Book reviews: An Almost Dancer | Collected Poems 1954-1994
Two poets, one living and one dead. Two books of poems, one thin, the other thick; one 33 poems made over seven years, the other the rich fruit of 40 years work.
• An Almost Dancer by Robert Nye Greenwich
Exchange, 53pp, £9.99
• Collected Poems 1954-1994 by Alastair Mackie, edited by Christopher Rush
Two Ravens Press, 451pp, £22
Robert Nye has himself published a Collected Poems, way back in 1995, but that too was, for a collection, slim, a mere 150 pages. This makes him sound like an occasional poet, whereas you might think from the size and scope of his Collected Poems that Alastair Mackie was a full-time professional one. Yet it is Nye who might say – or of whom others might say – that he was a poet or nothing, whereas Mackie, like so many Scots poets of his generation (McCaig, Garioch, Crichton Smith, for instance), was a schoolmaster for more than 30 years from 1951 to 1983.
Readers of The Scotsman know of course that Robert Nye has always had other strings to his bow. He was for a long time this paper’s chief, and best, reviewer. He has also written novels, two of which at least – Falstaff and The Life and Times Of My Lord Gilles De Rais – were works of an astonishing, and astonished, imagination. He has edited the work of other poets and also a collection of English sermons. In short he may be classed as a survivor of that almost extinct species, the man of letters, one who has lived by his pen since he left school at the age of 16, and who has never held a writer-in residence post. But he has always been first and foremost a poet, though one who is content to wait till, as he puts it, quoting the Scottish poet Norman Cameron, “a poem wants to be written”.
Almost all his poems are short, and some, perhaps because of their own impulsion, give the impression of having been easily written, the lines forming themselves in his mind, ready-minted, which was how, Housman said, many of his poems came to him. I have no idea whether this is the case, or how many poems have been worked over and forced into shape. Quite a few, I daresay, for Nye’s is the art that conceals art. Reading some of the simpler ones, you might think anyone could do it. For instance:
“The day my father died he made two bets.
We found the docket folded in his wallet.
Both horses lost. Thus my inheritance -
Not nothing, no, but this absurd small itch
To take the bloody bookies to the cleaners
Just once before I die. Just once, please God,
Not for the money, though that would be nice,
More in revenge for the long odds against us…”
Looks easy? But just try it. Good style has been defined as “the right word in the right place”; that is, something you recognise as right when you read it. That’s the case here. Nye will even use that dead word “nice” , and get away with it, because there is no other word that will serve as well in this throwaway line.
The American poet Robert Frost claimed 100 years ago that: “I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words”. As Matthew Hollis, quoting this in his biography of Frost’s friend Edward Thomas, puts it, Frost believed that “cadence is a natural part of human speech – it gives the speaking voice its intonation, its modulation and its rhythm. We use cadence to indicate and understand meaning in a way that goes deeper than the content of individual words into the arena of moods and atmospheres.”
This is something Nye offers – the sound of sense which depends on cadence; it is why his verse has such a natural ring, and it is why it sticks in the mind. The last poem in the book is entitled “Request”:
“If you would be so good, tell me the way
To Pickle Herring Street. It used to be
Somewhere round here, I know it did, but now
I just can’t find it for the life of me
And nothing else will do. It’s where I lived
When I was nearly happy, years ago.
I beg you, sir, for the sweet love of Christ,
Tell me the way to Pickle Herring Street.”
Perfect, the sound matching the sense, or rather Frost’s sound of sense. I love that “nearly happy”, followed by the urgency of “the sweet love of Christ”.
Alastair Mackie at his best, which is often, wrote with a similar appearance of ease – an appearance which, as with Nye, may conceal evidence of hard writing. He worked in both Scots and English, seemingly at different times in his career, turning to English when he thought Scots inadequate for the purpose, or worn out. He was aware, like all born and reared speaking Scots, that the spoken tongue is getting thinner with every generation. It came naturally to him. Indeed he seems to me to have been along with Robert Garioch the most natural – that is, the least strained, the least artificial – writer of Scots verse of our time. He was brought up speaking what he called “town” – or toon – Aberdeen, itself thinner than the Doric of Donside or Buchan, and he could, unlike some of his contemporaries, employ the tongue to address contemporary themes. “Gangster Pictures” recalls afternoons or evenings in Aberdeen’s many picture-houses – “the Belmont” and “the “Grandie” – neatly plays off the characters played by Cagney, Bogart and Edward G against Hitler:
“Douce as bankers, they met in skyrie back-rooms
o the best bad taste. Ice-tangles o
the candelabra skimmered ower the czars
Wi fremmit names - Dillinger, Lepke, Capone.
They pit their heids thegither and men deed.”
There are fine poems in English as well, though the Scots ones mostly seem better. There are, for instance, versions of a translation of Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val” in each language, and the Scots catches the flavour of the original more surely. Like so many poets, he attempted translations of Horace. His rendering of “Quis multa gracilis”, beginning “Whit braw callant, fair droukit in/an onding o scents, cuddles ye, Pyrrha”, is good.
Christopher Rush was a pupil of Mackie’s at the Waid Academy, and came to be regarded as the son Mackie never had. Putting this collection together has been a labour of love; he has done his old master proud. In doing so, he has also performed a service to Scottish literature. Sad only that it never happened in Mackie’s lifetime.
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