion other than a naming, a forming, a giving shape to a bodily feeling?

I believe that I can vaguely remember the first desperate attempts my very young brain made, before language, to formulate the horror of gastrointestinal distress. To attempt to express that now, the only way would be to step back a level or two, and imagine how that distant reverberation of ghastly memory fells now, to the adult, the sophisticated intellect. Here it is:

The Ache is aboriginal. It may, for convenience, be included in concepts of pain or suffering – as parent, child or partner -, but its only analogical connection with these is of negativity of feeling. Specific pain or suffering are attributes – of, or from something – and they contain in their meaning their implicit opposites: what it would feel like to be rid of them. Pain and suffering have dimensions, points of reference, and exist in time. But the Ache is aboriginal. It precedes all differentiation of self and other, comes before the subject. The wind aches, the sky aches, It aches.