Norman MacCaig,
Selected Poems,
edited by Douglas Dunn
(Chatto & Windus, 1997)

Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) was a cultural icon in Scotland. His lyric poems had great appeal, especially to those who would not normally enjoy poetry. The themes of his work move seamlessly from the landscapes and lochs of the Scottish Highlands to his gritty descriptions of 20th-century Edinburgh; he was one of the most important and widely respected chroniclers of life in Scotland during the last century. He wrote poems of love and exquisite portrayals of the simplest wonders of nature, conveying so perfectly, and with the detailed eye of an artist, his own delight in what he saw and heard. A perfect illustration of this is the following extract from "July evening" (1962):

A bird's voice chinks and tinkles
Alone in the gaunt reedbed --
Tiny silversmith
Working late in the evening.

MacCaig wrote about toads, kingfishers, swans, herons -- and always described them as if he were seeing them for the very first time. He published 16 collections in his lifetime. His poetry is highly visual, often witty and always compassionate, fully reflecting his humanity. His beautiful words can stop you in your tracks as you pause and reflect. He must have been an inspiration to his Edinburgh school pupils -- he was a teacher for almost 40 years.

Douglas Dunn's introduction to this selection is excellent, and he provides the reader with some fascinating detail about MacCaig's life and work. The layout is also clear and logical, with all the selections presented chronologically, spanning the years 1955 to 1988. Dunn gives a delightful description of MacCaig's physical appearance: "His face was sculpted ... but crossed also with a craggy Hebridean cut evident in the cheekbones and eyebrows." MacCaig's links to the Hebrides (the Isle of Harris) were through his mother, and Dunn suggests that MacCaig regretted that he didn't inherit his mother's Gaelic -- all his poetry was written in English. We also learn that MacCaig particularly enjoyed reading poetry by John Donne, Louis MacNeice and Edwin Muir. Dunn writes rather evocatively that he felt that MacCaig was looking over his shoulder as he selected the poems for this edition. He imagined MacCaig saying; "Don't ask me, you choose. I just wrote them."

Reading, interpreting and enjoying a poem (or a book or a song) are personal matters, so all I will do here is to give you an example of MacCaig's beautiful words -- they seem to capture the Highlander's spirit beautifully. I would just add that this edition brings some of his finest work to the modern reader -- and the enjoyment is yours to treasure!

Old Highland woman (1988)

She sits all day by the fire.
How long is it since she opened the door
and stepped outside, confusing
the scuffling hens and the collie
dreaming of sheep?
Her walking days are over.

She has come here through centuries
of Gaelic labour and loves
and rainy funerals. Her people
are assembled in her bones.
She's their summation. Before her time
has almost no meaning.

When neighbours call
she laughs a wicked cackle
with love in it, as she listens
to the sly bristle of gossip,
relishing the life in it,
relishing the malice, with her hands
lying in her lap like holy psalms
that once had a meaning for her, that once
were noble with tunes
she used to sing long ago.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 10 January 2004

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