Calder Wood Press, 2009. £3.00 + 50p P&P
Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, D A Prince & Helena Nelson
Diverse though the Scottish pamphlet scene is, a new collection from a poet in her nineties is still uncommon enough to make a bit of a stir.
The blurb on the back of A Hesitant Opening of Parasols explains that Lillias Scott Forbes is a daughter of FG Scott the composer, who was friendly with many writers active in the literary scene during period when she was growing up—WS Graham, Hugh MacDiarmid, Dylan Thomas and the Muirs, to mention only a few. As a result of her father’s friendships, she mixed with acclaimed poets from an early age and was encouraged by them in her own writing.
The passing of years and of those earlier generations obviously hasn’t dimmed Lillias Scott Forbes’ enthusiasm for poetry and she expresses herself delighted that her muse hasn’t fled entirely “at her advanced age”. This pamphlet gathers some of her later poems in English and Scots, poems which take the reader on various day trips around Scotland and further afield to France , as well as back in time to her childhood.
As someone who enjoys a leisurely latte watching the world pass, or a shared pot of Earl Gray and chat, I particularly relished all the references to cafés. The opening poem, ‘Under the Parasols’, shows us the poet chased indoors by an inclement east coast wind thinking back to a previous summer’s tête à tête on a terrace on the Place Sorbonne, named in a later poem as the Café Écritoire, where she and a companion sat out the rain. She also opens the door and encourages us to take a look into the ‘Café Mirage’, “its lacy screen dingy with history” where arms rest on the red chequered cloth, before bringing us right up to date in her St Andrews poem ‘South Street Café’:
Within, the academic file, averse to talk,
Deaf to the ten-cup coffee grinder’s snarl
Anticipates the innocent draught of smoothies.
Costa gets a mention too, where she is comfortable to sit observing and listening to the coffee shop’s young clientele, content with her own memories.
The collection ends with a poem in praise of ‘Free Verse’, rich with Lillias Scott Forbes’ enthusiasm for writing and poetry, and reminding us of the various directions the latter has taken during her life. There’s poignancy here too, and a movingly direct reference to the infirmities of age, when she writes:
Slowly, painfully let my frail hands move
Over these worn typefaces.
D A Prince:
There’s the title, sitting in the opening line of the first poem—
Here I sit under this hesitant opening of parasols
While waiters scan the fickle watery blue
That plays its early-morning tricks around
An unreliable, reluctant sun.
This is a beautifully observed, lyrical description of how waiters keep one eye on the weather, and so natural an opening it was only only re-reading that I realised how good it was, how tuned to movement and colour, and how it is typical of Lillias Forbes at her best. She is watchful, sensitive to the sounds and appearance of others, alive to the present. She has also, as this collection shows, delicate and loving memories of the past, and knows how to unfold these so that the reader shares in them. Her collection opens in Scotland and dips into memories of relationships in Paris and southern France. This is a personal memoir but never self-indulgent; she is interested in the world and her surroundings.
She’d hooked me completely in ‘Blinds’, one-third of the way through the pamphlet; the setting is L’Ecritoire, a small café/brasserie in the Place de la Sorbonne, one of my favourites too. For Forbes it is where she remembers her mother, imagining her behind the blinds in the apartment building across the square. Three poems further on she’s bang up to date, and back in Scotland, in ‘Anonymous’—“I sit in anonymous Costa/ At one with ubiquitous youth” where, surrounded by a mix of foreign languages she is “Caught in the cross-roads of their tongues,/ Lifted in the draught of their impetuous wings”. No sign here that Forbes is ninety, only that she is fascinated by other people.
‘To a Gaelic broadcast’ confronts one aspect of this collection that is an underlying concern to this non-Scots reader. Forbes cannot understand Gaelic, her ‘cradle tongue’, but feels a connection—
Though I can’t shake hands with any one of your little lively words
I’m caught, a willing catch, in the drift net of your language
It mirrored my own reactions to the poems written in Scots: some of the vocabulary eluded me (whatever is a “clorty winnock”?) but much worked its magic through sound and association. “The mune’s white glamourie ower ilka blade” (from ‘To Duncan, on his birthday’): isn’t ‘glamourie’ a beautiful word! I wonder if it’s this ghost of a forgotten language that gives Forbes’ tone its lyrical softness?
Most of the poems are in free form, often using longer, exploratory lines that suit the poet’s voice. This is a collection that won me over as I read, drawing me in to her gentle, generous world.
Such a lovely title for a pamphlet! What could be better for evoking a sense of elegance and grace, and a self-effacing welcome into the verse? Though the poet is elderly, in the main the work reads as very contemporary. There is the odd exception, like the otherwise excellent ‘Brown’s Piece Barn’ where a Hardy-esque ‘twas creeps in, but still the memory of that old barn ends beautifully:
Oh, bring back the dancing, the stumbling, the tumbling,
The fearful fumbling
At the back of old Brown’s Piece Barn as it was before.
The poet works in both Scots and English, addressing Hugh MacDiarmid and Duncan Glen (most appropriately) in the former. But in her case, this is not a modernist smattering of well-kent names; it is an evocation of people she knew personally, an affectionate greeting. And the Scots works beautifully for her; the resonance of the language (though it is not glossaried for a non-Scots reader) is undeniable:
Fegs, Chris, there’s nae end tae yir teemin bairns
Laid in the moul: there’s rowth o treisure yet,
Mair gowden lyrics there that bide their hour
Tae soar an stauncher oot o soun an sicht!
Scott Forbes can do both formal and free. Her final poem, ‘Free Verse’, creates an interesting overview of many decades of writing—all the influences of the twentieth century. She commenced, she writes, with “a glut of indiscretions” (like every poet), then, like most of the others, “Vamping the impetuous dictates of the day” condemned “quatrains, rhyming, pedantry”. Vers libre and Dylan Thomas made their dizzying demands. Now she finds herself (like many) “Confounded by surfeit of choices in all directions”. Indeed!
“Show me,” she commands, “the path that opens not on ruin”. I loved that little inversion there, that resonance from the past. And then, most movingly, she brings her own mortal hands into the poem:
Slowly, painfully let my frail hands move
Over these worn typefaces—I love them as old friends.
Though all the barriers be down
Leave me one final fence
Within which I shall resurrect my verse.
The poem could (and perhaps should) have ended there, with the iambic “fence” that creates its own music and is both ancient and irresistibly modern.