There are not many books of poetry that can be classified as genuinely original and large in scope; even among the disputed ground of ‘innovative writing’ there is little that is truly groundbreaking. Reading The Last Wolf of Scotland, however, I feel that I may have found just that sort of book.
First of all, though, nothing is completely original. This sequence of poems, centring around the story of Robert MacGee’s scalping but ranging over both the American and Scottish landscape, and spanning both 19th century and contemporary time-zones, bears some comparison with Edwin Morgan’s early work and that of Barry MacSweeney in its scope. Basil Bunting and WS Graham are behind this work too. It mixes Scots words with English, with glossaries at the end of each poem that almost read as part of the work, and drags a lot of symbolism in its wake.
The language itself, for all its deep Scottishness, has echoes of Scandanavian epic in its sound-world of consonance and alliteration; and its sound world is less tame than a lot of English poetry. Its image of the wolf as representative of the wilderness is not in itself so original, but reading these poems, even quietly to oneself, the music sends echoes of more ancient tunes through one’s head:
This long night and the angels are dying.
In droves from the west they have walked,
carrying fractured plumes
spitting scintillant blood from cut mouths
stepping plant life into health
abortive deer now heavy with fawn
death-throes spring now burbling.
[‘Painting Imagined by John Duncan’]
The centring of the poems throughout the book also has a curious effect on the reader, so that you almost read them as song not simply poems. Sometimes the English and the Scots version of the same poem are side by side. This gives the sense of two worlds colliding, sometimes merging, sometimes conflicting: like the ever-troubled relationship between Scotland and England.
As an Englishman reviewing a very Scottish book, I can’t say I’m always familiar with the music of this book, or the subject matter; but I’ve never thought familiarity a necessary feature of poetry. This is one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in quite a while, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in expanding their word-hoard and sound-world into new places.
Though I say ‘new’ with some trepidation because there is a feel for the ancient here that is evident throughout. A poem like ‘Body Field’, which refers to the forensic study of decomposition, takes in everything from Mary Queen of Scots to drunks fighting on the streets, and lots more in between, has a deep sense of how history affects the present. Again, I’m reminded of Bunting, whose ‘Briggflatts’ is full of echoes of the past. Hugh MacDiarmid is also there; but this is very much an original voice. No doubt Scottish readers will pick up further echoes.
This book should be read as widely as possible, and it should probably win awards. It probably won’t but that says more about the arbiters of taste in British poetry than the wonderful poetry within this book.
Steven Waling is the author of ‘Travelator’ (Salt) and ‘Captured Yes’ (Knives Forks & Spoons.) ‘Hello GCHQ’ is forthcoming from Department Press. He runs a blog called Brando’s Hat, some of the time.
The Last Wolf of Scotland by MacGillivray is published by Pighog Press, £9.99
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)