It was the Russian poet
Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda, (her name translates as 'hope'), who, in
the first of two essential-reading memoirs (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned) of
life under the repressive regime of Stalin, writes of human beings leaving a
trace as if it were an imperative: leaving a legacy, providing evidence one
has existed and has served important truths. Dylan Thomas said something
similar, though with a romantic flourish, when he wrote that he 'sang in my
chains like the sea.' The same urge is present in graffiti: Kilroy was here.
Mairi MacInnes is in her eighties. She has published six previous volumes,
three in America and three in Britain and written two novels and a memoir, Clearances, which Shoestring has also recently published. The
title and subtitle of the collection under review clearly imply a desire to
leave behind something of value as well as a wish to confirm a lifetime's
achievement. Inevitably it feels valedictory. That said, the poems evince
what Richard Wilbur, quoted on the back cover, describes as a 'strong
sensibility capable of fierce attachments to familiar and natural things.' In
her poem 'Reading Cavafy in Translation' she describes herself as
A woman who's ample
and hopeful and hardworking,
sentiment, neither stylish nor austere.
She has been called a poet of place - though 'places' is a better word. Born
in County Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford, she has been,
before coming back in retirement from thirty years spent in America to live
in York, something of a traveller. There are poems that show her as a
sensitive observer of Germany after the Second World War where she went to
live in 1954, of a number of places in America, Britain and elsewhere - often
travelling by car or train - with anecdotal portraits of characters met on
the way. Sometimes we find her lamenting a loss of the sharp perceptions of
childhood as in 'Hardly Anything Bears Watching':
When I was
kerbs were made of stone,
like my fingernails.
It is not
like that any more.
I do not see
life of inorganic things.
This however is often belied by a sharpness of observation we find
everywhere. In 'The Fields of Light', the fourth part of a very fine sequence
called 'Horses', is a good example:
a presence in the clearing
that was the
the row of
firs in snowy quilts,
the parting of
sky and snow.
the cold unpainted room,
the dead fire,
the tap's needle of cold,
skins of the bed, the kettle's fuss,
the bang and
commotion of the furnace.
kindled, waggling fingers of warmth.
The days began
by writing themselves.
ploughed the fields of light.
To label MacInnes a poet of place is to limit her scope. Clearly her gift for
the descriptive but she is more than that. Her range is diverse and
extensive. There is a wonderful sequence of poems that shows she intimately
understands cats; poems in which she gives life to a poignant incident in
Hiroshima, in which she imagines the history of an old house in New Jersey,
poems about Antigone, about struggling with the idea of God, sawing down a
tree; there are moving elegies and poems that celebrate, in MacNeice's
marvellous phrase, 'the drunkenness of things being various'. She also writes
in a variety of styles which makes it impossible to characterise her work
simply. As Theodore Weiss says, her language 'matches its occasions'. Her
lifetime has been rich in experience, real and imagined, which she has
sensitively recorded in poem after poem. It's an achievement to be proud of.
As she says at the end of the final poem in the book called 'A Word of
Acknowledgement' which is about the Isle of Skye and the shameful business of
the Highland clearances:
I can pay my
bill at the inn and speak as I wish
and walk past
a hundred hovels, all of them roofless
rain, and write a verse on the matter.