By Mandy Haggith
We are welcomed into this extraordinary collection of poems by ‘Dustie-Fute’, a nomadic misfit spirit, part clown and part rebel sage, who journeys between and among communities, bringing kindness and insight from marginal and unexpected places, “veering between dilettantism and dynamite”.
He is introduced in the opening prose poem, which sets out the many dimensions of David Kinloch’s poetic exploration: from the medieval era to the present day; from the quotidian live culture of a yoghurt on a window ledge to the intellectual dustiness of old Scots books; from Paris (and beyond) to Forfar; from freedom to prostitution, and ultimately to the awful collision of youth and terminal disease.
The 140 pages of poems, as varied in form as they are in content, are curated from the life’s work of a poetic adventurer who plays games with the opposite ends of spectrums, particularly between the living and the dead, giving us ferocious revenge (‘Gurliewhurkie’) and gentle lullaby (‘Huzziebaw’) bouncing between serious intellectualism and raucous fun, seeking out “extremes that touch like dangerous wires”, with which to create “revelry” (‘Dustie-Fute’).
The book is rooted in Scots language, but while most of the poems are in English, they use Scots vocabulary in a deep and fascinating way, as lights that can shine where no English word could cast any brightness at all.
The collection’s title, ‘Greengown’ is a Scots word that means ‘sod’ or ‘turf on a grave’ and the book is never very far from death, particularly the ghosts of the victims of the dreadful consequences of AIDS, which cast a long shadow over our generation and particularly for gay men, who bore the brunt of the early impacts of HIV infection.
Yet ‘Greengown’ also means ‘the loss of virginity in open air’, conjuring images of erotic encounters in parks and woodlands and the joy of youthful encounters with nature. It is a fitting label for the freshness of the poet’s approach to all manner of paradoxical issues.
David Kinloch has wit to rival the sharpest of Scottish bards, and pokes endless, good-natured fun at bastions of Scottish culture. There are many ekphrastic poems in the collection, and social commentary through responses to artworks in other media is one of many poetic techniques he uses masterfully.
By way of an introduction to this thread in the colourful fabric of the book, he gives us his take on the nation’s favourite painting, Raeburn’s ‘The Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’, who has “elegant legs”, (presumably in a nod to one of Norman MacCaig’s ballerina frogs) with which he moves at “twice the speed / of Christ.”
Religious satire as cutting as Burns’ ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ presents us with social prejudices against homosexuals, with ‘Three Wee Frees’ weaponising their jibes at a “nippy sweetie” or “woofter man”. More Burns plays give us ‘To a Bardie’, in the form of ‘To a Mouse’, but this time it’s the voice of a cockroach addressing the poet, and is a hilarious opportunity for tributes to Frank O’Hara, Tom Leonard and others.
Beneath the jocular surface, however, there’s often sorry or anger and sometimes agony. In a poem that layers Paris, Forfar and the Antarctic, he shows himself coming out as gay to his mother in a smart café, where she “smiles like the Beardmore glacier” and “wields her knife with the off-frantic percussion of violins in Hitchcock’s shower scene” (‘Paris-Forfar’).
The community of people who lived through the AIDS epidemic is portrayed through a patchwork of poems, a parallel to the real patchwork created to honour them. The recent past is underpinned with many poems that give voice to historical figures, most brilliantly Sir Thomas Baines, seventeenth-century doctor, Royal Society Fellow and diplomat who travelled Europe with his lover, John Finch. After Finch died, Baines embalmed him.
‘Baines his Dissection’, is a long and vividly sensuous poem, (“Where the heart beat/ I place musk, sweet-basil in the kidney bed”) and it acts as a warm up for another, hugely powerful piece, ‘Felix, June 5th, 1994’, a poetic prose response to A. A. Bronson’s photograph of his dead lover, which delves into questions about making art from or about the death of a loved one. It is full of solace, and wisdom, about the challenge of expressing a relationship when “now your song kneels / at the river’s edge / and will not flow”.
So, we are often at the greengown of the grave yet, through it all, the Dustie-fute returns to make us laugh with clever wordplay, wicked mimicry or just plain fun, like Tobias, the frustrated biblical dog who wants to tell the angel what happened when he met Noah. “But it just comes out ‘ark-ark, / ark-ark, ark-ark.” (‘Toby’). Read this book, and weep, and chortle, and be nourished by a true virtuoso of poetic language.
About our contributor
Mandy Haggith 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.