Running through the Panopticon author’s new book of poetry is the theme of the magical roots of language, its primal power as an invocation to alter mental states and affect one’s surroundings. For Fagan, writing is a visceral activity, a reconnection with the physical rather than a flight away from it, and these are earthy, elemental poems in which words are likened to flesh and punctuation marks to arrows that pierce them.
Love is both a distant, elusive healing force and a fully present tempest of tenderness and aggression with its fingers around her throat. The overarching mood of dark internal turmoil makes the longest poem here, a memorial to the mental patients of Bangour Hospital a century ago, even more disturbing and oppressive, but the fact that Fagan was living in Paris for much of this time, basking in the presence of many great writers before her, brings some airiness and shafts of sunlight into this powerful collection.
Cult musician Momus (Nick Currie) brought this book out in 2009 and copies of the first run now change hands for silly money. In this edition, he imagines hordes of wildly diverse alternative Scotlands. Some are summed up in one line, like “The Scotland whose ‘Auld Alliance’ was with Iceland” or “The Scotland in which forests move about, fulfilling an ancient prophecy”. Other entries are longer and more elaborate, hypothesising the existence of Scotlands that are socialist, hyper-capitalist or intensely insular. But they’re largely flights of fancy rather than having any obvious political point. In an alternative 1970s, for instance, German musicians make pilgrimages to Edinburgh to experience a formerly fascist city divided by a wall.
Elsewhere, a classically obsessed aristocracy imposes its Grecian obsessions on the peasantry. Striking notes that are even more resonant now, Momus casts Scotland as a springboard for the imagination and a land of possibilities, however bizarre.
What are the chances? It’s yet another alternative Scotland, although Stornoway’s Malcolm Mackay sticks with this one as the backdrop for an entire novel. In this world, the Union of 1707 never took place and Scotland flourished as a great trading nation until the early 20th century. The hub of this expansion was the northwest port of Challaid, now mired in corruption.
Fledgling private detective Darian Ross takes on the case of a woman whose money-laundering boyfriend has been murdered. The plot itself is a fairly standard pulpy noir set-up, which never seems to hit the heights it’s aiming for. More interesting is how the crime is woven into the culture and politics of this imaginary land, and how distanced Challaid is from the more “anglicised” southern Scotland, despite being the country’s economic powerhouse. It has its moments, but ultimately comes across as an experiment that fell short of its potential.