Flickering Star

Robert Crawford

  • The Leaf and the Marble by Iain Crichton Smith
    Carcanet, 80 pp, £6.95, October 1998, ISBN 1 85754 400 5

Smile at that tiny poem and it will sparkle back at you. It is a novel the size of an egg-cup. The first in a sequence of individually numbered ‘Gaelic Stories’, its strength lies in mischievous enjambments. Others that follow confine in very few words life-dramas that have a humorous patina, yet could tilt toward the tragic:

A woman
reading a Bible for seven years
waiting for a sailor.

A man who was in Australia
coming home
on a wedding night.

As this sequence of Hebridean haiku develops, it creates an environment that is comical, and oppressive, yet also lyrically alluring. The absurd is never far away, and there is a sense of a society where gossip is important, and time hangs heavy,

A conversation
between a loaf and
cheese.

A conversation
between a wellington
and a herring.

A conversation
between fresh butter
and a cup.

In the 18 miniatures of this sequence, making up just over one hundred and fifty words, Iain Crichton Smith gives us a picture of the world he came from. His deployment of a fishing-boat name, The Golden Rose, suggests a milieu with its own sense of splendour, offsetting rigid Presbyterianism. The poem ends with the beauty of ‘A moon/hard and high/above a marsh.’

This combination of absurdity, sparkle, implied hurt and grace was characteristic of Iain Crichton Smith (in Gaelic, Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn), who died on 15 October 1998 in his 71st year. Born in Glasgow, he was taken to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis as a very young child after his father, a merchant seaman, died of tuberculosis. Iain’s mother brought up her three sons in a Gaelic-speaking household and worked as a ‘herring girl’, gutting fish with her hacked, salt-smarting hands. Murdo Macdonald, who shared a primary school desk with Iain at Bayble Public School in the Point district of Lewis, remembers the small boy as humorous but extremely shy. He read and imitated Keats, Scott and Shelley, won a scholarship to the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, went on to Aberdeen University and became an inspiring schoolteacher, but his shyness stayed for a good deal of his adult life, and he remained self-effacing, with a tendency to smile at himself and the Gaelic culture which was crucial to him.

Crichton Smith had a liking for Chinese restaurants, and wrote a number of poems (which he enjoyed delivering at readings) on Chinese themes. In one a couple experience a moment of revelation, suddenly understanding every word of a menu written in Chinese. In another, ‘Chinese Poem’, which plays with the translatorese of Ezra Pound’s Cathay, it is clear that the speaker, alone and far from the capital, in a remote region where ‘My trousers grow used to the dung’, is not a Mandarin:

What news from the frontier? Is Donald still Colonel?
Are there more pupils than teachers in Scotland?
I send you this by a small boy with a pointed head.
Don’t trust him. He is a Campbell.

Where earlier generations of Scottish readers had grown up with Crichton Smith’s more obviously serious poems of the late Fifties and early Sixties, such as ‘Old Woman’, in which a speaker feels ‘imprisoned’ as he watches an elderly woman eat ‘from a mashed plate’, it was the humour and lyricism in his Seventies and Eighties work that most immediately attracted me. The sparkle of laughter, so evident in Iain’s conversation, surfaced only intermittently in his poetry, but it did so in ways that were always quirkily memorable. The work seemed to carry with it an awareness that humour could be healing and sociable, and that it could be all the stronger for being bound up with hurt. A fine serious novelist and short-story writer (often dealing most memorably with hermits and outsiders), Crichton Smith, who retired from teaching in 1977, would spread laughter at public readings by entertaining the audience with his prose account of a school whose motto was ‘Strength through Boredom’, or by reading one of his tales of the fictional Murdo, part alter ego, part stooge, who was eager to know what magazines Dante had first sent his poems to. The boyish mischief of these pieces was essential to Crichton Smith’s make-up, so that to let it loose was an act of companionable trust and conspiracy rather than a betrayal of his other, more serious themes. The absurdity which he found inscribed throughout creation might, he thought, be enjoyed rather than stoically endured.

Possibly Crichton Smith delighted in his Chinese poems because he often lived in translation. Aged 17, he had sailed to the mainland, seen a train for the first time, boarded it at Kyle of Lochalsh, and travelled across northern Scotland to go to university in Aberdeen. Forty years later in that granite ‘sparkling town’, he introduced himself at his alma mater in terms of his own Gaelic poem ‘The Fool’, which he quoted in his English version:

In the dress of the fool, the two colours that have tormented me, English and Gaelic, black and red, the court of injustice, the reason for my anger, and that fine rain from the mountains and these grievous storms from my mind streaming the two colours together so that I will go with poor sight in the one colour that is so odd that the King himself will not understand my conversation.

I remember hearing Crichton Smith give this talk about being a ‘double man’, and being aware of how self-excoriating he could be when, as a native Gaelic speaker educated through the medium of English, he outlined his sense of being ‘in a No Man’s Land between the two languages’ and described ‘the ravages that are made on the bilingual, his guilt and his sense of inadequacy’. He was probably not helped by having grown up in a Scottish literary climate still linguistically fissured in the wake of the quarrel between Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir; he was also painfully aware of the difficulties of writing for a Scottish Gaelic audience numbering at best 65,000, most of whom would have little interest in experimental contemporary poetry or prose. The title of one of his English poems asks ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ and states ‘He who loses his language loses his world.’ An admirer of Eliot, Lowell and the Classical tradition, as well as a translator from Duncan Ban Macintyre and the great heritage of Gaelic verse, Crichton Smith was a superb mediator between the various cultures native to his imagination, an imagination often haunted by loss.

In review, however, his career seems crammed with undeniable gains. Grant Wilson’s 1990 bibliography of his work runs to over two hundred pages. In English Crichton Smith published ten novels, beginning with Consider the Lilies (1968; published in America as The Alien Light, 1969), which deals with the Highland Clearances, as well as six volumes of short stories and 13 poetry collections, the first of which, The Long River, appeared in 1955. In Gaelic he published four collections of poetry, two novels and five volumes of short stories. He was probably the first writer of artistically shaped short stories in that language, and he was also a successful playwright. On his rickety typewriter with its faded ribbon, he was a prolific reviewer too. With a characteristic barb, the late Norman MacCaig once said that he was very worried about Iain Crichton Smith, who hadn’t published a new book for days. Crichton Smith’s work, especially the poetry, is constantly bright and alert, as well as being prepared to confront depths and wounds which included a mid-life mental breakdown and an awareness of a need to contain contrary impulses, whether linguistic, emotional or spiritual. Such titles as The Law and the Grace, or Biobuill is Sanasan-reice (Bibles and Advertisements), or, most recently, The Leaf and the Marble present their readers with a hard choice between alternatives, but also with the simultaneous presence of apparently very different elements.

This sense of conjunction, of Crichton Smith’s being at the forefront of Scottish poetry in English and in Gaelic, of his being poet and novelist and short story-writer and playwright, of his giving voice in his essays to what it means to be a Gaelic islander and being able to send up po-faced banalities about the ‘oral tradition’, of his being a self-demanding, Calvinistically formed intellectual and a warm, attentive giggler – all this came to be taken for granted in Scotland, so that the suddenness of his death, two months after he was diagnosed as having cancer of the oesophagus, still seems devastating and improbable. For all the awards he had won, for all of his many achievements, there remained a boyishness about him.

Apparently as a schoolteacher in Fifties Oban Crichton Smith would ask pupils directly, ‘Do you believe in God?’ and would show his sixth-form students stories or poems that he was working on, anxious for their opinions. He took the answers seriously, and throughout his life treated all those he encountered with a salutary equality of attention. As his poem, ‘The Autumn of Experience’, puts it, ‘every star is just as precious/as every other star.’ This was not a pose on his part. Such eagerness went with an appearance of vulnerability, and it would be difficult to maintain that the warmth and sparkle of his personality were not bound up with a sometimes flickering sense of self-worth. There keeps coming into my mind an image of Iain a few years ago on a rare visit to read in the United States. In wintry upstate New York he was setting off through man-high snowdrifts wearing only a little light jerkin, looking very vulnerable and chirpy, as if he had just stepped out for the paper on a drizzly day in Argyll.

Latterly, Crichton Smith lived in Taynuilt in Argyll with his wife Donalda. Having lived for many years with his mother, he married late in life and found not only a needed stability but also a delight which shone in his verse. To walk from the clutter of his study, with its floor-to-ceiling detective stories, poetry books and leaning towers of typescript, across the hallway to the ordered front room was to move between two worlds essential to one another. With Donalda Iain solved a problem which had preoccupied him: how to be an intellectual in his own small community, faithful both to the village and to the demands of the imagination, able to live, as he once put it, ‘somewhere between Lewis and Wittgenstein’.

At Crichton Smith’s funeral a Gaelic teacher from Oban stood beside a woman who had flown in that morning from New York. His writing, so alert to issues of home and exile, has gathered round it admirers, from Les Murray in Australia to younger poets working in Gaelic and English in Scotland. The week after his cremation, his new book was published. The Leaf and the Marble, an extended love poem to Donalda, celebrates the fragile, local, improvisatory persistence of the leaf rather than the marmoreal grandeur of relentless empire. It is ambitious, and sometimes cheeky; those Free Church ministers he so distrusted would be appalled to have ‘Rome’ in this poem linked to Presbyterian dogma. His geniality, unwavering commitment to the imagination, and brave lyricism in Gaelic and in English made Crichton Smith an exemplary figure. He and his work encouraged that climate of linguistic pluralism which recent Scottish poets take for granted. Now Jian Zhang from Beijing Foreign Studies University is about to translate some of his poetry into Chinese. The man from Bayble would have liked that. A distant audience will be able to hear in the work of Iain Crichton Smith, whether written in Gaelic or in English, ‘the unpredicted voices of our kind’.