‘Margaret Tait – Poems, Stories and Writings’, ed. by Sarah Neely

Why did I, as a reasonably well-read Highlander myself, a person who grew up in the Highlands and studied Scottish literature alongside other literatures […] only come across my first Margaret Tait poems and films as recently as two or three years ago?

Ali Smith wrote this in LUX’s Margaret Tait Reader in 2004, and twenty years later, as I approached a review of the current collection, it is (with some editing) still entirely accurate. I – with accommodation of my Lowlander status, and without intent to claim the same stakes, position or influence as Ali Smith – had never heard of Margaret Tait’s (1918–1999) work, either as a film-maker or a poet, at any point in my nearly thirteen years of work in the Scottish poetry scene. 

It is from this starting point, facing down the very notable absence of Tait’s work in the general awareness, the poetic pop culture, that this collection seeks to build on. This would already be a complex and difficult task if Sarah Neely were merely dealing with the work of a poet, or a writer, or a filmmaker. Given Tait’s polyphonic creative pursuits, and the manifold ways that they supported, fed into and from each other and intertwined themselves during her life, the task grows almost Sisyphean. What this current collection does, and does with aplomb, is provide a genuinely varied and enticing introduction to a whole host of forms of artistry from Tait.

Sarah Neely opens the book with an extensive overview of Margaret Tait as both person and artist and succeeds in giving a snapshot of the most important and crucial elements of Tait’s life (both her time “pre” poet and filmmaker, when Tait was a doctor and member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, as well as the different forms of creative output and Tait’s career progression, if I may be forgiven such an inept word to describe her movement from photography, poetry, film and back again as she sought her fullest creative expression). The introduction both demonstrates how Tait’s creative work fits into the broader scope of her life, and places her life against the Scottish literary and artistic landscape that she lived in and around. 

The task of presenting a comprehensive introduction to Tait’s work is made much harder by her multidisciplinary art. It would be virtually impossible to successfully explore and express all of the creative expressions in a fair and balanced way, but Sarah Neely has made some excellent selections. The collection is divided into three sections of writings. The first includes poems previously published in the collections origins and elements (1959), Subjects and Sequences (1960), and The Hen and the Bees (1960) alongside a series of uncollected and unpublished poems. A modest selection of three short stories forms the second section, and then a series of excerpts and articles Tait wrote about both her own film work, but also more broadly film in general.

Elevating the collection is the decision to incorporate quotes and allusions to Tait’s own journals and notebooks alongside photographs taken by Tait, stills from some of Tait’s films, and most importantly, photographs of Tait herself. The incorporation of these additional elements helps connect Tait’s poetry with her visual work, which were never too distinct in her own considerations. 

In the introduction, Neely comments that Tait ‘felt that there was too much emphasis on her and not enough on her films’, and what artist doesn’t feel this way. To turn then to the art presented in the collection: Tait’s poetry is given the focus of the book, with one hundred pages devoted to it. And the style and substance of the poetry more than justifies this. Given her background in science and medical science specifically, it is no surprise that her work (at least in the origins and elements selections) contains many scientific allusions. This is not to say that the writing is academic in its content or tone, but that – in a way that her film making also supports – Tait’s writing comes from a more disconnected vantage point, and in so doing is able to take aim at the emotional heart with a unique candor. 

In the poem ‘Sound of Children Sobbing’, she writes:

So, they cried,
And whoever heard them
Just knew
That it was true

Or the opening lines of ‘Allison’:

My friend is dead, my sweet sweet sister is gone,
But her coat still hangs on the wall
And her younger son runs along the lobby
To look round the bedroom door.
‘Away,’ he remarks, in baby disappointment, ‘away, away, away!’

As Neely mentions in the introduction, for Tait, as a creative, the act of creating was more important often than the creation itself, as evidenced in ‘Now’:

The thing about poetry is you have to keep doing it.
People have to keep making it.
The old stuff is no use
Once it’s old.
It comes out of the instant
And lasts for an instant. 

Whether writing about carbon, Nordic gods, family, Scotland, loss, love or dogs (and her distaste for them), Tait’s poetry is a fleeing vision of an instant that is captured exactly as experienced and committed to the page, and her wry eye for the world and its machinery is a delight to read again and again. 

Tait’s writing on film is an eye-opening exploration of what goes into making film, but not in a nitpicking elaboration of the machinery, but the mechanic of creating film. In the excerpt ‘Time’, Tait discusses her fascination with capturing the opening of a flower, really truly capturing it, and how arduous, ultimately impossible and yet captivating it is to do so, as a filmmaker. In her non-fiction, she discusses the communities in Italy she made film with, her attitudes to certain directors, the facilitation of film festivals (and her own exploits in this region with her discussions on her Rose Street studio). 

Every selection made by Sarah Neely forms part of an extensive tapestry. As noted above, it is impossible to capture the fullness of Tait’s work in a slim volume like this, but the way that Neely uses the poems and stories and non-fiction to cast light on each other and make the breadth of Tait’s genius and skill evident ensures that this collection is one that you will return to over and over, and will drive you to seek more of Tait’s work, be it poem or film. And what better response to the Ali Smith quote above could there be.

Margaret Tait – Poems, Stories and Writings is published by Carcanet Press

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