Creatures of the mind, rather than characters of fiction, inhabit poetry.
They are the breathing ellipses of imagination: brief encounters on the page but long-term residents in the mind. The splendid and specific pleasure in reading and rereading these two new collections by significant Scottish poets is that both are observers of the old made new, and all their creatures have character.
Kathleen Jamie's sixth collection declares its aim as ambition in the very first poem, The Beach: "all of us/ hoping for the marvellous,/ all hankering for a changed life". Then we travel with the author through Five Tay Sonnets. The creatures that are our guides are a pair of ospreys, back "from Senegal, just to hit a teuchit storm". An expected presence, "there'll be a few glad whispers round town today:/ that's them, baith o' them, they're in". In May we are beneath "A fire-streaked sky, a firth/ decked in gold". A "firth" that becomes, in Doing Away, "a lovers' bed with the sheets stripped back// baring its sandbanks, its streamy rivulets,/ the whole thing shining/ like an Elfland".
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The "shining" continues throughout the 35 poems that conjugate this beautifully paced concatenation of sensations. The ephemeral hawk becomes an epiphany of loss in Hawk And Shadow: "being out of sorts/ with my so-called soul- I played fast and loose:/ keeping one in sight/ while forsaking the other". In the multi-layered The Stags, the personal "man-woman smell" of reality takes on a rewarding political undertow. It opens with "the multitude, the beasts/ you wanted to show me, drawing me/ upstream" to "lift to my sight/ our shared country, lead me deeper/ into what you know," before poignantly concluding "sure I'll go with you,/ as I would now, almost anywhere".
A final beautiful evocation is in Roses with its closing line introduced by the words of Rosa Luxemburg: "'I haggle for my little/ portion of happiness,' says each flower, equal, in the scented mass."
Stewart Conn, Edinburgh's first Makar, has in recent years published selected poems with a small press publication between more substantial collections from his mainstream publisher Bloodaxe. Mariscat Press has been his inspired home for these compact selections, with The Loving Cup (2007) leading to the new work under review. Hamish Whyte, begetter and minder of Mariscat, shows scrupulous attention to textual detail married to placement on the page in all his titles. This time-consuming but rewarding imperative is particularly suited for these mainly valedictory poems.
These are poems of "lives held momentarily/ in abeyance". Moments when "our younger selves/ (need) to be revived as in those early/ photos". A caught snapshot of passengers on a liner hearing of a death among them "wondering/ will they detect any increase in/ the tenancy of the starry heavens".
The third poem, In The Palazzo, is a memorable evocation of familiar companionship. "Alone in the room, concentration/ unbroken – / your presence// adds in a wider frame such intimacy/ and dimension as lastingly convey/ all that it means to you, and you to me".
The other poems are gentle moments of empathy. Fellow feeling with the Irish giant Charles Byrne and a maimed dog enjoying moments on a beach. In Interloper, there is a visitor, a familiar, in the garden. "Dishevelled as ever... he struts the window sill... then drawing attention to his missing pinion/ launches himself lopsidedly into the air". So, in comradely fashion, the character/author sitting at his desk watches this, his creature, "get on with hauling the sun across the sky".