My friend the Scottish poet Maggie Mackay has written a pamphlet (The Heart of the Run, Picaroon poetry) which is both moving and thoughtful. Mackay places her deceased mother at the centre of the collection, but it is maternal presence rather than absence that dominates; she – the poet’s mother – sits beside the poems like a ghost, in fact she enfolds them the way the dressing gown enfolds the poet in the opening ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’: “Wrap yourself in Mum’s dressing gown, its envelope-hug.” So the reader is left with a sense that the poems themselves are evoking (we might almost say ‘summoning’ as ‘The Glaistig’ is almost summoned in the poem of that name) a departed and much-missed presence for Mackay. These elegiac poems bookend the collection (the final ‘Ghazal’ builds hauntingly with the repetition of “precious mother” but ultimately becomes an expression of the acceptance of mortality as much as a lament: “as you call from the edge of my bed, fly to me, Margaret.”) and the mother figure punctuates the poems throughout, but this is by no means a single-theme collection. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the pamphlet is the unexpected directions it takes. Having started off strongly with two initial poems of Scottish whiskey and myth, the reader might expect the Gaelic motifs to continue, but instead we are whisked off to Tsovkra-1, a Russian village where everyone can walk the tightrope (‘We are Tightrope Walkers from Tsovkra-1’), and then straight away at another tangent to the 16th century and Hernan Cortés twisting a flamenco out of the heat of a chilli (in the wonderfully effective ‘Chilli Peppers’). But as surprising and delightful as these shifts of direction are, they are always linked (Cortés’s “full circle skirt spins” bring him back to the “peppers of the Caucasus”, and the rope image flows through to the subsequent ‘Rope Walk’, a brief but heady evocation of early 1800s Edinburgh and the “stramash of creameries”, the “Rough language” and the “filthy / demonstrations of tumultuous joy” at the Grassmarket Ball. The cumulative effect is of being on a mystery tour in space and time with a guide who knows exactly what they want to show you and why.
Sometimes these ‘linked leaps’ between juxtaposed poems are gentle, and they click into place like the pieces of a jigsaw (I notice especially the lovely, quiet rumination on genetic inheritance and social class that runs between ‘Gardener Grafting on the Estate’: “Gran lives on in the bairn”; and ‘Paisley Pattern’: “A man dies in 1943, gifting prewired traces of movement / to his great granddaughter… // enduring past tuberculosis, factory smoke, malnutrition”). But equally there are occasions when the leap is far more jolting, and sometimes shocking. Immediately after the previously quoted poems we find a peaceful though emotionally loaded moment between sisters beside a loch in ‘this place is everything but dull’ (portraying microcosmic moments from larger unseen dramas and tragedies is one of Mackay’s strengths because she succeeds in the difficult skill of allowing the reader to fill in the ‘macro’ for themselves – providing just enough but not too much information). Then the subsequent poem (‘It’s like being thrown in the washing machine again’) takes the water theme and spins it into the violent and almost surreal image of a child being trapped in a washing machine by his mother. Whether the image is intended purely metaphorically or based in literal truth is unclear, but the appalling power of the image remains, unforgettably conjuring familial fear, disturbed mental health and a sickening sense of betrayal and bullying. The violence here is actually unrepresentative of a very peaceful collection, but it is all the starker (and becomes all the more central to the pamphlet as a body of poetry) as a result.
Another poem, ‘Fitch’, evokes not so much the threat of violence as a latent and potentially difficult feminine strength represented by the disciplinary possessiveness of the nominally ‘browbeating’ mid-twentieth-century ‘wife’. Mackay’s mother (I assume I am correct in interpreting the mother in all these poems as the poet’s actual mother – and I think from what I know of Maggie that I am) is transformed into the eponymous ‘fitch’ or polecat, “our solitary hunter” who prowls angrily through the poem “…returned to seek out / her ghost husband”, and who “drags” her spouse back home from the library “by the scruff of his neck, / flicking her tail in the scramble over rockery and log pile”. The imagery here is inspired, demolishing the comic stereotype of a ‘battleaxe’ and replacing it (we might even say liberating it) with an intensely powerful sense of female territorialism. “Musk charges the room”, indeed. And when she returns to the kitchen “as a wife might, pressing office shirts”, she is not just ‘doing the ironing’ but “wielding an iron” and there is a world of difference in this wording.
For its clashes and threads, its rich, unexpected imagery and not least for the dazzling colours that run through it (which I have not even mentioned but do so now to tantalise the potential reader) this is a great read, and I would encourage anyone to pick up a copy. I very much look forward to a longer collection in the future.