Scotia Nova: Poems for the Early Days of a Better Nation, Luath Press, ed. Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford, £7.99
[pullquote]A year after the poems were selected, and four months after the independence referendum, how does this Scottish anthology fare in the ‘early days’ of the ‘better nation’ it was written for?[/pullquote]
On Scotia Nova’s cover, a seagull perches underneath a statue of a Scottish proponent of British colonial rule (a disposition that I assume isn’t shared by the seagull), illustrating the tension between Scotland’s history and its living present. This image recurs in the opening poem by Angus Calder:
has been transformed by the pigeons and gulls
quite recently taking over from the sparrows.
Nostalgic persons might talk as if life has been narrowed,
but I love the gulls, and the pigeons […]
refusing to stop pecking, refusing to die, […]
and (gulls, I mean) flying upwards towards the sun.
Calder’s insistence that this is only about gulls hints at the Scottish male evasion of actual feelings, but Calder’s seagulls are a hopeful symbol of entering ‘the early days of a better nation’, though not without a hint of Icarus.
Change, naturally, is a unifying theme, and two of the most interesting treatments are astronomical poems by Alan Gay, whose heavenly bodies gain a Scottish relevance purely through their context in the anthology, providing a refreshing exception to the more explicitly Scottish poems. Of these, some tackle change by focusing on democracy; Donald Adamson places his hope in “oor bairns / and oor bairns’ bairns […] openin thir minds […] tae brithers, sisters, kent or unkent, aa”. Other poems make a democratic and an independent Scotland synonymous, including George Gunn’s Wound: “tempering our own steel for our own knife […] the vast democracy of life”. Harry Giles’ approach in Questionnaire for Citizens of an Independent Scotland asks big questions (“What are the fundamental principles of Scottish life?”), highlights the country’s problems (“Can you bend to touch your knees and straighten up again?”, “Do you mope a lot?”), and has its tongue in its cheek (“Can your speech be understood by strangers?”). Of the poems that directly interrogate the referendum, Paul Henderson Scott’s Auld Reekie flounders most in a world where Edinburgh is not the “real capital aince mair” that the poem strives for. In this vein, some poems seem jingoistic, but others, like Rab Wilson’s Veesion (which compares the Saltire’s origin tale with the voter’s X) pitch their nationalism beautifully.
As in Veesion, Scotia Nova is best when Scotland’s history, people and wit take centre-stage. Donald Adamson’s Landfall takes us back to when “The land arrived as lava or by sea”, highlighting the “motley crew” of Scottish ancestry, including the Romans, who feature in Ken Cockburn’s A Wee Word of Advice from the Empire speaking condescendingly to Scottish tribes. Colonialism also appears in Gordon Jarvie’s With a swish of his whisk, or wand. His presentation of a Nigerian chief dismissing Christian missionaries from his palace serves as an example about how to deal with colonisers, but potentially also highlights Scotland’s role in the empire by not identifying the missionaries. David Betteridge’s Citizen’s Song focuses on Scotland’s industrial and socialist history. The final line (“each day, the risen bread”) brings together the protestant work ethic and catholic transubstantiation, levelling social divides. The speaker of Head of a Young Woman by Gerda Stevenson addresses a pre-historic woman in a museum, emphasising shared links through history:
Five thousand years between us, and yet
not a moment, it seems – recognition
like that spark you’d know how to strike
There are also many poems honouring individuals, including John Knox and Michael Marra. The strongest of these is Alistair Findlay’s The West Lothian Question Answered, recognising the SNP’s Margo MacDonald as a “champion of the people”. The primary image is of a hospital ship with Margo “strapped like Kate Winslet / to the prow […] The Proclaimers roaring Celine Dion”, providing a touching yet amusing tribute. Also notable is Iyad Hayatleh’s My New Homeland, in memory of Hayatleh’s wife, and documenting the emotional process of settling in Scotland; Hayatleh’s poem is included both in English and in the original Arabic. A smaller act of translation occurs in Colin Donati’s tribute to Robert Henryson which includes T.S. Eliot in Middle Scots, and offers a tip for reading Scots poetry – “the soond is aa, an aa thing follaes then”.
This linguistic playfulness continues in Donald Smith’s Alba, which puns on the Gaelic name for Scotland and the Provençal lyric genre, and William Hershaw’s Aye, which is about how ‘ours was aye [always] the enemy within – / it was not the docile English forged our woe’. Scottish wit is also present in the shortest poem, Colin Donati’s Koan:
O U T spells oot.
The tensions presented here are surprisingly numerous, and – true to its koan form – pondering ambiguity is its point. For me, the strongest poem here is Gerda Stevenson’s Hame-comin. The title refers to Holyrood’s Homecoming initiative, but this is no holiday. Stevenson adopts the voice of a soldier returning from a tour of duty. The red hackle of the Black Watch (“yon cramasie flooer”) is compared to “bluid”, and the soldier’s return is marred because their “fieres are laid in the grund”, and they are haunted by “yon bairn […] blew tae hell like a smirr o eldritch confetti”. The poem raises questions about Scotland’s values, politics and place on the world stage, and doesn’t offer an easy answer. Its powerful language shows a complex, mature Scotland.
Scotia Nova is, like all anthologies, a mixed bag. Despite its occasional poetic ineffectiveness or dependence on the reader’s politics, the majority of the poems are successful. At its strongest moments it is a testament to the richness of Scottish poetry, and serves as a detailed snapshot of the nation.