THE DREAM SAID ‘NO’: Mandy Haggith reviews Ancient Light by Robin Fulton Macpherson

I first came across Robin Fulton Macpherson when gathering tree poems for the anthology Into the Forest (Saraband 2013), in which he featured both as a translator of Norwegian and Swedish poets, and in his own right as a poet with an owl’s eye for woodland detail.

His latest collection, Ancient Light (Shearsman), would confirm him (if such confirmation were needed), as a crucial voice in Scotland’s poetic chorus of appreciation for nature and as a wry philosopher, particularly about time, art and our relationship with the non-human world.

For most of his life, Macpherson has lived on the other side of the North Sea but his poetry returns repeatedly to childhood haunts in Scotland, mostly in Sutherland and Caithness, through dreams, memory and accounts of visits in which, as an old man, he re-encounters himself, his family and other people in the communities of a previous era, sometimes apparently against his will.

I was done with the village  
at least sixty years ago.  
So I said. The dream said ‘No, 
you’ll never be finished'. 

In ‘September the Fifteenth’, he notes that the dead go on having birthdays, this being his father’s, whose voice carries “across / the dip in the hills between us […] / emptiness to those who can’t see, / astonishment to those who can.”

In dreams, he is with his grandparents and “each time I see them / they’re younger”. (‘I Visit Grandparents’). In ‘One Day in My Life’, “I met myself in 1939. / He stood in the driveway”, and in ‘A Persistent Garden’ in Torbeg’: “I am the nobody / still staring back at me.”

There are many such MacCaig-like non-presences in these poems, and koan-like observations such as this one in ‘Graveyard in the Sun’: “Now waves as a grass-blade / wavers on a windless day”.

Helping him with time-travel are many trees, whose “young leaves are full of old knowledge” (‘Leaf Shapes’). “The old tree was packed with anecdotes, / remembered everything it had read” (‘Oak). The many trees in the collection are often soothing, standing in place of people who have passed on. ‘High-summer Sycamores’ “watch over us / like parents who are always there”.

Their value is not merely durability, however, as he imbues them with a sentience corroborated by modern science. “They communicate well tree to tree. / They communicate with me slightly, / messages with words too slow to be heard” (‘Tree Company’).

As well as conveying us across long periods, these trees help us re-address the present moment. ‘Inside a second’ is one of many poems here with a Zen-like quality of tree-facilitated meditative pause: “In there, I can watch a forest grow up, / the trees having their own versions of time”.

Many of these short, almost aphoristic poems about trees are strongly reminiscent of the Norwegian Olav Hauge (and we owe MacPherson thanks for bringing Hauge to the attention of English-language readers).

This collection’s central paradox is how, with the help of art and memory or dream, space and time are both, in any one moment, easy and impossible to travel between.

Some of the most impressive of the poems here use paintings as the starting point of an unravelling, through words, of this paradox. ‘Still Loch’ gives us a “paper oblong with dried colours” on which “the waves she painted haven’t moved since” (who “she” is, other than a “water-colouring lady” is untold). Yet “the waves she painted are still moving”, as are “the midges and the sucking peat-holes”, evoked by the painting in the poet’s mind and, via his words, in ours.

This is just one of several examples of clever and deft ecphrasis. Some of my favourites combine this with trees. Two Scots Pine trees in a painting in ‘Dream Rescue, “have no hands but they hold my hands. / They have no language but they lead me.”

Writing about paintings often leads Macpherson into ponderings on light and dark, a core concern used metaphorically for life and death by the poet over several collections.

Some of his evocations of brightness and blackness are breathtaking. ‘Solstice’ opens with a “Maroon gash between / black cloud and black sea”. In ‘Kommt, Ihr Töchter’, “The harbour water is black. / Spikes of brightness bounce off it”. ‘December Dark’ gives us an afternoon with “copper sky behind bare larches”, while another December is evoked in ‘Half-lit’, with light “hurtling with the heartless speed of sunshine”.

Throughout these 129 short poems, brilliant images cast ageing again and again into the spotlight. Here’s one such poem in full: ‘Waves’:

Their long journey is masterful. 
Why does it end in such uncertainty, 
hesitating along harbour walls? 

The collection concludes with echoes of another great poet Macpherson has translated, Tomas Tranströmer, in one of many poems about music, which also plays characteristically with time. He closes three centuries to bring us into the presence of J S Bach composing “right now” his Partitas for violin: “Eighteen the century rain-drops tap / twenty-first century windows. […] Inside time, always a cadence. / Outside time, cadence, but no ending.”

Hopefully it will feel like no time at all until there is more to enjoy from this wonderful poet.

About our contributor

Mandy Haggith (@cybercrofter),lives in Assynt and teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her books include six poetry collections (most recently Briny), a tree poetry anthology, a non-fiction book about paper and five novels.

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

Find us on: