Tracy Patrick is a Paisley poet. This term has historical roots but has been gaining greater contemporary significance in the Scottish writing scene for some decades, with its members now publishing and performing regularly throughout Scotland and beyond it. Not a single group but a collection of individuals who sometimes perform together and sometimes separately, they have been called part of the ‘individualist’ school by the scholar and poet Alan MacGillivray, meaning that their shared ethos is the search for the poetry of each single poet’s voice. In this, they take the stance that poetry springs from the everyday and the local in the language of a communal culture, a statement that springs from Tom Leonard’s explosive debut with Six Glasgow Poems in the 1960s, and the flyting between Trocchi and MacDiarmid at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers Conference.
Other than this commitment, the Paisley individualists, as their name suggests, share no single purpose or approach – though they are often experimental, radical or subversive. Leonard’s work with The Itinerant Poets in the 1980s – Graham Fulton, Jim Ferguson, Bobby Christie and the late Renfrewshire Makar Brian Whittingham among them – provided the initial impetus. Years of reading and performance events in and around their hometown has furthered the cause. A more recent catalyst has been the establishment of the Paisley Book Festival, which has brought outside recognition and a national profile to the town’s arts and cultural life.
Patrick’s work is one of the most consistent elements of the movement. Over the last fifteen or so years she has been a consistent creative presence in the town’s poetry and cultural events. She is also active in other networks such as The Scottish Writers’ Centre at the CCA and Glasgow Mirrorball, where she won a mentorship with the Clydebuilt Programme. Her publications include Wild Eye Fire Eye, a collection based on animal figures in Celtic art, religion and myth, and Blushing is for Sinners, her debut novel published in 2019 and commended by the Saltire First Book Award. Her website shares links to her articles on subjects as wide-ranging as eco-fiction, Stefan Zweig, Paisley’s First Wave Feminists and Dugald Smith, the Hermit of Linwood Moss.
However diverse this seems, Patrick’s work centres on deep interests: ecology, animal rights, the need for sustainability and approaching environmental disaster. Recently, she has published Braw Lads are Marching Awa, a collection of poetry by working-class Paisley writers (the parents, siblings and soldiers of the First World War) for local newspapers, in what is perhaps a conscious echo of Leonard’s Radical Renfrew, the book that insists that the local is universal and that a town’s history can reach out to others across Scotland.
Still, none of Patrick’s other work quite prepares the reader for Portrait, Patrick’s first full collection published by Earth Love in 2022. A sample of the praise which greeted this cry from the heart tells much. ‘Fearless in its subject matter’ (A. C. Clarke); ‘One of the finest collections of poems … in modern Scotland’ (Dr Jim Ferguson); ‘A brave and authentic rendering of tested living’ (Donny O’Rourke). These are serious recommendations from critics who do not flatter and they acknowledge the fact that, with this collection, Patrick moves to a different level of poetry.
The change is that the poet places centre stage a subject she says little of in her other work. That subject is herself, and her dialogue in these poems is with the organ of her body most associated with life, love and death. Diagnosed with genetic cardiomyopathy in 2014, Patrick devoted her work to coming to terms with her condition and making that struggle into art. Portrait looks at every angle and plane of how she lives now: how she and her heart need each other, how they depend on each other, yearn for life and love and for other people, like all of us. Hers is an inherited condition, and here and there are poems about family. In ‘By Proxy’ she asks her father (who died of the same illness at thirty five) to send her a message. In ‘Eryngium Alpinum’, ‘a mother’s endurance is many thorned’, while a heart awaiting its transplant ‘is a child trying its / very best to be good’ in ‘Incubator’. The precision of Patrick’s phrases can make them devastating. In ‘Proximations’, which is about the awkwardness of waiting, she feels ‘the tree branch and swinging rope / the sudden suspension.’ Other poems seem based in a past: a layer of dirt that keeps out reality (‘Soap’); sinking from fractured reality into ‘the coolness of the tomb’ (‘Cross-hatching’). A corpse slowly regenerates like a cast-off tree in a garden (‘Metanoia’).
Several other poems also deal with the idea of something cast off – a piece of driftwood, a move into yet another temporary home. Isolation, but not loneliness, is an underlying theme. In ‘Self-Sufficient’, the poet seems to see her alter ego on a beach, an echo presence which is also herself, and waits with her for the sea to speak. There are others where an unexpected sense of humour breaks through between the terror and hope, while the image of the crow, the harbinger, flies from poem to poem. O’Rourke’s ‘tough but tender’ comment hits the target. There is steel of thought and serious attention to form here: and, within those borders, sensitivity, tolerance and respect. It is this contrast that can make Patrick’s poems so affecting. In other places, the poet gives vent to anger at once scathing and measured (‘Someone Else’). Another quality is subtle subversiveness: ‘In your hands I will drift like bone-dust’ (‘Smitten’). She can bring these even to things supposed eternal: ‘It is limited, this certainty’ (‘Another Night’). Patrick undermines every cliché about life, death and sex and refuses to look away from the truth of any of them. She finds the position she is willing to defend in all her predicaments and will not let herself off the hook. Her pen ‘incinerates at the end of a dishonest sentence’ (‘Lessons of Fire’).
The cover painting by artist Louise Malone shows pieces of a face: intent eyes, a mouth open in a scream or a shout. The book is indeed a portrait of a watchful, painstaking intelligence transforming passion and pain into something beyond itself. Portrait is not a comforting read but a true one and it ends, appropriately, with a kind of rebirth. Lovers of Scottish poetry will be hard-pressed to find a better collection this year.