This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Alexander Hutchison and Daivd Harsent perfomed on 19th August 2014.

by William Bonar

Another early rise (no sniggering at the back!) for this reviewer, joining another full attendance in the Guardian Spiegeltent for this mid-morning treat. Any lingering cobwebs were blown away by Jennifer Williams’ (a.k.a. the poet, J. L. Williams) sunny welcome and original, enthusiastic introduction of each poet. This was a refreshing change from the usual dreary recitation of honours and prizes that reveals nothing of the quality and character of the work the audience is about to hear.

Alexander Hutchison might be described as Scotland’s best kept poetic secret. He writes in a wide linguistic range, in a variety of forms and is as magical in lyric mode as he is inventive in satire and flyting. At the heart of his work are “pinnacles and ladders of sound”. He read from both his most recent collection, Bones & Breath (Salt, 2013) and his previous collection, Scales Dog (Salt, 2007).

Hutchison began his reading with ‘An Ounce of Wit to a Pound of Clergy’ from Scales Dog, describing it as “a praise poem, an invocation”. It is a cascading cornucopia, a feast of sound and image and something of a poetry manifesto and call to arms that embraces language and creation.

Who wants this much of meat and fat: poets
of the pemmican (dried and pounded) school —

with bugger the berry to give it some taste? 

Where it’s grind me to powders, and cankering
creeds — with never a blink of primrose banks

never a hint of beech woods building.


Strip off your rags and bend the bow,
Get your ordnance full and flowing.

Hutchison’s performance of the poem conveyed such passion and delight that the audience was moved to break the usual convention (strip off their rags) and spontaneously applaud. The oddly awkward consequence was that the audience then felt obliged to applaud each subsequent poem until it was David Harsent’s turn, when there was an unspoken agreement to sit on our hands. Then, of course, everyone silently worried that they were being rude to Harsent, or rude to Hutchison, or rude to both, and like children who had broken wind in church, vaguely blasphemous in some way — it was Edinburgh, after all!

Hutchison introduced ‘The Daftie Names His Tunes’ by explaining that when the great Scots physicist, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), the stepping stone between Newton and Einstein, enrolled at Edinburgh Academy at the age of 8, he was nick-named “Daftie”, probably because of his country accent and manners and his odd preoccupations. The poem itself is “from Villon” and is written in Hutchison’s boyhood Buckie Doric. It is a litany of seven couplets that each end, “I ken”.

‘Tod’, Scots for “fox”, is set on the Mound in Edinburgh and is an original twist on the ekphrastic poem, as the poet follows the tod into the National Galleries where it ignores an El Greco, circles before Cranach the Elder’s Venus and Cupid and “falls soft and sound asleep”.

The title, ‘Suona Per Te’, from Scales Dog, is a translation in Italian of Donne’s ‘It tolls for thee’. The poem is a panegyric of Milano. It is as passionate and exuberant an invocation of any city as you are likely to find. It contains some of my favourite Hutchison lines:

beautiful, ravenous, vast city in the valley of the Po, its elegance
and industry, its desperate imprecations, the crowds that bay

and sway in the catafalque of San Siro, for Baggio, Shevchenko,
Zanzara, Valpone, intricate pinnacles and ladders of sound,
confections, conspiracies, […]

La Dolce Vita and corruption, raddled beauty and the poetry of football, raucous streets and vaulted cathedrals of holy space — “ordnance full and flowing” indeed.

The poet then gave us another creature, ‘Gavia Stellata’, which is to say, the red-throated diver. The Latin name refers to the bird’s star-speckled back. This is a bird proclaiming its own god-head:

Who is the smallest
and brightest

and speckled
with stars? I am.

‘Aye Plenty an Mair’ is another linguistic, sonic feast, this time in the Doric. It employs resonant Scots words as surnames and is perhaps the only published citation of “oofum-ploofums”, which the poet overheard only once in his boyhood and thinks may mean “meringues”.

Hud back the fancies — bit pit them oot later. Shortbreid
an tablet, an twa or three panjotteries — there was nae

oofum-ploofums at the baker’s the day.

No, I didn’t know that “panjotteries were “pancakes” either, but I love the sound of them.

‘Out of Magma, the Moon: A Witness’ relates an experience the poet had while waiting alone for a lift one winter evening on the lower slopes of Mount Etna, when the Moon appeared to rise from out of the mountain itself. It is told as a tall tale the listener is urged to believe:

[…] But listen
Each night the moon

charged with pale blood
rises from a fumarole
on Etna’s fiery flank —

This is a tale to relish in front of a bleezing hearth, over a good malt.

Hutchison closed with “a poem containing everything”, appropriately called ‘Everything’. This is another incantatory poem that relies on repetition for its mesmeric effect, culminating in this humanistic exhortation:

Hear it now, see me now
everything is racing

      everything is vanishing

 Love each other, love each other
   everything is hosted
     everything is vanishing

Clapping happily, at last, we were now well braced for David Harsent’s notoriously dark “fictions” from his new collection, his eleventh, Fire Songs (Faber & Faber, 2014). Harsent, without preamble, launched straight into the six line untitled poem that prefaces his new book. True to form, it reads like an extract from a fictional narrative: “[…] Suddenly he could remember everything / the house of women, the apostle window, the weather in the wood”; its beautiful alliterative final line mysteriously specific and unsettling.

There are four “fire songs” distributed throughout the collection, each a long, multi-sectioned poem. Harsent read only the first of these, ‘Fire: a song for Mistress Askew’. It tells the story of the torture and burning at Smithfield of Anne Askew (1521-46), a poet and a Protestant martyr; as Harsent pointed out, there are not many of these. Her supposed heresy concerned her outspoken criticism of the doctrine of transubstantiation. She is particularly notable for maintaining her silence on the rack and neither renouncing her beliefs nor impeaching fellow Protestants. She also would not confess to alleged plotting with Henry VIII’s last queen, the Protestant Katherine Parr. Harsent explained the fictional spark for the poem is a poet setting a garden bonfire “to burn everything — notebooks, photos, manuscript”, whose imagination is enflamed by the fire:

I set the fire in a hard frost: early morning, the garden’s
winter leavings, the unretrievable, the piecemeal burdens.
Paraffin to start it — that dry whoomph! — and I saw her ghost
chained there: […]

The burning of Anne is horrifically graphic:

close enough to hear the shrivel-hiss
of burning hair, to see her sag and slump, to witness

the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister rash on her eyeballs.

This is the full horror of opposing fanaticisms and threatened power, still being played out in front of our eyes, in our very living rooms. Anne’s message to the poet is a baleful warning to us all:

the only thing she can get to me through the furnace, as I lean
in to her is yes, it will be fire it will be fire it will be fire…

‘The Fool’ made the first of several appearances in ‘The Fool Alone’, followed by the long, rhymed, cinematic, ‘A Dream Book’, the brief ‘The Fool at Court’, and ‘Trickster Christ’, which riffs on Christ’s miracles, estranging them enough so that they are reclaimed as mythic, ambiguous, mocking:

The Mary of seven devils he turned them out
from each of the seven portals; she bled and laughed and wept.

Later she walked at his side, no longer the slut
though his hand on the dip of her back was surely the start
of whatever would come to her that night as she slept.

‘M.A.D. 1971 (Rat-run)’ was Harsent’s response to a request from Carol-Ann Duffy for a contribution to an anthology for the Queen’s jubilee. Each poet commissioned was assigned a year. M.A.D., of course, was/is military jargon for Mutually Assured Destruction — the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War. 1971 is “a number that reduces again to nine” and nine in numerology is a magic number, which crops up in many cultures: e.g. in China it is the number of the dragon; the Greeks identified nine Muses; and there are nine circles in Dante’s Hell. These ideas are yoked together with the recent (in 1971) moon landings and the belief in many civilisations that it is not a man, but a hare that can be seen in the moon: “There were men in the seas of the moon. The great hare lay dead.” This poem is a vision of a post-apocalyptic hell in which, “the rat first emerges from the crud / and crap after the infinite rapture of the megaton strike, […]”. Fire again: “yes, there will be fire….

Harsent concluded his reading with ‘Ballad’ from his 2011 collection Night (Faber & Faber). He described how he discovered the Border Ballads as a child when confined to bed while recovering from an accident. The first few ballads he came across were in a book of boyish tales of adventure and derring-do by such as “Baden Powell and other grotesques”. He described himself as having been “lost” from that moment, “my future determined”. This tale goes a long way towards explaining Harsent’s predilection for dark narrative myth-making. The poem itself is in strict ballad form and is also, in part, an homage to Auden.

Watch how the river thickens now
And carries with the flood

Sweat from mines and factories
From battlefields the blood

There is always a deep, reverberating rumble whenever a gifted poet mines the old forms in a manner that revivifies their purpose and potency. Harsent’s was a fitting bass note to Hutchison’s sonic toll: two contrasting poets, two singers.

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