Mariscat Press 2012 £5.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Nick Asbury and Helena Nelson
D A Prince:
This pamphlet is beautiful: glowing chrome yellow, title in blueish-grey capitals, the ‘N’ of ‘On’ reduced in size, and raised; the single word ‘Poems’ in black; Mackay's name the same colour as the title, but modestly smaller. The elegant restraint matches the poems, something you recognise on reading the first (the title) poem. The poems, and the white space around them, are in balance, providing a supporting frame for that endless subject, time. The physical presence of this pamphlet makes a statement about the value of poetry, even before you open the cover.
The title poem plays with the word ‘On’: its meaning of ‘about’, but also the notion of punctuality and its sense of rightness. It shows the tipping over of one day into the next, a train “Arriving Glasgow half an hour before/ tomorrow had begun,” with the next day’s newspapers already available, providing that strange sense of knowing the news in advance of the date. The onward journey continues, but in the first minutes of the next day –
the clocks had struck, my train was in
the Edinburgh 12.04,
last night’s last-train party-goers wishing
already it was still the day before.
The ordered disorientation, that mix and clash of experience that large railway stations can give, combine here; the rhyme holds the disparate elements together, while the strategically placed awkwardness of “already” unsettles the ear just enough to remind us that we don’t perceive time as flowing smoothly. The last train is becoming the first train. To underline another aspect of time – its circularity – the “before” that concludes the last line picks up the line break of the first.
In taking the relationship of time and place as his subject, Mackay leaves space for the reader to enter the poem. We are admitted, bringing our own memories to lay against the framework he has made. Take the opening quatrain of ‘The Boundary’ –
A dyke run through the middle of nowhere
and in it a gate,
nothing to indicate
which side of nowhere we are on
It’s a description of nowhere, a nowhere we all know.
Mackay’s poems are consistently quiet, reflective, subtle in use of rhyme (whether full or slant) and unshowy in syntax. He favours shorter forms – generally 12 to 16 lines. He is observant – of nature, of language, of people and trains. He is drawn to “the unrefined/ way of making-do with less. Some things stay” (the last lines of ‘The Johnston Collection’). If your mind is tuned to such attention to near-invisible lives, you will find On Time a very satisfying collection. I did.
I suspected I would enjoy this collection from the opening title poem – a gently comic meditation on time, written in simple ABAB quatrains, but skilfully achieving a much subtler effect than that description suggests.
Even better, the second poem ‘Aberdeen Angus’ gave me that rare feeling you get with a handful of poems a year, which I can best describe as ‘spellbound’. It’s brilliantly crafted, adopting simple rhyming pairs, but with an easy pace that allows each line to breathe. It could be described as a ‘painterly’ poem – a simple scene of a herd of black cows in one field and a pile of “fat black bales” in the field over the road. But it’s a painting with the added dimension of time, seeing beyond the surface of things to bring out the processes and natural mechanics beneath. I don’t want to quote from it because you need to read the whole thing, but suffice to say it rhymes “heavily-thighed” and “fully-occupied”, and “chewing” with “eschewing” without seeming remotely mannered or forced. It’s a poem I want to memorise.
The rest of the collection struck me with varying degrees of intensity – occasionally, it felt like the hand of the craftsman was too present, or the thought being explored didn’t quite click into place satisfyingly enough. But the good poems are so good that it leads me to give the benefit of the doubt to the rest – maybe it’s me missing something.
‘The Boundary’ was another poem that immediately had me re-reading, admiring the skill with which it is done. It describes a surreal scene that most people will nevertheless recognise – a gate in the middle of nowhere, its surrounding wall having long since crumbled. The poem ends:
The wall is fallen but this after all is a gate
and so we, two
by two, like sheep into
a pasture, pass on through
so that we’ll get
somewhere imagined, knowing it isn’t true.
The scene is invested with biblical references and there’s a sense it’s dealing with the biggest boundary of all, between life and what lies beyond. But the references are allowed to emerge for themselves and the poem stays rooted in the scene it describes – and captures exactly that feeling of walking through that gate.
I think the best poets become such masters of their craft that they end up thinking and dreaming in poetry – it becomes a natural language, simultaneously unforced and hard-earned. It would be overstating it to say Donald Mackay is there yet, but I feel like he’s on that path, and further along it than many poets ever get.
This is Donald Mackay’s second pamphlet collection from Mariscat, the first being Kept in the Dark in 2007. Mackay is a teacher in the far north of mainland Scotland. He has been writing poems for a long time: they appear from time to time in Scottish publications such as The Dark Horse. The voice is usually quiet, restrained, formal and lyrical. He does not make a fuss, in poem or in person.
So in an age of zap, rap and performance, he could easily be overlooked. But these poems are insistent. The writing is understated but tenacious. ‘A Vacancy’, for example, reflects the decline of the herring fleet:
The herringers most weekdays sit
under the iron Market,
You catch the handrolled cigarette
around the corner, recreate
three men or four and are correct,
caught in the act
of nothing, who are now the fleet
The echoes are beautifully and subtly created, the reversal of “caught” and “nothing” elegant. But this is not clever for cleverness’s sake. Nor is it just socio-political comment (though it is that, too); it is true elegy: it catches at the heart.
Mackay’s poems repay close attention. Each is tightly constructed, the form mirroring the thought. In ‘A Canon’, the poet is wrestling with turbulent thoughts, and the poem wrestles too, the rhyme pursuing a merciless repetition:
I was alone, more stretched than I could say.
I heard the wind, I heard the willow sway
against the window pane. No one would stay
because of me, and so the house lay
empty around me all-alone. I heard myself
twist with the wind, unable to resolve
myself to any end, each thought of love
equally hate. In-between them I’d revolve
like wind catching the corners of the house,
it out and me within, as if I was
wind’s vicious complement.
I said the dominant voice was ‘restrained’. That’s not entirely true. It is not so much restrained as controlled. In ‘Kirk of Bruan’, he speaks out plainly, and in this case I’ll take the liberty of quoting the poem in full:
I was once told of a man
who kept his beasts in the Kirk of Bruan,
after the Free Church had left, of course.
Went clean skite
the cattle, bawling and slobbering all night;
Mad-Cow Disease, probably
though many took the view
that he’d committed a terrible profanity
by housing them alongside God.
For myself, I’d prefer a decent cow
to most Christians;
but then, I’m not God.
Nothing in this slender, well-chosen pamphlet is idly thought or idly wrought. Donald Mackay has gone from strength to strength and his work deserves prime-time attention. He is the real thing.