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Em Strang reviews new poetry pamphlets by Angela McSeveney, Donald Mackay and Alec Finlay – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Em Strang reviews new poetry pamphlets by Angela McSeveney, Donald Mackay and Alec Finlay

November 7, 2012 | by SRB

Angela McSeveney, Still Bristling, Mariscat Press, £5

Angela McSeveney’s latest pamphlet Still Bristling (2012) covers a lot of ground, from litter-strewn rural roads to exotic tree frogs in toilets, ‘looking cute in a pool of pee.’ The collection has a part humorous, part matter-of-fact feel to it, and what I admire most is its honesty and lack of pretension. The poems are more personal anecdote than lyrical discourse, so if you like poetry with a more complex agenda, chances are you’ll be disappointed. Her language is conversational and prosaic, accessible and inclusive, as though the poems are small glasses from which everyone is welcome to drink. At times, however, I found this aspect of the language tricky: there’s always the risk that the poem flattens out and what you’re left with is prose with line-breaks or, as in ‘Scottish Climate Bill Demo’, shopping-list poetry: 

In the meantime I have left a trail of tat

to outlast me: biros and nylon bras, coathangers, shoe soles,

breadbags and yoghurt cartons, cling film, toothbrushes,

rucksacks, Barbie dolls, washing up basins…

Having said that, there are some beautiful and powerful moments in this publication: in ‘Country Walk’ McSeveney talks about a rotting caravan, how ‘the earth will somehow pull it under / like broken skin closing over a splinter’; and I appreciate her ‘Summer Cottage’ with its realistic perspective on the rural working life, its ‘sheer bloody misery’ as well as the occasional ‘song sung’. Overall, though, I was left wanting more depth or a sharper chisel for working the everyday edge.


Donald Mackay, On Time, Mariscat Press £5

There are some good poems in Donald Mackay’s new pamphlet, On Time (2012). In particular, ‘At Hugh Mackay’s Scourie’ and ‘The Boundary’ are shining poems which get up off the page to shake my hand. Mackay likes rhyme and he wields it well in both these poems, incorporating subtle half-rhymes and careful enjambments to allow the poems to breathe and flow without tying them up too tightly in strict form:

A platter

shone in the firelight, an enormous salmon

filling the chatter full of fishermen because,

though boys or lesser men,

we grew to heroes with the shadows of the house.


There’s a painterly quality to some of his work with a kind of unadorned luminosity to it; a simplicity that renders the words three-dimensional, present: ‘she’d a wicker basket, clucking chicken’ and ‘tomatoes in a handkerchief with eggs’ (‘Tirana-Inverness-Tirana’). Mackay also employs the occasional deft metaphorical leap which takes the poetry into broader, more surprising territory. Overall though, I felt his tendency to use rhyme, or perhaps his occasionally clumsy use of it, is what let the poems down. On the one hand, it feels as though there’s a clear poetic voice emerging from this work, and on the other, there’s a sense that the voice is unsure what it is saying and, on occasion, even unsure whether it has something to say at all. It feels like a publication on a tight-rope between realisation and confusion. My sense is Mackay’s got a lot more shining poems in him, biding their time.


Alec Finlay, Question your teaspoons, Calder Wood Press, £5

If you like haiku, renga and fragmentary poetry, you’ll like Alec Finlay’s Question your teaspoons (2012). Finlay, also an artist and publisher, is known for his collaborative work. His recent project with Ken Cockburn, the road north, consisted of a word-map and journey poems, guided by Basho’s Oku-no-hosomichi. Some of those poems are published here. Lifting shared experience from journal to lyric and imbuing it with spiritual import is no mean feat and, to my mind, only some of these poems succeed. But I am a haiku fan and I appreciate Finlay’s deep engagement with the simple beauty of nature’s symbolic resonance, as exemplified in his haiku-like poem, ‘Fraxinus’:

the ash tree’s

the garden’s


sea sounding

waves in its




In light of recent news about ash dieback, the poem carries added poignancy. But instead of having a clear vision of where the poems have come from and where they’re going, by the end of the pamphlet the view’s somewhat foggy: I’m not convinced that poems such as ‘a child’s alphabet’ (the alphabet written out with the ‘I’ in the wrong place and two ‘L’s), and ‘what is a garden?’ (‘a garden is culture / and labour / producing an annual / surplus of colour’) actually work to create something beautiful or coherent or mesmerizing or strange in the reader’s mind. Or am I missing the point? 


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