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Book Report: Scottish Contemporary Poetry

Sarah Stewart, a PhD candidate in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Edinburgh and a doctoral intern at Poets House, highlights some Scottish poetry gems that she found in the Poets House library.

It is a huge privilege to be a visiting doctoral intern at Poets House as part of my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh. On my bumpy flight from Scotland, I wondered how Poets House might differ from Edinburgh’s glorious Scottish Poetry Library, where I worked with the BBC on an international poetry collaboration. Happily, the two libraries share some vital characteristics: an abundance of natural light, welcoming staff, a treasure trove of poetry from around the world and through the ages, and stations for listening as well as reading. Both libraries feel like spaces of solace and inspiration, where everyone is welcome.

I was also “chuffed” (as we say in the UK) that such a broad selection of Scottish poets have made it across the Atlantic and into the well-stocked shelves of Poets House. So it is my great pleasure to introduce some of my favorite Scottish collections from the Poets House stacks…

Tracey Herd’s Dead Redhead

I have no idea why East Kilbride–born Tracey Herd isn’t better known: I think she is brilliant, and I’m thrilled to see her collection Dead Redhead on the shelves at Poets House. Described by Herd’s publisher, Bloodaxe, as “a Book of the Dead in which the women have the starring roles,” this wide-ranging collection encompasses Ophelia, Holly Golightly, Marilyn Monroe, and more. I highly recommend “The Mystery of the Missing Century,” in which Nancy Drew imagines her own death: “A little church in River Heights, crammed / with mourners for their mid-western girl / come home, the walls outside piled high / with blue larkspur…”

Kathleen Jamie’s Waterlight

Poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie is a well-known name in Scottish letters, and now U.S. readers can discover her work through Waterlight, an elegant selection of her poems from Graywolf Press. Jamie’s poetry, at once musical and spare, sings with a voice that to me feels uniquely Scottish. In “The Creel,” the poet describes the world beginning with a woman “shawl-happed, stooped under a creel,” and closes with “It’s not sea birds or peat she’s carrying, / nor fleece, nor the herring bright / but her fear that if ever she put it down / the world would go out like a light.” This book also offers a chance to try reading Scots (which is not as hard as it seems!)—try “Skeins o Geese,” the collection’s closing poem.

Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers

Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Glasgow. She’s currently the much-loved Scots Makar, or National Poet for Scotland, and her first poetry collection, The Adoption Papers, tells her own story: that of a black girl’s adoption by a white Scottish couple, written from the perspective of the mother, the birth mother, and the daughter. By turns painful, moving, and funny, this unsentimental collection also contains a selection of poems engaging with issues of sexuality and class; I love the poem “Photo in the Locket,” which opens with “There are things I don’t tell her / private things, a garnet necklace / slipped between black silk and cotton…”

Norman MacCaig’s A Man in My Position

Norman MacCaig, born in Edinburgh in 1910, was a classical scholar, teacher, pacifist, and man of the people. Famously, when asked “how long does it take to write a poem?,” he replied, “twa fags” (two cigarettes). Poets House holds a beautiful hardcover Hogarth Press copy of MacCaig’s A Man in My Position from 1969. This collection contains “A Man in Assynt,” which is set in a remote part of northwestern Scotland: a poem that is both a lyrical evocation of Scotland’s intractable geography and a political statement. “Who owns this landscape?— / The millionaire who bought it or / the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning / with a deer on his back?” MacCaig’s rich, sensuous language evokes Scotland for anyone who dreams of it, particularly in “No End, No Beginning”: “…a moon fat as a butterball / Over the wet feathers of treetops; / Meadowsweet smelling of gray honey…”

Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light

Award-winning Robin Robertson’s wonderful collection The Wrecking Light contains one of my very favorite poems, the chilling “At Roane Head”: “You’d know her house by the drawn blinds— / by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall, / the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry.” Robertson’s a poet of great scope, writing, for example, after Montale, Tranströmer, and Ovid, but I also like the simple tenderness of “To My Daughters, Asleep” (from Swithering, also in the Poets House stacks): “Is it too late to start, too late to learn / all the words for love before they wake?”

Sarah Stewart is a SGSAH-funded PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She also writes children’s fiction as Sarah Forbes and is Director at Lighthouse Literary. Her poetry pamphlet, Glisk, is published by Tapsalterie.


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