From the stillness of these pages comes Jim Mackintosh’s voice – bold, tender, authoritative, reflective – recreating in Scots a story of friendship, travel, reminiscence, resilience and above all, a shared perspective and fierce assertion of the rights, beauty and dignity of humankind.
The Banes o The Turas has its roots in Turas Viaggio, a collection of poetry by fellow poet, composer and musician Sardinian Pino Mereu, who now lives in Rome. Mereu is perhaps best known in Scotland for his trilogy At Hame Wi’ Freedom, about the life and work of Hamish Henderson, a close friend whom he visited often.
Mackintosh’s collection revisits and evokes in Scots some of the landmarks in the time Mereu and Henderson spent together – from the ‘Spittal o Glenshee’ to ‘Porto Palo di Capo Passero’, site of the Allied Landing in 1943 in Sicily; ‘Testaccio’ in Rome, to ‘Wormit’ and ‘Balmerino’ in Fife. Places where much was shared and mutual admiration grew. What emerges through Mackintosh’s own deep emotional investment and precise, meaningful poetic crafting is an elegant, resolute and often poignant collection. The Banes is the triumphant articulation of the poetic will to write amidst what Mackintosh refers to in his introduction as ‘The Covid bourach’.
2019 had been a year of remembrance by Scotland’s artistic world, ‘embracing the precious legacy’ of Hamish Henderson born one hundred years earlier; a year of gatherings and celebrations. For Mackintosh, Pino Mereu’s contribution was especially significant. In his introduction to The Banes o The Turas, he explains that nothing had prepared him for the ‘overspill of emotion’ that enveloped him as he listened to Mereu read in his own native Sardinian and Roman Italian: the earthy, gloopy richness of his vibrant Sardo, the mellifluous flow of la lingua romana as he evoked time, landscape, suffering and massacre. The ‘vocalising’ (vowels impinging on consonants) as is the nature of Southern Italian languages, earthing and giving an intense immediacy to the readings, worked its magic. In the gloom of those long Covid hours as lockdown followed, the Muse teased and tantalised, until Mackintosh finally turned to the ‘solidity of books’ and took Mereu’s book, Turas Viaggio, off the shelf. ‘Those dark hours creeping into empty days then slow weeks’ of lockdown nurtured Mackintosh’s spirit and creative output and he welcomed in ‘the eternal carrying stream’ – that literary link and communion as one generation of great poets follows and celebrates another.
It was the sound primarily of Mereu reading his poetry that drew Mackintosh to his work; in the same way I found that, in reading Mackintosh’s poetry aloud, wonderful Scots words and images resonated for me, much in the way of the old italian of my childhood, probing a deeper truth. Any language of intimacy reunites us with our roots, reminds us of who we are. To be addressed, to read and hear poems in a language rooted within us, connects and unites; is personal, bewitching, tantalisingly beguiling, and seductive. More generally like Sardo or Occitan, Scots is the keeper of a distinct, precious culture, lifestyle and a unique world-view. We need look no further than a language, its sayings and turn of phrase to find philosophy often accompanied by a wry humour. This is true of Sardinian, Neapolitan, la ciociarìa in Lazio and is to be found in Mackintosh’s work: ‘bourach’, for example; ‘The green limbs poking out as if boakit’, crude and funny; and ‘See thae stanes / they make a braw wa… / us blethering about thaim aa day’. The Banes has its own music too and its blunt muscularity from Mackintosh’s pen comes as well as a language both ancient and couthy, eloquent poems of enormous grace and quiet dignity.
Mackintosh describes The Banes o The Turas as an ‘owersettin’, the ‘laying of one language on to the base of another; a creative rather than a literal translation; a poetical engagement’. Working from Ruggero Frezza’s translation, Mackintosh has honoured but also transformed. Side by side with Viaggio, its fons origo, they appear seamless but in lifting imagery from its original Italian setting and casting it in a way that is entirely at home in Scots, Mackintosh has created a collection that draws its energy and breath from within itself.
The wind tigs yer face
dauts yer mou
while words drop saft
bu the first spill o the day
(il vento accarezza il viso
sfiora le labbra mentre
le parole is spezzano tremanti
al primo racconto del giorno)
(the wind caresses your face(‘Dunira, Comrie’)
brushes your lips while
words tremble and break into pieces
at the first account of the day).
‘Tigs’ is playfully intimate while ‘accarezza’ can be translated as gently romantic; ‘dauts’ is a caress while ‘sfiora’ is a light touch; ‘le parole si spezzano tremanti’, words fracture at the first account of the day, while words ‘drap saft bi the first spill o the day’ … such a glorious image of a gentle dawn. In both versions, though different, we stand in stillness observing an observer; the only movement is the wind and the shy rising of day.
In the second stanza of ‘Balmerino’, there is no mention of autumn as in Viaggio but instead ‘the back-en o cloods / fu tae the gunnels wi watter’. When reading the Italian and the Scots, though the seasons change differently, in both a new season hovers.
To read The Banes is to succumb to stillness, to hauntings, to memorial, to meditation; to what endures and to our own capacity for feeling: the snake in ‘Anzio’ –
maumie an langin, weytin bi
the warm wind
afore gien way tae the souff o mindins.
In Wormit, ‘the river Tay eases doon tae the muckle sea’ –
a harbour, like a bield
fer ma inner-maist thochts; withoot a wird
the weet stane hauds
the warm air.
In ‘Porto Palo di Capo Passero’, ‘Viva Scozzesi, Bravi I Scozzesi’, with a farewell to Sicily in beautiful Sicilian, ‘Mi votu e mi rivotu / Li venneri matinu’ (‘I turn and turn again’), a backward look at Viaggio, an ancient love song to Sicily and an outstretched hand to a friend with the same passion for justice will both arrest and affect. One is left with great vistas, with echoes of sea, song and The Siege of Delhi; with window panes and the flutter of butterfly wings seeking escape:
flees, flees, flees
fin yer wey
ma bonny butterflee o Dunira
Given the inspiration for The Banes o The Turas, there will be some, undoubtedly, who would have wished for the inclusion of the Italian text in Tippermuir’s publication. However, what we have is a full-blooded collection of poems in Scots which more than fulfils its mission and can be read independently of it. Not only will it pique the interest of Scots readers in the work of Mereu and his links with Henderson but we have as well a thrilling dialogue and live dynamic between languages, cultures and poets past and present; in Henderson’s words, a ‘poesis’.
What has emerged from this historic collaboration is a work of distinction and literary merit from a living bard which will outlive its generation; which, in the noble spirit of all Enlightenments, looks across national frontiers; and which will find its place on the shelves of the very best of Scottish and European literature.
The Banes o The Turas (2022) is published by Tippermuir Books