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)


Under the Volcano

I read the Picador Classics edition (1967) with an introduction by Stephen Spender. Unusually, I read the introduction first, then again after reading the novel, which I read in three sittings. I like Spender, and relate to his reading of the book.

Despite its dual reputations of being difficult and about alcoholism, it is neither. As for difficulty, it’s true that understanding Spanish would be helpful, but the saturated extratextual references to mythology, mysticism, history and so on can be taken as fragments of a disintegrating mind in a disintegrating world: the central theme is of stability versus instability, fragments against ruins, and from this erupts the permanent psychological divisions between desire’s positivity and its demonic twin of destruction. The characters are all one character, the places all one place, the times all one time, though an impossible time – that of a moment that is an ideal locus without nostalgia for past or future.

Alcohol is central of course because the character of the novel is alcoholic, and best read, therefore by an alcoholic – which is most people, for Firmin and his alternatives are merely further advanced into descent and ascent than most which makes his expression approach the ideal moment. The refusal to accept love is not a failure but an affirmation for love is part of the dreadful entanglement of contingent dual actions of affirmation and immediate denial, and it is this tangle (the novel is thick with imagery of entanglement) which is transcended by final descent into the (literal) abyss. Obviously for it could be no other, a novel of immense contradictions, impossible antipathies, and the realisation of being as antithetical to identity.

It is easy to read when one accepts its imagistic concentration. Films, stills, photographs, paintings, advertisements, thicken every paragraph to a flicker that has the paradoxical potential to, like a hollywood movie, enspectre a counterpart to diegesis – a clean, pure, fluid, immensely joyful….. illusion.

It’s a wonderful, exquisitely awful and painful novel of redemption.

Six Walks in Fictional Woods

Six lectures. like six walks with a fascinating companion who’s courteous, humorous gentle with the reader. He’s erudite, of course, but his insights come unforced and ‘natural’. Natural ‘talking’ as opposed to ‘articificial’ – one of the dyads he mentions in passing almost as a casual observation about fictional theory. The only demand he asks of his ‘model’ reader is attention 0 and, well, fascination. It feels inappropriate to say much about anything where Eco is concerned since he says it all so perfectly,  and I think no matter how nuanced the reading the nuances of the writing may well be missed. One could say must be missed, for the woods are not some well-ordered landscape manufacture but “Sacred…tangled and twisted like the forests of the Druids.” In any case, anything I or anybody else says about this or any other text is at best an interesting, or even useful, diagram but nothing like the richly experiential, one may – or may not – appeal to the noumenal – immersion within the woods, within the text. I’d say that if you only read one page of this book read the last one to see what ‘immersion’ and precision may mean.

There are interesting methods that can be learned for approaching fiction if one takes one refraction of Eco’s book, one thin layer, as a guide. I’ve suggested this in practice by glimpsing Dermot Healy through a few of the ways. In particular, the dyads of model reader and empirical reader, the use of a text and the interpretation of a text are seminal. I’ll be returning to the empirical reader as the substance of this post. Suffice it to say that the attention Eco requests from his reader is a requirement to realise the distinction between empirical usage of a text for whatsoever pleasure or other employment a reader may make, and a nuanced sensibility to a text (which does not, of course, exhaust a text’s possibilities: he has been returning to his beloved Sylvie year upon year).

Not surprisingly, another dyad is the fiction-truth twinship that wriggles, writhes, and spreads rhizomes throughout the woods – for I as empirical reader may, even as model reader, legitimately take with me on my walks not only my own memories but the collective memories of my ancestors including Deleuze or whomsoever. There is a type of mainly male psyche which I shall be looking at in a later review of A Goat’s Song which is angrily opposed to ‘mere fiction’ and thereby an unconscious victim to the personal and cultural fictional narratives that effect subjectivity (including, a point Eco makes merely in passing, the subjective narrative of continuing self). As Eco’s lecture series reaches its final point, the fact that a knowledge of narrativity is absent moves from being innocent to being deadly serious.

In an early lecture he suggests that the ‘completion’ of narrative against the messiness and contradictoriness of the world was behind much of the appeal of fiction, myth (and, I think, by implication art generally, including poetry). I marked the passage in rather angry pencil; in my brain I etched cliche, and ‘depoliticised speech’. Yet as the series moved on it came as no surprise that Eco began by asking at the start of his final lecture whether the world could be read as fiction, and whether a ‘work’ of fiction could be constructed to represent the actual (non-neat narratological) mess of living. Swiftly moving through some interesting asides about language and theories of the semiotic-narrative (and I think he was resurrecting tthe possibility of looking again at the idea of grammar’s fundamental axis around activity, that each sentence is a story), he relates the dreadful history of the fictions-as-truths beginning with the Knights Templar of the fourteenth century, through the Rosicruceans, Scottish Freemasons, Jesuits, and all the other stuff – read it, it’s only a few pages – to that dreadful moment of protofascism beginning in nineteenth century France, informing Germany and with us still today in an ugly and terrifying antisemitism. This empirical reader sees fiction as too important to be ignored by the ideology of fact cataloguing.

It is good and human to move back the other way, to that innocence and beauty, the thrill of walking in the woods. We need consoling fictions too, the ones that are neat and well ordered, the way we would like life to be. It’s important too that we know the other end of the spectrum. Life is a struggle, it’s political  and ends with death. As Eco ends his sixth lecture: “..since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.”

By Night in Chile

A short review below of this book. I am going to enjoy, I think, reading more Bolano. He seems to be the sort of writer I was getting at in my Anti-writing post.

I do not like those communities of artistic people who are talk and tinkle. I believe the world needs action from good being. Literature is indeed a valid pleasure for its own sake. But there are conservative, reactionary, and, I would say, bad folk out there who put ‘Art’ above life and politics. Surely it can be as much a retreat and sanctuary as anything, but to suggest it as a self-sufficient entity that represents some sort of suprahuman state seems to me to be deeply dangerous.

My Review of the Book

I thought this very good. It’s my first encounter with this writer, and although I have seen reviews suggesting his ‘difficulty’, I have no hesitation in recommending this to anybody. (I thank Mike Puma for suggesting it as probably the most suitable introduction to the author).

It’s very rich and dense, with startling images and cross-cutting motifs; many extra-textual references too, but I hardly think they matter at this stage. Later, I will return to read the book again, as one will return to a film, looking forward to the total experience, reading differently, with more prepared resonance as a reader.

Here I’ll reveal what struck me immediately. The single paragraph of the novel (well, there’s two if you include the seven word paragraph at the end, important as it is) is the confessional of a Priest/Poet/Aesthete/Critic who believes he’s dying. He isn’t – except of course, he is, as we all are. He’s not a sympathetic character, what with his being a coward, a debauch, a hero worshipper, a solipsistic fool (just to begin the  catalogue). But he is sympathetic too for the poor man is just anyone. I’m not convinced that this is remotely a book about Chile, despite the confessor’s search for the very Christian, very Chilean,  I think a reader who goes in fangs bared knowing this Priest is  member of (fashionably, what else, negatively connoted) Opus Dei or intuiting that he was part of the establishment that crushed the brave Socialist experiment will miss much of what is actually in the text. That’s something ironic, something of the the world of the lovers of literature and the arts generally, that something being you don’t approach act and being as a political animal by chattering about representations. There are the precisely controlled traces, just enough, of the horrors of Chile – and, incidentally, Europe and the USA – to help embrace a certain readership into necessary active political studies of the nature of myths , narratives of gods, nations, good and evil, left and right, personal identity. Even Pinochet – who has a speaking part in this novel (during one of the Priest’s six stories) understands that to defeat a story you meed to understand it. Bolano, though, goes deeper, and suggests that if you scratch away at any story an utter boredom, acidie, ruination and decay are revealed. Again, here, the reader who knows knows about relating to personalities at a much more positive level (by contrast): the lecher priest who feels Pinochet’s hand upon his knee like a myriad desiring multitude of hands; the frightened priest who sees in a namesake baby with eyes and mouth closed himself against the world (while, in this moment also rushing with heterosexual desire) knows nothing of health: for him the world is in ruins, and broken and unstable as much of the imagery of the novel explores.

It’s useful to have priest-aesthete as narrator. For one thing, such an individual has the ideological permission to be above the mere world of the messily human, and Sebastian (the priest) assumes such permission (as many do do). His torpor (mere boredom) in Chile is followed by aesthetic excitatation springing from one part of Europe to another. In a hymn to his God he praises not the Lord’s justice or concern for the oppressed but his own being graced by encounter with “my happiness, passion regained, genuine devotion, my prayers rising up and up through the crowds to the realm of pure music, to what for want of a better name we call the choir of angels, a non-human space but undoubtedly the only imaginable space we humans can truly inhabit, an uninhabitable space but the only one worth inhabiting, a space in which we will cease to be but the only space in which we can be what we truly are…” My guess is that there are priest-aesthetes  spouting this all over the world in various forms. There may have been refined monsters in Auschwitz sharing sherries with their local clergy who hissed it too.

This particular failed poet longs for a more ‘cultured’ ‘Chile’. He immerses himself in Graeco-Roman ‘culture’ (clean as a sculpture, and neatly forgetting Aristotle’s – and later Aquinas’ – emphasis upon the political centrality of being); he longs for ‘his’ country to open itself to Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Hugo, Borges, Tolstoy (what a truly bizarre conglomerate!); he wilfully, proudly, separates himself from the universe of political events (the real people’s acting and being), and regularly joins the grotesque gatherings of third-rate literati, artists and such that chatter in comfortable soirees while beneath them in the basements of a house whose labyrinthine corridors are laid our ‘like a crossword puzzle’, victims of torture suffer and die. But he’s no more a coward than anyone who lives like that. Anywhere, any time.

The failure of aestheticism to complete and identity is the torment of this narrator. It is universal. He’s allowed limited reflection himself, for instance awareness of his own own poems’ division into apollonian and dionysian (such a division, of course, being about as creative, active, poetic as a crossword clue), Where the insistent filmic image of ‘zooming’ in through the petals of a flower, through the entrance to the Emperor’s room through door after door of antechambers, to the ‘tunnel of time, back into time’s great meat-grinder’ (the latter near the end) there’s a redemptive possibility, that the frightened story-maker and conservative adult will recognise the wizened youth within and eschew both.

The Fire Next Time

Written in 1963 as “the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon”, this is as relevant almost fifty years later. The sheer ugliness of American racism is now embedded in the discourses that hide it, those gentile liberal nicenesses that serve exactly the same bourgeois lackey function in keeping hidden the vicious oppression of the ghettoised and oppressed in every ‘liberal democracy’ with their fine glows of meritocracies and equalities. Such discourses are from the pseudo-innocent who blithely act as cultural bureaucrats to perpetuate oppression, and while Baldwin states that “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.” he is a man of enormous love to understand their psychological states (based on fear) so that “…these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act upon what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”

It takes enormous courage and resilience to resist the definitions of identity forced upon one by oppressive discourses, and it takes enormous compassion and strength to achieve understanding as a prime requisite of positive resistance, to, for Baldwin, love America with all his heart and demand attention to its devestatingly negative impact on his own and a so many of his fellows’ hearts, minds and identities.

The first third or so of the book’s main essay is a useful companion to Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: here there is more commentary upon the desperate enticement of religion as an alternative to drugs, drink, pimping, despair as counters to utter oppression, yet Baldwin, whose every sentence is charged with ruthless honesty, confesses his intense rupture from the church as conceived in its sectionalised formation: “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the ‘Elmer Gantry’ sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert.”

Again paralleling the novel, he notes with distaste: “I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Caillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.” As his point within the wider context of the essay is to universalise certain human tendencies regarding power, oppression and the masks of a convenient God, the hatred, self hatred and despair, to my mind, are undeniable aspects of much arid and hateful American Protestantism. This universalising, really an insight through intense experience, of deep human structures of thought is applied equally to his analysis of the Nation of Islam: he understands its appeal, he meets with Elijah Mohammed in a richly courteous setting to hear him talk of the ‘white devils’ put on earth by the Devil, and who will soon be eradicated, before leaving for a meeting with some friends, white devils themselves whom he loves dearly.

For this divided nation (I mean today) either side of a Manichean polarity
could use the following structure as axiomatic starting point for justification or rebellion: “God going north, and rising on the wings of power, had become white, and Allah, out of power, and on the dark side of Heaven, had become – for all practical purposes anyway – black.”

Rather than pretend such polarity does not exist, “One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief”, that the bedrocks of values and beliefs are not a potent part of our reality, Baldwin seems instead to take the tragedy of their existence as a part of the pain one must bear in order to be a Christian. I am inferring that Baldwin’s Christianity is a basic one, in direct contrast with Christendom and the claims on Christ as justifier for all sorts of evil howsoever ‘innocent’ (and hence much of the pain is to be again disidentified – first as a Negro – and to be rejected, again, from the the community of goodness, to be in some ways to be without a church.)

Experience is repeated by word and example, again and again. Although he generalises whiteness in terms of, for instance, not only its cruelty but also its own inner fragmentation (his couple of pages dealing with music are splendid: “White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad….Only people who have been ‘down the line’, as the song has it know what this (jazz,blues, ‘tart and ironic’) is about.”) and is extraordinarily acute in his analysis of the deadly signs evidenced by (much) white culture as to the state of the individual psyche, he, throughout, is for understanding and forgiveness, the courage to face the pain of history and the courage to live, to forgive, to be.

Yet there is no concession whatsoever to liberal culture represented by those “so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices”. He talks of the “incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtusenss of white liberals” who can “deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.” They are the type who read lots of books but never learn anything new. To learn something new, what this essay is really about, is painful, scary, and, most terrifying of all, abandons delusions in the name of exposure. Or, to put the pain in Baldwin’s words: “I was frightened because …. I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles – perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worst.”

It’s not equality or integration or acceptance by whites that Baldwin indicates is at stake, not these empty facades. For who would want to be ‘equal’ to, as the highest point of achievement, a white culture so clearly in turmoil, so unhappy and confused? Baldwin will not accept the American myth that having been “released from the African witch doctor… I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.” And, bearing in mind the universalism of human thought structures I discussed above, Baldwin talks of the American and Muslim errors equally as they imprison ” in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death”. For ultimately, it is that great taboo around, and denial of death which for Baldwin is at the heart of America’s crisis.

There are existential refractions throughout: the welcoming of death as reality, the importance of face to face humanity, the richness of suffering, the ethical growth to resilience and forgiveness, and a demolition of labels, symbols, and so on. (Baldwin doesn’t himself ever refer to any existential claims explicitly). For him, in a great reversal, to the Negro in history it is the ‘the man’, that is ‘the white man’, who is seen as a child, as only ‘three fifths of a man’ (as the Negro was once labelled in the Constitution). Like children, they actually believe deep in their hearts that “their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.” The Negro has a privileged position cleaned through a history of pain and suffering.

This book is a call for action, not a modest entertainment. It suggests that the Black perspective on American history throws light on denial and reality. It was written in 1964 when “internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.” References to the ideological function of the Cold War with Russia are outdated, an other has taken its place. Baldwin’s views on the American nation are still precisely germane as the atavistic manifestations of hatred in that nation spew forth in ever more cases of virulent racism, and there is hardly a word needs changing to apply to America in the world today. Bravery and pain are called for:

“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Great review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post of new biography of De Quincey

(For)  most of his adult existence, De Quincey was an opium addict, an alcoholic in all but name, and a man who spent years dodging creditors, constantly moving from one rented room to another. What money he didn’t spend on laudanum – his preferred opium-alcohol mixture – he spent on buying thousands of books, many of them pricey and rare. For years he rented Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s old home in the Lake District, and essentially used it to store his library and papers. Though from an upper-middle-class family and exceptionally well educated in Latin and Greek, De Quincey nonetheless dropped out of Oxford, eventually married his housekeeper (who bore him eight children) and was regularly shamed by public announcements of his nonpayment of bills. He contributed to multiple magazines, Blackwood’s being the best known, and sooner or later quarreled with nearly all his editors. In person, he was diminutive (under five feet tall) and exceptionally courtly in his manner and speech.

Today De Quincey is remembered, and by some revered, for his evocative (at times purple) prose and for two or three of the most influential works of the 19th century, the most famous being the autobiographical “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” No less an authority than William Burroughs has called “Confessions” “the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. . . . No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal.”

In this lucid, deeply researched biography, Robert Morrison makes plain that De Quincey wasn’t just a recreational user, but truly a slave to his habit. He would regularly pop pills – laudanum capsules that he kept in a snuffbox – even in the presence of company. Although De Quincey tried repeatedly to break the drug’s hold over him, the consequent shakes, fevers and depressions would eventually destroy his resolve. And yet two sections of “Confessions” are honestly titled: “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium,” for the drug lifted some of life’s burdens, even as it imposed others. It also allowed for vivid, hallucinatory dreams and memories, often of the dead: the beloved sister whom De Quincey lost when young, the prostitute Ann who shared his early miseries, the 3-year-old Wordsworth daughter he played with and adored, his own deceased children. In opium visions they might all, for a moment, live again.

…. …. ….

Murder, in fact, always deeply fascinated De Quincey and comes to the fore in his wittiest essay, the savagely deadpan “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Conceived as a lecture to a society of connoisseurs, it remains the foundational text for the grisly black humor of films such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or Patricia Highsmith‘s novels about the talented Mr. Ripley. As our lecturer observes: “Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”

Alas, the wholly aesthetic murder can be elusive: “Awkward disturbances will arise; people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; they will run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait-painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist in our line is generally embarrassed by too much animation.”


A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

By Robert Morrison.

Pegasus. 462 pp.

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.