Writing a book about it

Christopher Reid

  • Collected Poems by Norman MacCaig
    Chatto, 390 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3953 6

The most successful pieces in Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems tend to be lists of one kind or another. He is best, too, when he has found something to celebrate. A poem such as ‘Praise of a Collie’, which enumerates the virtues of an admired sheep-dog, now dead, works well enough as a primitive catalogue. The fourth of its five three-line stanzas gives something of its flavour:

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where’s a burn? – she’s first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

The abruptness of these jottings seems to relate the poem to an ancient style of praise-singing that one is glad to see revived here, and the inconsistency of the tenses is a positive bonus. The hyperbolic flourish of ‘like a piece of black wind’ is perfectly suited to the purposes of an obituary, allowing the dog to live again, ‘neat and fluid’, for as long as the lines remain in one’s memory.

MacCaig’s habit of recording natural phenomena by means of surprising simile and metaphor is perhaps his greatest asset. Intimacy with the landscape of North-West Scotland, its weather, its flora and fauna, and – to a lesser extent, one feels – its human inhabitants, has provided the material for most of his best work. Where he has been content to operate within a modest scale and has refrained from chasing the metaphysical ignes fatui that bedevil so many of his ostensibly more ambitious pieces, he has scored some remarkable successes. Poems such as ‘Fetching Cows’, ‘Movements’ and ‘Notations of Ten Summer Minutes’, which aspire to be not much more than inventories of casual observations, are nonetheless richly enjoyable. Admittedly, even these have their slacker passages: in ‘Fetching Cows’ one is disappointed by a phrase like ‘muzzles black and shiny as wet coal’, but the poem recovers triumphantly in its final stanza. ‘Far out in the West,’ we read, ‘the wrecked sun founders though its colours fly’; and its very last lines –

The black cow is two native carriers
Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole –

are an ideal blend of the comical and the exotic.

The playful, humorous, genially delighted side of MacCaig’s poetic personality is one that many of his readers may wish he had cultivated more assiduously. It is this that lends distinction to poems that otherwise squander their energies in laborious, quasi-philosophical word-spinning. In ‘Rhu Mor’, for example, from the book Rings on a Tree (1968), the poet attempts to capture a visionary insight in the lines:

Space opens and from the heart of the matter
sheds a descending grace that makes,
for a moment, that naked thing, Being,
a thing to understand.

The poem’s true vision, however – the perception that holds its own long after this barely supported assertion has been forgotten – is contained in the passage where a seal is observed ‘struggling in the straitjacket of its own skin’. How much more authentic this experience is, and how much more vividly we are made to feel it! Just so, there is a poem from the same book, ‘Now and for ever’, which offers itself as an elliptical meditation on the nature of experience, but which fails to register any palpable impression until, finally, the poet claps eyes on

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