Webs of meaning
Two poets weave Buchanan, Burns and Freud into modern narratives of great power and charm, writes Keith Bruce
DEARALICE Tom Pow
TTheAyeWrite!read FULLVOLUME Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape £9
Salt £12.99 he opening lines of Robert Crawford’s new collection are far from original. In fact the artist Dieter Rot put the sentiment rather more pithily in his oft-quoted contribution to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies of 1975: Faced with a choice, do both. Crawford’s Advice is more concerned with ticking every box, and importantly it is advice he heeds himself, to the clear benefit of his verse.
The Oblique Strategies, originally a set of playing cards intended to prod music-makers and other artists in creative directions, are now available to consult on the internet, and it was at the Tower Poetry site thereon that I once noted Crawford described as “professionally Scottish”. It was not intended as an insult, although it would surely strike many Scots as such. What it pointed up was a level of identification of the professor of modern Scottish literature at St Andrews University with his home nation that put a kilt on everything he wrote, albeit often a trendy, modern Howie Nicklesby one.
Full Volume ranges much more widely, but that development is prompted less by Dieter Rot than by Robert Burns, whose biography Crawford has been engaged upon, and the lines from To A Mouse quoted as an epigraph here: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion/ Has broken Nature’s social union.”
If the environmental theme that runs through many of these poems seems like another political bandwagon, they certainly do not read that way. Crawford embraces the whole philosophy of thinking globally but acting locally, to the extent that Scotland, when mentioned, is dismissed as “a national smudge”. That telling geographical image occurs at the end of Shetland Vows, which deals specifically in such issues of perspective.
It has a sort of parallel in Measurement, 20 lines that bounce around the Orkney Isles and their fantastic inbuilt sense of history. This is all achieved with a characteristic lightness of touch that makes it seem all the more profound: in The Gean Tree he coins the allusive word Kyotoishly, which onomatopoeically sums up that approach.
The linguistic reach here takes in verse derived from George Buchanan’s Latin from the sixteenth century and a Gaelic call to battle of the Clan Donald from 100 years earlier as well as an adaptation of Portugal’s Pessoa. It also extends into the virtual world as it rubs against the natural one in Satnav or creates its own fictions in