Robert Crawford

That Other Universe

When George Bruce’s poetry was first published in the 1940s he quickly became associated with the landscape and with the people of North-East Scotland. His writing was shaped by the qualities of a community struggling to survive, dependent on the sea, attached to the sea, and yet resilient in the face of the sea and economic tides. Bruce reflected what he calls ‘continuity of values’ with an economy of style and a faithful observance of daily life. These are the roots in which Bruce’s writing grew, but they are not the whole Bruce. Today Tomorrow, a collection of his work 1933-2000 (Polygon, £14.99; ed. Lucina Prestige) shows how Bruce soon grew beyond those roots to encompass a wider world and other themes. Nevertheless, as befits a volume and a career spanning seven decades, Bruce comes back in the slow cycle of things to revisit and reappraise. From this new perspective arises an awareness that what once seemed immutable as stone is not immune to change, what once seemed to belong to man belongs also to the elements. He says,

Let us unlabel these stones

Let the sea swallow them

Let them be with that other universe

Where no time is kept.

The change is not to be resisted, but rather ‘In those who accept, the pulse of life beats stronger.’ Although a poet’s collected works may be the literary equivalent of an artist’s restrospective, that should not mean that his audience is confined to an older generation. Bruce’s openness of mind and directness of language make him accessible to all. Indeed, his energy, enthusiasm and essential optimism mean that in spirit he is attuned to the modern.

Robert Crawford is a man in love. His latest collection, The Tip of My Tongue (Cape Poetry, £8.00) shimmers with that affection. Whether addressed to his wife Alice, to Scotland itself, or to the sights of Asia, Africa, and America, it is all love poetry. Even the vagaries of meteorology and geography he loves:’I’ll marry you Iona and has-been / shall-be firths of slipways and dwammy kyles’ he writes in a wedding poem.

‘Loud on the left side of Scotland’s breast / you are my country’s hardened heart’ he says of Aberdeen. ‘Oregano of the world’, he calls small countries like Scotland and New Zealand. His verses are tight, disciplined, but also delicate and tender, the imagery full of surprises. Rain becomes a ‘perfect smirr / champagning us doon the watter.’

As befits a man in love, Crawford’s writing is also imbued with an uplifting spirituality. This and his metaphoric imagery find their loveliest match in a poem entitled WindFarming, in which the windmills become ‘… a choir of angels / Towering above us, beating their wings, / Piloting the earth on its way.’ However, Crawford is not in love with all of his countrymen, reserving a savage contempt for those who have ‘The wee, trickling smell of their underdog-on-the-make fear / Dribbling down greaves’, those who are always ready for ‘The needle match between Scotland and Scotland.’

colours.jpg For a skinful of Calder, catch the Colours of Grief. In the eponymous first poem he colour codes his sorrows and thereafter his moods sequence erratically from morning primrose to bitter lemon. When all’s said and done, you can’t keep a good mind down. Angus Calder. Colours of Grief. Shoestring Press, £7.50.

Glasgow-born John Duffy intermingles a retelling of the story of Derdriu of the Sorrows with his own contemorary poetry in The Constancy of Stone (Nepotism Press, £5.00). There are subtle elements of contrast and comparison between the two threads. Duffy cleverly retains the brutal earthiness of his source – the great Irish epic poem The Tain Bo Caulinge, and avoids casting Derdriu as a sentimental icon of womanhood. His own poems have a gentler lyricism but are not without darkness and violence, and his reworking of Derdriu’s character in turn shapes the poet’s perception of contemporary gender conflicts. There are echoes in the imagery too. Derdriu is described as ‘a heart for thickets / for long grasses / the scuffles of dunnocks / wrens, the woodland thrushes’, while in Duffy’s poem ‘Mecca’ we have ‘poised on a stone / a thrush will crash / through bushes / if they move.’

In Derdriu’s story the landscape is dealt with in terms of a sweeping backdrop through which the warrior protagonists journey and battle, whereas in the poems it is more closely observed and personal:’Though you were on the road / before me, it was hard to leave Scotland / I followed you, rehearsing / a little sadness, bringing / mountains and sea with me

…’ Duffy’s language flows from one image to another, densely packed and full of emotional depth. Short lines move us quickly from one to another with no word wasted. The interweaving is achieved by clever use of design and typography, and a generous use of space, but it is Duffy’s own poetry which in future deserves a greater visibility.

Copyright Chris McKinnell 2005.