‘Dastram / Delirium’, by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and Taylor Strickland

This little book contains twenty-one poems by Taylor Strickland about love and sex, based on Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s ‘Moladh Mòraig’ and ‘Moladh air Sàr Bhod’, along with four poems by Strickland about war and nature, based on ‘Òran don Phrionnsa’ and ‘Allt an t-Siùcair’. In every case the bit of Gaelic verse on which the English poem is based is presented on the facing page.

In an introduction, Strickland describes his work as ‘subversive translation’. This immediately reminded me of James Macpherson’s translations of the Ossianic ballads, which have been held to ‘ascribe to Gaelic literature the reverse of every quality it really has’. Strickland’s renderings of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair do not go so far as that, but they certainly run the gauntlet between bad translation, bold adaptation and good original verse. One wonders in fact if an alternative to the ‘subversive translation’ concept could have been that favourite preposition of poetry collections, ‘after’, as in ‘after Shakespeare’ or ‘after Tennyson’.

Generally speaking, I found Strickland’s poems of war and nature more successful than his poems of love and sex. I finished the book wanting more war and nature, less love and sex. I enjoyed ‘Dream of Victory’, which ends with this description of a redcoat’s tricorn: ‘What is that broken over his head? / A cocked hat, liked charred cabbage.’ I also enjoyed ‘Trout’, which ends with a description of dancing flies:

they broke nature’s laws
in scales of light:
agility bejeweled
gill-brilliant, blue.

Both of these poems are broadly faithful to the imagery of the original. So, too, are many of the poems of love and sex, especially ‘Hands down’, ‘Now let’s raise the tone’, ‘My question answered’, ‘I notice sadness grows’, ‘Your edges soft’, ‘All ears as my spirit’, ‘Your hair’, ‘I left you and you left’, and ‘Luck extends to you’. Nine items.

Strickland updates Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s originals in various ways. In ‘Dream of Victory’ a bealach (mountain pass) becomes a switchback. In ‘All ears as my spirit’, pìobaireachd seems to turn into opera:

a standing ovation as
the house is brought down
to its knees.

(What inspired the ‘knees’ image I have no idea – there are no knees in the original.) And in ‘I notice sadness grows’ Strickland deals with a pile-up of adjectives describing the girl’s hair – a favourite technique of Gaelic poets – by turning them into nouns like ‘curls’ and ‘waves’, then

every ring and satin tress
uncoils, loops back as silken
rope fastened round my neck.

This is good, though not entirely original. Sorley MacLean did something similar in his lines

Air dara tobhta ’n fhuaraidh
shuidh thu, luaigh, ’nam chòir
agus do ròp laist cuailein
mu m’ chrìdh ’na shuaineadh òir.

(‘On the second thwart to windward, / darling, you sat near me, / and your lit rope of hair / about my heart, a winding of gold.’)

Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was a master of metaphor. In ‘subversive translation’ it is equally legitimate, I suppose, to take a metaphor from the original, or to invent a new one. So for example, Alasdair’s ineffable blend of sex and music includes mention of the piper’s essential tool, his lùdag (pinkie), and in ‘Heads turn’ Strickland picks this up in his lines ‘Her / pinkie bursts off yet somehow plays on’. Then in ‘Your edges soft’ there is this intriguing metaphor:

you’re more
flawless than
your flaws convey

– which is pure Strickland, though certainly provoked by Alasdair’s remark that Mòrag is Gun ainnis, gun fhòtas ‘With no want or grossness’. On the other hand, ‘Your hair’ concludes with a wonderful metaphor, but it is entirely Strickland’s:

tearing off old shirts
and everything just
to dress ourselves
in each other.

There are in fact many other examples of a complete lack of connection between Alasdair and Strickland. The first nine lines of ‘Your hair’ are totally new, provoked by something in Strickland’s head. In ‘Pity not being in the wood’ the poet is in the company of a number of girls, even though only one, Morag, is mentioned in the original. And sometimes Strickland adopts a tone which is all his own. In ‘Not since I first rooked’ we find:

Lili’s eyelids glowed
but she, nor any other, has the deeper
stare that Morag has – a stare
warm enough to bathe in.

To me, the word ‘stare’ is pejorative. There’s nothing like it in the original. And then in ‘Heads turn’ Strickland speaks of ‘this girl who delights in having eyes / all over her’. That reminds me of the promiscuous woman dispraised in ‘Mìomholadh Mòraig’, a poem which has led to Alasdair being accused of misogyny, yet ‘Heads turn’ is presented as a translation of a bit of ‘Moladh Mòraig’, which consists of wholehearted praise. Then in ‘If I wasn’t shackled’ Strickland says that Morag’s feet are ‘like a bridal stool’s’. To compare a girl’s feet to furniture isn’t much of a compliment, but at least we can see where he is coming from, for Alasdair has said that he will place his heart aig stòlaibh a cas, which I would understand as ‘at her footstools’, referring to a wedding-night custom. Again, in ‘Free me’ Strickland ends by saying to Morag:

My undertaker,
you lay down over me
like clay in the kirkyard.

Whit? Does he realise how bad this sounds? Certainly there’s an explanation in the original, for Alasdair has said that, Morag having stolen his heart and strength, cuiridh i sa chill / fo na fòdaibh mi (‘she’ll put me in the churchyard / underneath the sods’). But that doesn’t mean that Morag herself is sods, the poor wee soul.

There’s another possible misunderstanding in ‘Eyes like blue dewberry’, where Strickland says:

as flour stoneground
her powdery top, and under –
her soft pubic song.

I suppose as ‘Moladh Mòraig’ is a poem of the 1730s, Strickland is thinking of Morag wearing a huge powdered wig and nothing else. Fine, but what Alasdair has said is Shuas cho mìn ri plùr, / Shìos garbh mo chulaidh-chiùil (‘Above, as soft as flour; / Below, sturdy’s my music-maker’). An upstairs-downstairs metaphor, certainly, but a wigless one. I hope Strickland hasn’t confused mìn ‘soft’ with min ‘flour’. Similarly, in ‘Heads turn’, I can’t help wondering if the word fhoirmeile had turned his head in Alasdair’s line Na b’ fhoirmeile nach sireamaid (‘We couldn’t ask for anything livelier’). Why did he translate this as ‘No surprise she’s a formalist’?

Then there are obscurities, as in ‘Delirium’:

how she snuffs out
her own flint-spark glow,
and in one white bite
hewn from snow.

I have no idea what that means, and the original is no help. Certainly Alasdair uses the words air lasadh ‘aglow’ and sneachda ‘snow’ at this point, but his meaning is transparent, while Strickland’s is opaque. Something similar happens in ‘No I don’t care’, where Morag is described as being ‘among that uncommon / prayer spanning Lewis to Mull’. Alasdair mentions Lewis and Mull, but that’s as far as the similarity goes.

Sometimes this reviewer needed Alasdair’s originals to help him understand Strickland – a luxury not afforded to all readers, unfortunately. ‘You hide’ ends:

no snow atop
Cruachan’s hind-field
starves this fire
of mind.

A quick check of the Gaelic opposite shows that the metaphor does indeed mean that even all the snow on Ben Cruachan isn’t enough to put out the fire in the poet’s mind. The first line of another poem is a bit harder: ‘Sick off the sweetmeat we make of each other.’ What Alasdair says here is Tha ’n saoghal làn de smaoint / Innean feòlmhor (‘The world is full of thoughts / Of concupiscence’). Which helps us get to where Strickland is – in a more Rabelaisian place altogether, with a hint of vomit. But a different contrast between Alasdair and Strickland is revealed in ‘Give it up’. Here, Alasdair’s imageChithinn mu m’ choinneimh / A cìochan le coinnil (‘I’d see before me / Her breasts lit by a candle’) has extraordinary erotic power. Strickland turns it into ‘right before my eyes / her neckline, candlelit’. Bowdlerisation?

Finally, there are a couple of places where Strickland seems to introduce a moral judgement where Alasdair offers none. One is in ‘Sidereal lass’ where Morag is said to ‘Keep secrets / when you’ve been bad’ (‘you’ being Morag). The other, more subtly, is where we are told of Allt an t-Siùcair that ‘this stream / carries virtue / and virtue this stream’. Seeing this, I looked for the word buaidh in Alasdair’s original, and found buadhan ‘virtues, qualities’ – a different concept and a much less philosophical one. There is nothing wrong with Strickland’s poem, which is excellent: but it is certainly ‘subversive translation’. As it says on the tin.

This is an absorbing collection which will entertain those readers who have no interest in concepts of translation as well as those who do. Whether it does any favours to the reputation of Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, one of Scotland’s finest poets, is another matter.

Dastram / Delirium is published by Broken Sleep Books

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Ronald Black

Ronald Black is a former Senior Lecturer in Celtic in the University of Edinburgh and the editor of An Lasair / The Flame: An Anthology of Eighteenth-century Gaelic Verse (Birlinn, 2019).

More articles by Ronald Black

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