Fugitive Colours follows Lochhead’s 2011 publication of selected poems A Choosing, but it is really her first full collection since 2003’s The Colour of Black & White. Coming, as it does, at the tail-end of her time as Scots Makar, the book could be seen as a celebratory swansong for her public role but also a chronicle of an eventful decade in her private life. The book begins with what I feel are the strongest poems by a long way — elegies written in the aftermath of her husband’s (Tom Logan) early death at fifty-five from cancer in 2010. Lochhead had married Logan in 1986 and they had been together since that point. It may seem an unusual move to begin a collection with your strongest work but the only alternative here would have been to work up towards some sort of devastating denouement, leaving any reader’s memory of the book a largely elegiac one. Instead, Fugitive Colours begins on a timor mortis conturbat me note and then builds itself up, as if mirroring the grieving process as a recuperation towards re-joining an active public life. As such we being with elegies, then the ‘light comes back’ and Lochhead turns to art (in ‘Ekphrasis, Etcetera’) for solace, before celebrating youth in ‘Kidspoems and Bairnsangs’ and finally returning to the public eye with her poems of occasion — written during her time as Makar (2011–2016), which began only a year after Logan’s death.
While the collection ends on a rumbustious and nostalgic note with ‘In Praise of Old Vinyl’ and the fabulously bawdy couple of songs for a ‘Dirty Diva’, I was brought back full circle to the poignancy of the beginning because it was only after finishing the book that I took notice of the cover image — a painting by Lochhead entitled Fugitive Colours at the Favourite Place. We are introduced to the ‘favourite place’ in the first poem of the same name — a caravan somewhere in the environs of Lochailort where Lochhead and Logan loved spending their free time together. The poem is long and meandering, reflecting the long, twisty journey they had to make from Glasgow, but the journey is made special by Lochhead’s eye for small details. I’m reminded of a striking phrase Naomi Mitchison once used for poetry — she said that for her, of all the written arts, poetry came closest to her ‘hurting core’. Poetry here gives us glimpses into Lochhead’s ‘hurting core’ — after having made the trip alone for the first time, Lochhead concludes:
But tonight you are three months dead
And I must pull down the bed and lie in it alone.
Tomorrow, and every day in this place
These words of Sorley MacLean’s will echo through me:
The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.
And this will not be a consolation
But a further desolation.
The collection is well structured, because it moves from this opening journey to a journey through poems towards some sort of (incomplete) recovery from loss. In the later poems we get an almost palpable sense of Lochhead relishing the composition and reading aloud some of these poems. Indeed, my first contact with ‘In Praise of Old Vinyl’, a poem (rather like a cento) made from lines taken (or ‘sampled’) from classic songs, was at The Tolbooth in Stirling in 2015, where Lochhead read the poem to saxophone accompaniment by Steve Kettley.
Clearly Lochhead will always suffer her loss, but this book proves that the end of her husband’s life does not mean the end of hers. To return briefly to the grief that opens this book, I was struck by how many lines or poems had within them echoes of other dead poets. ‘Persimmons’ is about Lochhead and her husband eating this ‘strange fruit’ together and Logan making a drawing of these fruit. Lochhead repeats the phrase ‘still life’ twice, thus unlocking all of the possible meanings: a still-life painting; a life that has been stilled and a life that is still hers to enjoy. The final line — ‘Now, looking, I can taste again’ reminds me of Morgan’s most tender love poem ‘Strawberries’. In ‘A Handselling, 2006’ the line ‘the always eventful nothing happening’ is such a MacCaig line I can’t believe he didn’t write it. The closing stanza to ‘Anniversaries’ (an epithalamium) comes on the back of Lochhead’s loss and her advice comes across powerfully:
May that be dailiness — and delight in it,
Sunsets sometimes, full moons,
Music, moments, meals, long sleeps curled like spoons
Together, your children, hard work, holidays,
Home, laughter, friends and family,
This reminds me of a poet I miss deeply, as many others do, the late Alexander Hutchison who had a poem called ‘Everything’ in which he attempts to give out similar advice against the prospect of an atheistic death: ‘Love each other, love each other / everything is hosted / everything is vanishing’. This is not to suggest that I think Lochhead’s poems, style or ideas are unoriginal — anything but — I mean to say that her work is alive to what is going on around her and attuned to other voices and ghostly presences.
Yet this collection is not entirely serious or mournful. Fugitive Colours is so various it covers many moods and modes (from salacious through satirical through to serious) and it vitally captures a sense of the poet regaining a spring in her step. I might say that poems in the last grouping — those written by Lochhead in the capacity of Makar sometimes show the burden of expectation and occasion over that of inspiration, but that does not at all mean that I wish them excised from the collection. Most poetry collections are a conglomeration of the best poems a poet had at a particular time, but this book reads more as a journey. It is a suite of movements and everything has its place — it is a collection that needs to be read cover to cover, not randomly dipped into now and then. The loss that begins the book could have easily overwhelmed it, but Lochhead, through immense control, does not allow it to do so. Instead she makes room for others in her work and vision: schoolchildren, retired actors, old collaborators, old friends like Adrian Mitchell and Michael Marra (who are both apportioned a fine elegy each). In doing this she shows that she works with a democratic muse, a muse that has enabled her to come back round to poetry and public life. To use a line from ‘Epistle to David’ (David MacLennan, 1948–2014 — a late, lamented friend in the dramatic arts) Lochhead has resolved, despite all else, ‘To tell the story in the present tense’.
Fugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead is published by Birlinn, 2016.