Bob Horne, on ‘Landscape’ from Ross Kightly’s Gnome Balcony
Landscape and Norman MacCaig, so the poet tells us, get along together well. So do landscape and Ross Kightly, but whereas MacCaig seeks Schiehallions anywhere, and climbs them, Kightly’s narrator is content with the ‘easy sheep slopes’ of existence.
Not for him excesses of temperature and topography. In a series of extravagantly chiming (and ironically comic) couplets he expresses his disdain for those archetypal seekers after extremes, addicted to Arctic ice floes, ‘slime-green dank dark crab-scuttling/ coastal caverns’ or ‘razor-edged ridges of mountain ranges’. The obvious delight in creating word-pictures is in inverse proportion to the allure of these edges of existence.
In the second half of the poem we leave behind the glut of Gothic imagery and enter a fairytale world. There is no need to ‘tackle’ the inhospitable; it is possible now to ‘walk’ where there are ‘nice houses’ and a ‘swallow barn’, where gates open and close. Yes, there is a ‘rocky slope’ but it holds no threat. Even the ‘gorse lair of the Woolly Wolf’ suggests a benign protector rather than a dissembling predator on the vulnerable. And at the end is a gentle descent to ‘the coast the mere and the castle’. The castle is probably made of gingerbread.
However, the ‘easy’ walk passes ‘the wind-torn lone thorn’, lent significance by its definite article. A landmark in the landscape. This is the ‘wind-warped upland thorn’ of Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, the ‘sharp hawthorn’ through which the ‘hurricanoes’ blow in King Lear. It is a resonant and recurring symbol of the resilience of the human spirit.
Moreover, the narrator is not alone, and this is important. Green pastures and companionship are an endless reassurance to one who has lived in the fringes of wilderness. He knows they will ‘never ever fail us’.