Memo for Spring, Liz Lochhead’s debut collection of poems, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1972, the first in a succession of awards and honours to follow her down the years.
When in 2011 she succeeded Edwin Morgan, as Scotland’s Makar, then First Minister Alex Salmond, said: ‘As an author, translator, playwright, stage performer, broadcaster and grande dame of Scottish theatre, Ms Lochhead embodies everything a nation would want from its national poet.’ Fugitive Colours, her latest collection, brings together work done in her official capacity as Makar, with other previously unseen pieces. The collection is divided into five sections, covering distinct aspects of her work.
The opening one, ‘Love and Grief, Elegies and Promises’, is largely concerned with loss, the greatest being that of the poet’s beloved husband, architect Tom Logan. ‘Favourite Place’ is a moving account of a visit to their caravan near Fort William. The long poem, largely formulated in the conditional tense, describes how the trip would, and by extension, should, still be. ‘We would be snaking up Loch Lomond,’ it begins, before going on to describe the journey in lovingly forensic detail. It’s a great list of a poem, of the places passed, the texture of the trip with its music, companionable bickering and the happy repetitions and rituals of arrival: ‘we’d be lighting candles, pouring a dram/drinking the first cup of tea/from the old black and white teapot’.
The arrival heralds a marvellously vivid evocation of the beauty of the place, colour laid on the page with an artist’s attention to light, shade, and detail, a joyful depiction of the landscape, weather and wildlife of this much-loved destination: ‘Tomorrow there would be the distant islands/cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain in the great veils/coming in across the water, the earliest, tenderest/feathering of green on the trees …’ So the poem rises to a crescendo
with ‘the chrome-yellow straight-out-of-the-tube-and/laid-on-with-a-palette-knife brashness’ of the gorse. But we must remember the conditionality of all this, the would of it, when we come to a heartbreaking change of tone and tense, from the conditional to the simple present, from the wished for to the actual: ‘But tonight you are three months dead.’ This comes as a shock, a break, a heartbreak, a sudden absence of colour, an honest, imageless stanza in which Lochhead invokes the words of Sorley MacLean – ‘The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.’ – but nevertheless finishes with a chillingly visceral cry of grief: ‘And this will not be a consolation/but a further desolation.’
The painterly attention to the visual world is a feature of Lochhead’s work – unsurprising in someone who studied at Glasgow School of Art and for whom making pictures is still very much part of her life. ‘A Handselling, 2006’ shows the couple sipping whisky and drawing the view from the window of Jura Lodge: ‘we sketch and scratch and scribble/not stopping till – late – all the last of the light is gone.’ Of course, this impulse to record, to capture on the page, to memorialize is one shared by writers, perhaps most particularly poets. As Lochhead observes in ‘Persimmons’, of the fruit that Tom has drawn: ‘they’d have come and gone like Christmas/if you’d not put them down/and made them worth more than the paper they’re inscribed on’. These lines are a key to this section in which the ache of loss is simply and baldly evident though leavened by details of the beautiful world and of the joyful idiosyncracies of a loving marriage.
The list poem, which works so well in performance, is a favourite form for Lochhead. It is particularly employed in this section: in ‘Favourite Place’, most explicitly in ‘Some Things I Covet in Jura Lodge’, in ‘Cornucopia’ with its list of questions, and the lists of notes in ‘Legacy’. In these tender poems, the lists serve as attempts to notice and to hoard and to honour those things that are precious, and thus render them precious to the reader too. The poems here are written in Standard English, but in the final poem, ‘A Cambric Shirt’, which precedes the section ‘The Light Comes Back’, the use of a more particularly Scottish register returns. This tender poem begins in English: ‘Because the sound of his daughter’s name’ and becomes increasingly Scots till it concludes: ‘the camrie sark/withoot ony seam or needlewark’. Though it is delicately personal it has thus a commonality with several of the later public poems in which Scots is employed with an appealing vigour and in which Lochhead’s performative voice rings out.
In the funny and inventive, ‘Nick Dowp, Feeling Miscast in a Very English Production, Rehearses Bottom’s Dream’, we have Nick’s monologue as he bemoans what he believes is Shakespeare’s attitude to Scots: ‘Shakespeare’s (excuse me for being cynical)/ Attitude to Scotch verse is that it’s kina like McGonagall’s/And only guid enough for thae Rude-Mechanicals.’ He proceeds to translate one of Bottom’s speeches into Scots with energetic brio so that: ‘I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was,’ becomes: ‘I have had a maist rare and unco and byorner Vision. I have hud a dream, – telling ye, I’m daunerin aroon in a dwamm like a half shut knife trying to shake mysel free o it, but och it’s beyond Man’s kennin to say whitlike a dream it wis,’ – which has the effect of making the words Shakespeare gives his rude mechanicals seem rather prissy.
One of the best-known features of Lochhead’s work is her linguistic playfulness, making a virtue of the use of familiar phrases and jumps in register, producing poems that beg to be performed. Take ‘Way Back in the Paleolithic’: a jazzy, rhythmic spree, which I’ve heard her perform with gleeful gusto. This poem takes us through the birth of art, with a refrain that asks the question: ‘Art, art, what is it for?’ Lochhead’s wit is evident in the jaunty rhymes: ago/Lascaux; bacon/undertaking and the foot-tapping rhythm. The poem is funny and irreverent and even – no mean feat with such a light touch – rather profound. The answer to the question comes in the second line of the refrain: ‘To bring into being what never existed before.’
Many of the poems in Fugitive Colours have an underlying concern with the making of art, whether visual or verbal. In the section ‘Ekphrasis, Etcetera’ Lochhead turns her attention to photographs and paintings, creating monologues for The Scullery Maid and The Cellar Boy in the work of the eighteenth-century French painter Chardin; turning her eye to the works of Willie Roger, Alan Davies, to the Glasgow School of Art and the reopening of the Kelvingrove Gallery. Several of these poems consider the meaning and purpose of art and poetry but it is in ‘In Gaia’s Poetry’, included in the section ‘Kidspoems and Bairnsongs’, that Lochhead seems most explicitly to expound her own views of prosody, including the pitfalls of rhyme: ‘To start to put down words that end the same – Soundwise – is to get on a horse/that’s going to take you where you might not really want to go.’ This poem charmingly encapsulates a mini poetry lesson with child-appropriate simplicity and humour.
Lochhead is a democratic poet. There’s nothing difficult here, nothing you’d need to read twice in order to ‘get’ though many you’d read more than once for the sheer pleasure. Though she employs various forms, most of the poetry has an elasticity that uses voice as its control, rather than formal prosody. This means that she might end a line on such null words as ‘the’ or ‘and’, relying on the impetus of the voice to carry us through. In this sense the poems can be read as scripts for voice, and since she is also a playwright this is unsurprising. In fact several of the poems in the final and most extensive section in the book, ‘Makar Songs, Occasional and Performance Pieces Mainly’, are dedicated to luminaries of the Scottish theatre. ‘The Theatre Maker’s Credo’, for instance, another poem in the form of a list, this time instructions for good playmaking, advises: ‘Tell it in prose/tell it in rhyme/Tell it in words of one syllable/Tell it in mime’ – again the foot-tapping highly performable lines.
There’s a wealth of fun, cheek and entertainment in this section and some hilarious indecency. One such example is ‘Song for a Dirty Diva’ in which the narrator shrieks her frustration at the lack of sexual opportunity with her gay male friends: ‘I could ball a rugby team and cream them all the orgasm./Take a caveman and his club to fill ma yawnin chasm.’ But it is in the first section of Fugitive Colours, in the poems that deal with the loss of her husband, that the strongest, most emotionally authentic and affecting work is to be found. Here Lochhead accesses the truly personal and particular and communicates with her readers at the level of the heart in a way that is paradoxically more inclusive than the poems that explicitly lean towards an audience.