Liz Lochhead’s Fugitive Colours evokes grief, reminiscence

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Photo: Polygon
Photo: Polygon
Photo: Polygon

Fugitive Colours is the most recent product of a career that started in 1972 with Memo of Spring. Since then Liz Lochhead has published numerous works of poetry and drama, and is now ending her term as Scottish Makar with a work of both jocularity and intense reflection. The first poem, ‘Favourite Place’, describes the journeys the author had taken with her husband—tinged with the comically aggravating, pastorally soothing, and marvellously sublime scenes of holidays in the Highlands. But the ending comes suddenly and brutally, for you realise it is not just a nostalgic account of memories, but a poem dedicated to her recently late husband. In ‘Favourite Place,’ she ties all the memories of these highland journeys—loaded with positive energy—to the devastating image of a half-empty bed.

That image introduces the main themes of the anthology’s first section: the feeling of loss and the embitterment of sweet memories through grief. But the sentiment also impels Lochhead to discuss the therapeutics of art. Examining the sketch her husband made of three fruits in a bowl, she finishes the poem ‘Persimmons’ with a pun and a metaphysical comment on art: “still life/ still life, sweetheart,/ in what’s already eaten and done with./ Now, looking, I can taste again”. Lochhead captures art’s ability to resurrect past experience, a concept she plays with throughout the first section; indeed, many poems here are in direct address to her husband and other passed friends and they read as odes to shared experiences. Lochhead excludes no evocative thought for fear of it being mundane, and she breathes into each memory life and power:

Tomorrow there would be the distant islands
cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain in great veils
coming in across the water, the earliest tenderest
feathering of green on the trees, mibble autumn
laying bare the birches stark white.

— ‘Favourite Place’

In the second section “Ekphrasis, Etcetera,” Lochhead shifts gears. The poem ‘Labyrinth’ is an interesting commentary on the poet’s vocation itself, in which Lochhead urges the poet to forget standard rules and to trust their own aesthetic instinct; to faithfully seek reality, and invent their own style. For Lochhead, poetry should be inexhaustible and infinitely diverse. This section also includes more politically minded poems. ‘Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class, 1966’, for example, is a moving piece on an old photograph, in which she considers the blasé sexism of being a female student in the sixties. The addressee’s innocence increases the luridness of the social dynamic around her and is a powerful condemnation of casual sexism. But the poem also sings to the girl’s growing independence and power: “Thanks to newfound feminism and Greer/ Women’ll have the words for all this stuff,/ What already rankles, but confuses her, will seem clear/ And she’ll (consciously) be no one’s ‘bit of fluff’/ Or ‘skirt’ or ‘crumpet.’” Lochhead writes with beauty that has an edge, and she shows that poetry with a strong political bent can still be sensitive and empathetic. Using the vantage point of an innocent but maturing girl carries a unique condemning power.

There are also plenty of laughs to be had from Fugitive Colours; the poems near the end of the collection, ‘Song for a Dirty Diva’ and ‘Another, Later, Song for that Same Dirty Diva’, detail the complaints of a salacious older woman who is unaccustomed to the undersexed life, first, of being in a social circle of mostly gay friends, and second, of living in a retirement home. Both are raunchy—yes, crude—but they are uproarious, written with playful rhyme schemes and rhythmic free verse which enliven the wit. There is also a hilarious take on Robert Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’, titled ‘From a Mouse’ and written from the creature’s perspective.

Fugitive Colours is by no means difficult poetry; moreover, I think its accessibility underscores the continued relevance of poetry in our own time. It is poetry which should have usefulness and resonance for everyone. Lochhead utilises a large variety of voices, some of which are comical and funny, others which are seriously geared toward social issues, and others which try to address real suffering. We can look to many poems in “Love and Grief, Elegies and Promises” as profound attempts to alleviate the encumbering symptoms of loss. Lochhead uses poetry as therapy, and it’s there for all of us who want it. But even if not for these reasons, I will always remember Fugitive Colours for its arresting descriptions of the Scottish landscape. As an American student half way through his degree, I know there are poems here I will revisit whenever I miss the rain and the mountains.

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