‘Alastair Mackie: Collected Poems 1954-1994’ edited by Christopher Rush

'Alastair Mackie: Collected Poems 1954-1994'There is no recognised collective name for the mighty company of Scots-writing poets whose floruerunt was the second and third quarters of the last century. The expression ‘post-MacDiarmid makars’ is about as inept as ‘Scottish Chaucerians’, in suggesting a far greater degree of derivativeness from and dependency on one great figure than was actually the case; and in view of the wholly individual quality of each poet’s voice, to speak of them as a collectivity at all is in some sense unfitting. With regard to one of the finest of them, Alasdair Mackie, the full extent of his contribution to the Scottish Renaissance and the distinctiveness of the idiolect in which he made it are now revealed for all to see in this long-overdue Collected Poems.

Christopher Rush’s Editorial Introduction is a fine example of one accomplished writer’s response, both literary and personal, to another; the other in this case being a long-standing friend and mentor as well as a much-admired poet. The world in which Mackie was brought up — the crowded Aberdeen tenement, Skene Square Primary School and Robert Gordon’s College — are evoked in a section in which quotations from the poetry are counterpointed with Rush’s highly-focused and vividly evocative prose. The editor proceeds to relate the story of Mackie’s wartime service, his years in Orkney and the teaching post in Anstruther which occupied the remainder of his active life; and to trace his literary development in detail, including the positive and negative effects on this of his interactions with other principal figures of the Scottish poetic scene (MacDiarmid being among the negative contributors). As the narrative progresses and Mackie’s deteriorating physical and mental health are seen increasingly to affect his life and his writing, the poignant story becomes, like those of William Soutar and George Campbell Hay among Mackie’s fellow Scottish Renaissance writers, one of an artist’s inspirational struggle to keep his creative powers functioning in defiance of growing infirmity. The final section of the Introduction traces the critical reception of Mackie’s successive publications, and the responses of various poetic confrères, including some of the most outstanding (Alex Scott, Robert Garioch, George Bruce) to this vibrant and challenging Scots makar.

If this excellent introduction contains much that will be new to many readers, it is nothing to what is in the body of the book. Mackie’s previously published work, though enough to establish his unassailable status as one of the giants of the Scottish Renaissance, by no means included all he ever wrote. And not only does this edition contain several hitherto unpublished poems: by presenting his output in a single body it reveals the imposing scale of it, as well as its range and scope, with a new and impressive clarity. The poems are arranged in four sections: ‘Poems in Scots’ (the longest section), ‘Poems in English’ (some of which have Scots words in them), ‘Longer Sequences’ and ‘Translations’, the last two including work in both languages.

Two of the poems on the opening page are what, as we learn from the Introduction, he dismissed as ‘the first feeble fruits’ of his poetic invention: a fact which invites the comment that a poet who produced lines like:

There’s no a souch on the breist o the sea
When the bleck-hulled boat dirls roond the pint (1)

as inconsequential juvenilia might be expected to have a bright future indeed. As is natural and proper in a young poet, the voices of his models can be heard to echo in his poems: MacDiarmid, predictably, but also Soutar in such lines as:

Happit aboot in yon white pit
they warsled on aneth the dark
but whit they fund or whit they tint
nane micht tell for aa their wark (3)

and George Mackay Brown, a friend during Mackie’s years in Stromness as we learn from the Introduction, in the Orkney poems which appear early in the English section; but the hallmarks of the mature Mackie — imagery of earth and sea, firmly if asymmetrically rhythmic lines, a tough and unsentimental cast of mind, and above all a rich Scots redolent of the harsh but undaunted life of generations of dargers — take shape with increasing confidence as the sequence progresses. ‘The Warbeth Shore’ is promising, until its feeble conclusion ‘Symbols o whit I michtna ken jist yet’; but two years later (the dates of the poems are given) the same scene is recreated in the far superior ‘The Kirkyaird by the Sea’.

The potent combination of an intense evocation of sensorily-perceived reality and an equally intense perception of its transcendental meaning — surely a touchstone of poetic merit — in poems of landscape like ‘Three Tree Poems’, of seasonal change like ‘October’, of the human body like ‘Schoolquine’, of love-making like ‘Gravity’, is recognisable almost from the outset. Regarding the last, it is notable that the physical details of sex are the reverse of enticing in Mackie�s poetry (the English poem ‘Posthumous Fragment to Queen Gertrude’ being one of the most extreme examples); making this a particularly startling instance of the paradoxical incompatibility suggested by his poetry of the harshness of the material world and the awesomeness of its spiritual setting. Elsewhere in the book, ‘Captus Cupidine Coeli: A Space Sequence’ develops this theme in a variety of ways, and the set ‘Things: A Sequence’ provides an assortment of brief illustrations of it.

Rush’s decision to include the translations in a separate grouping is one of the most fascinating revelations in the book: Mackie was well-known to be an outstanding translator; but the full range of his work in this genre had not been manifest till now. He worked from six languages (Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German and Russian) and into both Scots and English, though the former predominates: some (two Baudelaire sonnets, a lyric by Horace, a short poem by Mandelstam, and others) appear in both languages; and the difference between the two voices is in all cases as striking as we would expect:

Ocean and Homer — love’s the prime mover.
Which shall I listen to? And Homer’s hushed.
The clangorous surf of the Black Sea’s harangue
pounds at my pillow with its loud thunder-reels. (372)The deep and Homer baith — love moves aathing.
Wha should I hear? And nou Homer hauds his wheesht,
And the Bleck Sea’s flytin, the saut stramash
Batters my beddit heid wi thunner-jows. (373)

In some instances the verse-form of the original, or something as near to it as possible, is retained; in others something wholly different is used: an example of the first is Jean Richepin’s ‘Oceano Nox’; of the second, Virgil speaking thus in free verse:

An in my dream there kythed afore my een
Hector there, the dowiest o men,
Ruggit, as lang syne, ahint the chariot wheels,
barkit wi bluidy stour,
his swaalt feet stobbit thro wi thongs. (412)

The hallmark of a valid poetic translation is that it should be a poem of comparable quality to the original by the criteria of literary merit in the translator’s language (not that it should be maximally faithful to it on the level of literal equivalence); and in this Mackie shows himself a master of translation as of original poetry. And of course, the viability of the language he uses is a preoccupation, not only when forming the overt topic of the poems (as in ‘A Lallans Sequence’) but by implication throughout his Scots work: the downtrodden status which to all expectations should, but defiantly does not, make it unusable as a medium for profound and hard-hitting poetic statements. Whether extending its scope by translations of European or world classic poems or using it to evoke the life he knows in its burgeoning diversity of all that is grim, repulsive, irritating, terrifying, comforting, funny, beautiful and sublime, Mackie is one of the greatest masters of the Scots tongue to write in modern times. Now at last, with Rush’s careful presentation of his poetic output (and the glossary of twenty-two double-columned pages which he supplies), his full stature can be appreciated.


References & Further Information

Alastair Mackie: Collected Poems 1954-1994 edited by Christopher Rush is published by Two Ravens Press, 2012.

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Derrick McClure

Derrick McClure
Senior Lecturer, Department of English
University of Aberdeen

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