Stewart Conn The Touch of Time: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2014)
by Richie McCaffery
In interview, Stewart Conn has drawn attention to the “poetic and autobiographical arc” with which these poems of fifty years are presented, beginning with the oft anthologised ‘Todd’ and poems which abound with memories of ancestors and childhood, ending with a trio of poems dedicated to Conn’s first grandson. A New & Selected edition does not impose the finality of a Collected Poems and this prevents the door being closed on further additions, but Conn believes that this is his major work we are to go by, and judging by the production and poetic quality of this volume, I have no qualms doing just that. From the title, which at once suggests transience but also delicacy and deftness, to the order and selection of the poems, this book has been meticulously calibrated to ensure a moving reading experience. The book begins in awe and elegy and ends in a spell of celebration and praise, while still having a full awareness of family history and lineage:
The hitherto pent-up song-thrush in our shrubbery relays the news that mother and son are both well. May you, assured of loving nurturing, grasp in these tiny yet perfect hands whatever the future may bring […] Meantime in the family Bible the section recording the passage of the generations awaits your name’s neat inscription.
‘Three Poems for Ellis: Celebrants’
What particularly struck me here was the “neat inscription” of a name, as the poem seems to tacitly suggest that Conn himself is the neat recorder of events and occasions. Conn has said that he does not accept the term “poet” with ease and prefers “makar” as it claims craftsmanship and nothing else. Many of these poems give the impression of a poet trying his utmost to do justice to the experiences and sensations of simply being alive, from a familial throb of affection to a lurching revulsion sometimes at the natural world “red in tooth and claw”:
I once came across a pack of stoats in the sunlight, their eyes like jewels, the tips of their tails black. […] Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t have stood there watching, imagining them such dainty playthings.
‘Stoats in the Sunlight’
I am not going to dwell on Conn’s early poems (of which ‘Stoats in the Sunlight’ is one), as they have already been extensively scrutinised and written about before but it is worth noting how there are recurrent themes or motifs that flow through all of Conn’s work and that gradually modulate down the years. In the poems ‘For my Father’ and ‘Reawakening’ something seems to come alive out of suspension or hibernation, almost like the thawing of emotional reserve, giving way to feeling, revelation and affection:
My father has not broached the subject of his thesis, encephalitis lethargica, for as long as I can remember. Today I show him an article in The Listener […] Putting the paper aside, he tells of the research he did, using expressions he must have thought he’d forgotten; referring to a thesis that has lain in a drawer for thirty years: his mind awakening, at the one time, to what he did – and what he might have done.
The following poem ‘In the Kibble Palace’ imagines what leviathan-like forces are at work under the ice or in the subconscious, such as a killer whale which upon “seeing anything darker than snow / falls away, then charges.” In all of this danger, potential chaos and mental upheaval, Conn tightens his “line” against “the swell.” The forms that Conn can only half make out seem to have an air of an underwater Platonic cave. In a number of other poems there are things trapped under the ice (such as imagining what might be going through the head of Raeburn’s “skating parson”) and in a prequel to Conn’s later poems of illness and hospitals we find in ‘Visiting Hour’ a speaker frozen into powerlessness:
Unable to hide the horror in my eyes, I stand helpless by your bedside and can do no more than wish it were simply a matter of smashing the ice and giving you air.
In Under the Ice Conn seems to have found a way of talking about wintriness, ice and frost, but also a way of thawing it out, and many of the poems work as marital analogies, the force of love being capable of melting or breaking through barriers, through to acceptance and wisdom:
I wonder, will it ever be springtime again, the blood flow freely? Or has man blighted all hope of recovery? We are on borrowed time, you and I, and have been from the outset. All that is left, is to live lovingly.
While pathos, grief and loss surrounds these poems, there is an élan vital and resolve to the speaker’s voice and the attitude conveyed in these poems from the 1970s seems consistent with some of Conn’s most recent work. For instance, in the poem ‘At Amersham’ Conn writes of resilience and imagines a place very much like a distant island:
In my mind’s eye, I see a stretch of bare beach; on it, the wind howling, a reed that bends – and will not snap.
‘At Amersham / III’
While this poem speaks of a very specific grief, that of a death in the family, it is worth comparing this haiku-like poem with Conn’s recent four-liner ‘Resolve’, where the island has still to be reached; Conn’s poetic faculties remain fully capable of expressing wonder at the world and his gaze remains head-up and optimistic:
All I know is, there must come times more wondrous, which will set white horses dancing, in our nostrils the fragrance of far islands.
Although some of his poems could fall victim to sentimentalism, this never happens and, in many ways, Conn’s work serves as an important corrective, reminding us that we need poems of praise, will and love for:
[…] At home the test, to this day, whether Scotland retains the will to grasp the thistle, not the thistledown.
‘Roull of Corstorphin [section 12]; Ghost of Roull’
Considering the thaw and melt-water that his poems have generated over years, it seems natural that Conn’s latest work is concerned with liminal estuarine themes, something Conn only realised after hearing by chance on radio the announcer compare two movements by Sibelius to a “loch flowing into a river.” It is tempting to say this melt-water is emotional heft and disclosure, which becomes more marked in Conn’s later poems. In the title poem ‘Estuary’ we see an affection almost as old as Conn himself and the precarious, uncertain future fanning out in front of the speaker, as if into an ocean:
Waking in the small hours the night before you go into hospital, you press the palm of my hand to your cheek so that my wrist, following the line of your neck, detects its pulse-beat, making me aware as though we were on the sandy foreshore of some vast estuary of the tide’s tug, and precious grains slipping through my fingers.
There is more than a ‘touch of time’ here – everything is clearly marked by fugacity but there is also a refusal to see this process as leading to a terminus, but rather a zone illuminated by ends and beginnings, almost like the realm of creative birth itself:
[…] the trout I’m playing draws me downstream till rocked by the tidal undertow I fight to retain my balance: hard to know where the river ends and the sea begins.
Conn’s approach to poetry is modest and craftsman-like, and in the poem ‘Juggler’ we again see a blurring of lines but also a desire to see the creative patterns, and therefore synergy, in everything that catches the poet’s eye. Of the juggler he sees performing in The Meadows (in Edinburgh) and of himself he asks:
[…] why I’m writing this poem, each in endless search of perfection, the marriage of inspiration and design. but which is rehearsal, which is the real thing? And what chance one day of Chinese lanterns floating, diaphanous, over the trees?
It seems to me that some of Conn’s early, more mannered work, such as ‘The Chinese Tower’ sequence (which Conn admits owes much to his devoted apprenticeship to Wallace Stevens) is a form of dress-rehearsal. These early poems are gestural creative acts that slowly, over years, trickles off the land, into rivers that even in their later stages never meander, but head towards the notion of estuary and the uncertainty of what lies beyond while also remaining resolved to live in the moment. Conn has said that his recent “wee fragments” of poems are the ones he would keep above his whole oeuvre. Small and tightly lyrical, these poems are precious flotsam atop a flood made of thaw-water as much as they are attempts to control that flood, literally, metaphorically and metrically, a handful or a cup-full at a time:
Meantime let us make sure we clasp each shared moment in cupped hands, like water we dare not spill.
‘Carpe Diem’[…] Rarest of all the twin-lugged loving cup with our initials intertwined, unbreakable because imagined, brimful of memories that can never spill.
‘The Loving Cup’