First of all, I am heartened by this collection’s subtitle, yin, and genuinely hope that second, third and future collections arrive soon. This first iteration of modren makars brings together the work of contemporary poets Irene Howat, Ann MacKinnon and Finola Scott into one volume, with a chapbook-length space devoted to each. Though Howat, MacKinnon and Scott could all be positioned collectively under the same broad umbrella as ‘Scots writers’, the diverse styles, forms and vocabulary on display in modren makars: yin is a welcome introduction to anyone yet unfamiliar with, as the blurb states, ‘the richness, diversity and power of the Scots tongue’.
Christie Williamson – poet and global advocate for Shetlandic literature – opens the collection with a foreword that expresses the ethos behind the formation of the modren makars series and outlines why such a collection is not only important but necessary: ‘Tae be pert o da world o books is tae be pert o da world o wirds.’ This collection, and the volumes due to follow, are vital for keeping languages such as Scots alive not only in oral traditions, but in printed formats, too.
MacKinnon opens modren makars, with her work offering a tender lyricism that still allows the rough edges of life to creep in. In ‘Faslane an Ayont’, Mackinnon evokes the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the military-industrial complex and the natural world:
At the heicht we gowp at
The loch where a kraken lurks
surrondit by its navy o metal cranes
Her empathy for the plight of others – a trait sometimes considered as particularly Scottish – is demonstrated in the poem ‘He Gied me a Haund’, which centres on an interaction between the narrator and a homeless man that offers quiet optimism on humankind.
MacKinnon’s section offers poems inspired by the works of Charles Baudelaire (‘Exotic Perfume’) and Louis Aragon (‘The Lichts o Paris’) and plaintive odes on a range of political themes (‘Anne Frank’, ‘Brexit’, ‘Midden’). MacKinnon’s imagery urges re-readings of her poems, perhaps best demonstrated in ‘The Sculptor’, in which MacKinnon presents the permanent dissociation between the creator and creation of art:
He sculpts his selkie
oot o friestane
She belongs to the water
but is tethered here in stane
Not only is MacKinnon a worthy writer to open the collection, this selection of her poetry is a fantastic introduction to her work.
The second section showcases the work of Finola Scott, whose poetry finds likeness with MacKinnon’s in terms of its emotion and lyricism but is also more grounded in reality and the here and now. Scott opens with the poem ‘Stane Dyke’, which centres on the process of building the titular earthwork and is speckled with the names of rocks and minerals likely to be found while digging rocks to make the dyke. Scott intertwines these two elements with lyrical flair to present an interesting form of concrete poetry, with the lines used to build a wall on the page.
Scott’s ability for intertwining different threads is highlighted again in ‘Cheeky Burdies’, which focuses on the victims of the World’s End murders in 1977. As the poem moves forward, Scott weaves in lines from the nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’, the magpie lore used to extend and deepen the notes of grief that the poem contains.
Scott writes eloquently on disaster in various forms (‘Rangers Supporters Club’, ‘Kirkintilloch’, ‘Fanatics’), but is also an adept writer of comic poetry as seen in ‘Younkers’, a discussion on an annoying youth on the bus, ‘Metal? Mair like Mental!’, which ridicules the hobby of metal-detecting, and ‘Kate O’Shanter Considers Tam’, a well-deserved jibe at Burns’s infamous wandering husband.
However, it is when Scott presses on the different shades of human emotion that her poetry excels, best exemplified in ‘Hert Gled’:
In the mirk-derk we huadsae
Deep in ma hert
time stauns still
Scott’s poems showcase her skill for moving between different styles of writing and the breadth of her linguistic ability.
While Irene Howat’s work approaches the world differently compared to MacKinnon and Scott, at its core is the same sense of humanity and emotional intelligence. War and its associated fallout is explored in a range of poems, with each one examining the human impact of conflict through the lens of the personal, the social and/or the national. In ‘Robbie’, the reader is made witness to the repercussions of war on an individual’s life – ‘The hame Ah’d wearit for wisnae samen / The bairn Ah’d dremed o wis feart o me’ – while ‘Wundit’ zooms out to consider its social impact: ‘Naebodie wan the waur, ma lass / Awbdie wis wundit’. In ‘The Ferst Warld Waur’, Howat emphasises the heartless attitude of nations towards their citizens, the deaths of ‘7,000,000 ither fowk’ a poignant echo of governments that reduce the loss of human lives down to mere statistics:
The pellock that felled Franz Ferdinand
Skited roon the warld
fellin, in roon nummers
7,000,000 ither fowk
War and its devastating impact is balanced by the religious faith that Howat weaves through her work either directly (‘Jesus Minds an Unnerstauns’, ‘The Ferst Hymn’) or indirectly (‘The Ballad o Murdoch Nisbit’). Faith is evidently something dear to Howat’s life, portrayed across these poems with honest, open love.
What links all three poets is their lyrical ability, the evocative images conjured by their mastery of Scots, and a ken of the human condition that is evident throughout this collection. modren makars: yin is well worth reading, and I look forward to future collections to come.
modren makars: yin is published by Tapsalteerie