Book review: Fugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead

The wit and swagger of our former national poet's latest collection belie a skill as a technician that she shares with the greats, writes Stuart Kelly

Liz Lochhead
Liz Lochhead

Fugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead | Polygon £9.99

In her new volume of poems, Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s second national Makar, lauds the “gallus gallimaufry” of the Kelvingrove gallery in a piece on its re-opening in 2006. That phrase seems apposite for her work as a whole: this is a book replete with generosity, with a dash of cheek to boot.

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The central section, “Ekphrasis, Etcetera”, is full of moments where Lochhead, discussing other artists, and even the whole evolution of art, seems to be describing her own aesthetic. In “Three Stanzas for Charles Rennie Mackintosh”, she describes his work – and hers – as “decorated construction, never constructed decoration”. In one of the finest pieces, “Way Back In The Paleolithic”, she writes of the earliest of all arts as having its “truest impulse” being to “capture something”, so that “wild on the walls” are “hordes of realer than real creatures / The torches in the firelight / Flickering into the first motion pictures”. There is a pun on reel and real here, and although the poems often read like scripts for performance, there is a subtlety and sophistication here as well.

Many of the works here constitute a kind of ars poetica. “In Gaia’s Poetry” begins “Gaia does not care to rhyme”, but as it progresses, Lochhead skilfully subverts and challenges the insistence on vers libre: “And Gaia’s got a point – except / There’s the fun of what you don’t expect – / The half-rhymes, echoes, chimes, / … / Where the sense doesn’t end on the rhyme-word with a clunk. / There’s the fun too of the thought you never would’ve thunk / Were it not for the rhyme that took you there”.

In a strange way these poems are very reminiscent of a poet whom one might not automatically associate with Lochhead – the great Augustan satirist Alexander Pope. His wonderful Essay On Criticism played the same game of asserting something about poetry in a line that simultaneously refutes it: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line” or “A needless Alexandrine ends the song / That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along”.

The poems written during her tenure as Makar have an interesting swerve away from asserting the virtues of poetry. “Open”, written for the opening of the fourth session of the Parliament, ends “But close the gap between what we say and what we do”; in “Connecting Cultures” she concludes “All that matters is what we do”. It is one of the paradoxes of political poetry that it urges an action beyond itself. Where Lochhead is more interestingly political is in a poem like “Nick Dowp, Feeling Miscast In A Very English Production, Rehearses Bottom’s Dream”. The work rewrites the famous speech of Bottom in Act IV 
Scene I – so “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” becomes “Man’s een havena heard, man’s lugs havena seen, his fummlin, fouterin hauns havena the gumption to taste, nor his tongue to make heid not tail o – naw, nor yet his hammerin hert to let dab aboot! – whitlike ma dream wis”. There’s a swaggering elegance to this, and an affirmation that some Scots words have no equivalent in English RP.

The most memorable section of the book is the opening, which comprises a series of elegies, including a very affecting one for Lochhead’s late husband, Tom. They are moving without being sentimental, and have a directness that undercuts convention. At the end of “Favourite Place”, Lochhead quotes Sorley MacLean – “The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it” – but starkly opposes it – “And this will not be a consolation / But a further desolation”. In these poems, the political is put in the background. I particularly admired the fourth section of “A Handselling” with its worry over an “intricacy of thistles / far too intent on being emblematic”.

There are one or two infelicities, which tend to come with the territory of such vehemently vocalised poetry. “The Theatre Maker’s Credo” is predominantly in four-line ballad stanzas, sometimes disguised as sestets, but with a 16-line section which could as easily have been in quatrains. Some of the line breaks seem a little arbitrary – and I have a particular aversion for lines that end on the definite article. But that may just be personal taste. One quote – “Happiness writes white” – is attributed to Philip Larkin when it is in fact by Henry de Montherlant; but such hastiness is forgivable.

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At its heights though – in poems like the big-hearted “Listen”, written for the Children’s Panel; the quietly sinister “A Man Nearly Falling In Love” or the cleverly parodic “From A Mouse”, written in a robust Standard Habbie – this is a collection equally balancing wit and wisdom, empathy and intelligence.