Callaloo

Robert Crawford

  • Northlight by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 81 pp, £8.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 15229 5
  • A Field of Vision by Charles Causley
    Macmillan, 68 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 333 48229 8
  • Seeker, Reaper by George Campbell Hay and Archie MacAlister
    Saltire Society, 30 pp, £15.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 85411 041 0
  • In Through the Head by William McIlvanney
    Mainstream, 192 pp, £9.95, September 1988, ISBN 1 85158 169 3
  • The New British Poetry edited by Gillian Allnutt, Fred D’Aguiar, Ken Edwards and Eric Mottram
    Paladin, 361 pp, £6.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 586 08765 6
  • Complete Poems by Martin Bell, edited by Peter Porter
    Bloodaxe, 240 pp, £12.95, August 1988, ISBN 1 85224 043 1
  • First and Always: Poems for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital edited by Lawrence Sail
    Faber, 69 pp, £5.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 571 55374 5
  • Birthmarks by Mick Imlah
    Chatto, 61 pp, £4.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3358 9

‘Where do you come from?’ asks one of the most important questions in contemporary poetry – where’s home? Answering the pulls and torsions of that question produces much of the verse of Heaney, Harrison and Dunn, but it also produces very different kinds of poetry. Martianism had nothing to do with Mars, everything to do with home, the place where Craig Raine (like Murray or Dunn) feels richest. Surely Martianism comes from the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses, the quintessence of home seen from abroad. Home can be a bit smug, though; and sometimes constricting. The poetic celebrants of home at the moment tend not to be women. But if it was once fashionable to see home as a ‘provincial’ bore, there have been poets around for some time, such as Edwin Morgan and Roy Fisher, who give the lie to that. Home is no longer ‘so sad’.

At home few people speak Proper English all the time. Home-based poetry may be in dialect, which is present in nearly all the writers considered here: but it may also fuel itself with a hyper-articulate, decorous Queen’s English that deliberately celebrates the sort of cultures where dialect is spoken. Tony Harrison does this when he harnesses his Classical learning and tones to write about working-class life in Leeds (he also uses straight dialect); Douglas Dunn does it when he writes in Northlight with Marvellian decorum about Tayport; Les Murray when he writes about Bunyah. Use of proper names (where’s Tayport? where’s Bunyah? where’s Glanmore?), confidently deployed local allusions, the belief that, as Larkin put it prefacing Dunn’s New Poets from Hull anthology, ‘poetry, like prose, happens anywhere’ – all these factors function as a sort of ‘silent dialect’ which reminds us that the text’s origins matter and that they are part of what the poem is about. Dialect is crucial to much contemporary poetry of sometimes happy, sometimes disturbing home and homing. The verse of our time is Ithacan in its orientation.

Like Les Murray’s recent collection, Daylight Moon, Dunn’s Northlight is also an Ithacan book. Its opening lines, ‘Innermost dialect/Describes Fife’s lyric hills,’ set the tone for much of what follows. One of the strongest poems in the book, ‘Winkie’, is about a pigeon homing to the Firth of Tay where Dunn now lives. A good deal of the book celebrates his home-making there, but Dunn is also aware of the pressures on such a home. These pressures are not just physical (the local military airport): they are also intellectual, as the two voices of ‘Here and There’ make clear.

           ‘Provincial’, you describe
Devotion’s minutes as the seasons shift
On the planet: I suppose your diatribe
Last week was meant to undercut the uplift
Boundaries give me, witnessed from the brae
Recording weather-signs and what birds pass
Across the year. More like a world, I’d say,
Infinite, curious, sky, sea and grass
In natural minutiae that bind
Body to lifetimes that we all inhabit.
So spin your globe: Tayport is Trebizond ...

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