Michael Byrne

Women and Brambles

Des Dillon’s first collection, Picking Brambles (Luath Press PBK £6.99), begins with the title poem, and straight away you get the sense of a refreshing, individual style. His words are indeed like brambles – big and succulent, whether fruity or beefy. There is a certain downbeat mood too, a weight, like the words have a fist inside them (Dillon was once into kick-boxing and had a friend who was a professional boxer). You feel the heaviness in lines like ‘sunshine wilting / on late September shoulders.’ Dillon’s exuberance is in his words rather than his subjects. Perhaps that is something to do with the geography of the place he’s coming from, where, he says ‘Nothing has changed these years gone by. / Only the dogs are different.’

Cucuruzzu marks the beginning of an altogether different, possibly more remarkable, sequence of poems set around this small Italian town. The language slows down, becomes quiet, and now matches both subject and underlying mood. It is as if Dillon has chilled out and immersed himself in an explicitly spiritual geography. His introspection is beautifully encompassed in a poem entitled The Sorrow of The Glory: ‘I turn and looking back – oh / how many candles have I lit / from the one solitary light.’

As well as poetry, Dillon has also written short stories, novels and dramas for radio, TV, stage and film, yet he considers this collection to be the pinnacle of his writing career. It is to hoped this does not prove to be so, for he is surely set to become one of our most powerful poetic voices.

As editors of Modern Scottish Women Poets (Canongate HBK £20) Dorothy McMillan and Michel Byrne have been entirely unafraid in gathering under that title poetry written as long ago as 1909. They are similarly inclusive in their choice of poets, embracing any who have some relationship with Scotland and Scottishness. The result is a volume of which the bard in all of us Scots should be mightily proud, revealing as it does the richness, depth and quality of writing from almost 100 poets, as diverse as Elma Mitchell, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Kathleen Jamie, Meg Bateman and Angela McSeveney – although one might question the absence of Maureeen Sangster and Lydia Robb.

The publisher’s notes on the dust-cover remark that the most celebrated Scottish poets of the early twentieth century were men, while in the second half of the century it was a very different story. This reviewer would suggest that the shift is a much more recent phenomenon. Dorothy McMillan herself notes that the twentieth century saw publication of only one anthology devoted to Scottish women’s poetry – An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets (ed. Catherine Kerrigan) – and that did not appear until 1991. As late as 1987, Alexander Scott, editing Voices of Our Kind:An anthology of modern Scottish poetry from 1920 to the present, managed to include only two women in a total of nearly fifty writers. In 1989, Robin Bell did only slightly better by women, including five out of forty-four poets in The Best of Scottish Poetry.

This minor quibble serves only to make the point that the appearance of this anthology perhaps carries much more significance than the editors allow themselves. It may well come to be seen as one of the first signposts towards a future in which the voices of our kind are predominantly the voices of women.

Chapman continues to celebrate its centenary edition with a double issue (102/3, £9.95). Following the success of issue 100/1, Joy Hendry has again assembled as impressive an array of national and international writers as any anthologist could dream of. Alan Spence, George Mackay Brown, Tom Leonard and Pablo Neruda in the same volume! And among the less well known names are Ian McDonough, Angus Peter Campbell and Jen Hadfield.

This issue also includes ‘The State of Scotland:A Predicament for the Scottish Writer’, an article first published in 1983, and a leading article by Donald Smith on Scottish Literature after the First Parliament which reveals among other things that many of our MSPs seem to be unaware that literature is part of the arts!

If there is a criticism to be made it would be that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. With so much between the covers there is simply not enough space, not enough of the light and shade that will allow us to form the particular figure of interest that will excite us, that draws us to it and moves us to take it in. Without that figure we may be full, but not really satisfied. In her very successful collections from individual poets, Joy Hendry has made an excellent job of creating such figures of interest. Now that Chapman‘s application for lottery funding has succeeded, funds will be available for, among other things, a redesign of the magazine, and Hendry hopes to take it to ‘a new place entirely’.

Copyright Chris McKinnell 2005.