A Box of Gems

Akros publications have released two pieces of literary history, both edited by Duncan Glen. The first is the Familiar Epistles between William Hamilton of Gilbertfield in Cambuslang and Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh (£7.95). This edition of the epistles also contains an extract from Hamilton’s 1722 version of William Wallace by Blin Hary. However, the real achievement of this book is to celebrate both the rather unsung place of Cambuslang in Scottish literary history, and Hamilton’s contribution, through his witty mock elegy style, to the development and vitality of a colloquial voice in Scots verse.

The second is Evergreen Song Lyrics – a selection from 200 years of British and American poetry. As you would expect, there are generous portions of Burns and Shakespeare, but also Byron, Jonson, Hogg and Oliphant (Lady Nairne), and others less well known. For me, the real fascination lay in reading Duncan Glen’s literary and historical footnotes. A little gem!

Also from Akros, but completely different, is a ‘keepsake selection’ from the late Mark Ogle. In A Memory of Fields he tells us of his father through mementoes and memories, of life going on after a child’s death, of his own affinity with wild places. These poems have a surface of melancholy flatness, but as you become accustomed to their rhythms you are drawn into Mark Ogle’s way of looking at things – the way he lays down image after image in short, deft brush strokes, like a painter, just the way he sees it. You begin to identify with the sparseness of his voice, the way he leaves room for a dignified and eloquent sadness. You hear the spaces where he is trying to hold in memory what is passing. Mark Ogle’s themes are not so much about death as about the transience of life, and how well a life can be celebrated in the ordinary things. Finally, he affirms his own life with the sureness of his vision, the steady calmness of his words.

Back to the west coast again. Raymond Friel and Richard Price combine to produce a themed selection of poems entitled Renfrewshire In Old Photographs (Mariscat, £6.00). These are poems made around the names of places, people and things. This is not a sentimental journey, but something more knowing, with undertones of anger and regret over what is left behind when industrial vigour has gone. Friel concentrates on the town of Greenock. His verse is neat, economical, almost terse – maybe it’s the quick west coast voice. He can be evocative nonetheless – and knows especially how to finish off a poem with a phrase that packs a punch. Price’s settings are often softer, semi-rural, and he adopts a more personal, conversational tone. Addressing an often-unnamed ‘you’, he refers obliquely to past encounters and intimacies.

The Jewel Box – Contemporary Scottish Poems (Scottish Poetry Library) is a comprehensive collection of over forty poems and poets on CD – a nifty idea! These are studio readings rather than live performances. Some of the strongest tracks are those in Gaelic, by Ruaridh MacThomais, Aonghas MacNeacail or Meg Bateman, for example – where the full cadence and music of the language works for the poems – and the one by Edwin Morgan, who is a consummate performer of his own work. Other highlights are poems by John Burnside, Valerie Gillies, Kate Clanchy and Ian Stephen. This is an opportunity to hear a good range of Scottish poetry in the voices of its authors. The full texts provided in the sleeve notes are an added bonus.

Finally, a swift mention of Spilt Colours by Dorothy Alexander, no. 4, New Writing from the Scottish Borders (Scottish Borders Council Arts & Libraries, £1.50). Alexander’s is an original voice with a rich, distinctive vocabulary.

Copyright Chris McKinnell 2005.


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