Kettillonia, 2009 £4.50
Reviewed by Rob A Mackenzie, James Roderick Burns and Eleanor Livingstone
Rob A Mackenzie:
Hem and Heid contains myths, translations, ballads of love and tragedy, and a lyrical, earthy wisdom that occasionally borders on the oracular. The poems aren’t at all preachy, but they’re not afraid to be blunt, as in the excellent opening poem, ‘Oot o This Life’:
Though daith is in the first braith ye tak,
Ye maun aye tak a braith or dee.
Ye can girn or greit or fecht or thole
But ye canna dae ocht but be.
Most of this pamphlet’s ‘ballads, sangs, saws and poems’ are as direct, memorable, and musical as that. James Robertson makes metre and rhyme look easy and is adept at creating subtle variations in rhythm. In ‘Tod’ (inspired by Joni Mitchell’s song, Coyote), a pet dog catches sight of his fox-cousin and ponders on the freedom he may have missed but hasn’t quite given up on, even when he sees one dead at the side of a road:
It means ye’ve nae plans yet tae retire
It tells me we’re niver dune till we’re cauld
And we’re niver cauld till we canna shine
Lit up wi the licht o ambition’s slow slow fire
The final line, which closes each of the four stanzas, slows the pace and draws attention to the poem’s central themes of ambition and the close kinship of abundant life and death. The vocabulary and syntax are simple but the ideas are subtle and haunting. There’s humour, although it too applies itself to the themes:
They used tae cry ye vermin, Tod
Till the PC crew got yer name aff that leet
They’d award ye a social worker and rights
If only ye’d settle and gie up meat
The final poem in the pamphlet, ‘The Bluidy Sarks’, concerns the acquisition by Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery in 1892 of a Sioux ghost shirt and its subsequent, controversial return in 1999. The poem is in six sections, each a voice on whether the shirt should be returned. It’s one of the most impressive poems in the pamphlet, touching on important questions on identity and nationhood. The Man On Radio Phone-In, arguing the very un-politically-correct view that the ghost shirt represents only superstition and should no longer have significance, turns the question on his Scottish listeners:
…this is a bribe
Tae stey in the past like some noble reid-skinned tribe
O Jacobites, that we can watch and pretend tae be,
But only in oor dreams, in virtual unreality.
The final section, with its unforgettable image of the heron that fishes “like a statue o itsel,/ As if the inner bird has left its birdness by the burn/ And flee’d aff for a while, but it aye flits back in time” becomes a metaphor for any beleaguered nation.
This pamphlet is highly enjoyable to read and, at the same time, asks important questions of its readers.
James Roderick Burns:
It’s rare for a reviewer to have no real criticisms of the work in hand, or even cavils, but with James Robertson’s Hem and Heid this is happily the case. While bearing in mind that any pamphlet has a naturally higher concentration of good work than a full collection (one of the joys of the pamphlet), and striving to manufacture ways of appraising the poems in less than glowing terms, I am still at a loss. The book is simply a delight.
If one had to begin artificially trawling for soft spots, ‘Saws O Solomon’ might be a starting place. After all, how much value can be added to the proverbial genius of Solomon, even with comedy? The answer is: quite a bit. Robertson firms up the wisdom with a crackling wit, adding a resonant brevity reminiscent of the bittersweet haiku of Issa:
As yin that waps a stane in a sling
is he that gies honour tae an eejit.
A dug canna lea its ain boak alane;
nor can the bawheid his bawheiditness.
No holes here, then. Perhaps reworkings of classical themes, ballads or translations from the French or Spanish would allow an increasingly desperate reviewer breathing room?
Echo wis a nymph that luved Narcissus:
‘Come on, come on, ma bonnie boy, and kiss us
Whaur it hurts me noo, and mak the hurtin flee.’
But Nark wis deif and blin tae her, could see
Only his ain braw image in the cool
Dark keekin-gless that wis the river’s pool.
(‘Echo and Narcissus’)
The swift, subtle accretion of consonants in this passage thickens with the character’s own self-regard, and plays off the seeming throwaway nature of both dialogue and rhyming couplets. In each poem in the collection there’s a similar level of subterranean activity, often charmingly at odds with surface levity:
I trauchled ower tae Royal Circus:
Leaves were birds, the birds were stane.
I heard a moothless wife mak mane:
‘Words are symbols sent tae irk us.’
(‘René Magritte in Embro’)
There’s far more at play here than the conceit of surrealist pictures escaping their confines in the Dean Gallery. If this was a full-ength collection, one might see the poet attempting a similar breaking of bonds for Scots poetry itself, but within this format it’s clear Robertson is intent on delivering a supercharged experience instead: both forward and backward-looking, rehabilitating under-used forms and attempting radical new ways of unleashing the voice.
‘Tod’, a long poem inspired by and loosely tracing the narrative arc of Joni Mitchell’s odd-couple classic ‘Coyote’, is a good example. While the original song is drawn-out, blissful (though with a bitter edge) and gracefully looping, the poet achieves in his version a kind of transliteration of the soul, finding the jagged sensibility inside Mitchell’s high lyrical sweetness:
Aw Tod, look at me, I’m chowin ma lip
Slaiverin tae get ayont the jaggy wire
Dreamin o jinkin the boondary fence
Claucht atween icy prudence’s grip
And the lick o the licht o ambition’s slow, slow fire
This sensibility is reflected in another contemporary subject, the repatriation of a Sioux ‘Ghost-Shirt’ from Glasgow to South Dakota. ‘The Bluidy Sark’, a shattering poem in six disparate voices, traces the persistence of questions of authenticity, culture and belief across the spectrum of experience. Even if the rest of the collection was merely excellent, it would be worth buying for this sequence alone.
I’ll let ‘Old Woman in Residential Home’, describing the effects of another war on her family and her conclusions, seduce you into buying this chapbook:
The news aboot it’s set me thinkin on ma Uncle Jeems …
Aw the tales gaed oot o him
When I wis seiventeen and baith his sons, ma cousins
Chae and Sim, were killt in nae man’s land, yin efter ither,
On the first day o the Somme. The nicht that news cam in,
I had ma ain wee miracle masel, and it’s lastit me a lifetime.
I looked up at the burnin starnie sky and I kent for shair
That we, for guid or ill, are on oor ain, and heiven isna there.
You don’t need to know the writer or read his biography to appreciate that James Robertson is a fine storyteller. That’s just one of the various pleasures of this short collection of poems he has written over the last decade. They are in Scots, but a fairly accessible Scots as I think will be clear from the lines I’ll quote. I certainly wouldn’t let that discourage any non-Scots speakers from reading them.
The most memorable is the long closing poem, ‘The Bluidy Sark’, which in six first-person narratives recounts the whole history of a Sioux Ghost Shirt’s sojourn in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum to its eventual contentious return to South Dakota. The poem opens in 1998 in the voice of an old woman in a residential home, in comfortable storytelling mode:
I wish, son, I could tell ye I wis there, that I mind it
Jist like yesterday, thon time when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,
And this auld shirt that’s in the news, rolled into toun. . .
Various contemporary and historic voices chip in, debating whether or not the shirt should be retained or repatriated. Black Elk speaking (in Scots) in 1931, remembers the “murdered folk at Woundit Knee”, before Robertson brings us back to 1999, and a Glasgow newspaper reader recollecting having once seen a very old photograph of the slain Sioux leader taken in situ on the battlefield:
Whaur the bullets foondert him: still and on he lies,
Auld Big Foot, deid a century and mair,
Aye frozent there,
Aye ettlin tae rise.
(For non-Scots speakers, “ettlin” is one of these words for which for me there isn’t a satisfactory exact English translation: ‘striving’ may be closest.) In fact the 32 pages of poetry and verbal imagery finish at this point with what appears to be that actual photograph starkly reproduced. It’s a powerful story in any format, but telling it in a poem makes available to Robertson techniques with which he’s very sure fingered (such as in an earlier section the placing of the word ‘Signifier’ as the first word in the line but last in a sentence, so it brings us up short).
‘The Bluidy Sark’ is such a tour de force that inevitably it dominates the collection, but there’s plenty more to enthuse about, including Robertson’s versions of poems from the French of Louis Duchosal and Spanish of Pablo Neruda, and—wonderfully—some Scots versions of Proverbs 26. Verse 19 gives us:
Like a madman firing aff squibs, dairts and daith,
is he that swicks his neebor, syne says,
‘Jist kiddin, pal.’
Why would you want to read the Bible in one of the new English versions ever again?