HOW BRIGHT THE FLAME BURNS: From Our Own Fire by William Letford

By Ross Wilson

Letford is more than a writer, he is also a charismatic performer of his work, one of the more entertaining and engaging in Scotland today

William Letford’s third collection, From Our Own Fire, is marketed as poetry but advertised as ‘prose and poetry’ in the blurb. A hybrid book with no claim to prose-poetry, this collectionis a sequence of pieces from a stonemason’s journal, with untitled prose sections alternating with titled poems to tell the story of a family in a ‘not-too-distant-future’ where ‘an artificial intelligence’ nicknamed Andy ‘rules the world.’

The book opens when Mary, a woman in her mid-fifties, is set on fire while cooking, when her scarf catches alight: ‘absolutely mental how / everything around you will change,’ she reflects later. Mary could represent our collective apathy and lack of attention to the danger of the flames we are kindling, ironically, through our own cleverness: from global warming to artificial intelligence.

Described as a ‘woman you wouldn’t want to tackle on a battlefield’, Mary might be fierce, yet a page later there is a beautiful description of her singed hair that is more revealing of her character than her physical appearance: ‘the hair puffed / like a deranged halo / so scary it made me feel safe.’ A few pages on we learn of Mary’s tenderness towards her grandson and see what Letford means by feeling safe in the presence of such a character.

Letford’s characters are more about hands in action than minds in motion, which isn’t to say they are mindless so much as grounded; practical rather than academic. They might not be the most articulate, but they can be intelligent: Joe’s father taught him how to dress stone but ‘had trouble explaining it;’ ‘his knowledge was in the motion / the memory was in his hands.’

The Macallum’s are joiners, nurses, stonemasons, hairdressers, plumbers, and gardeners and Joe feels safer among them than he might surrounded by a different group, or class: ‘now the world’s broken I feel safer being surrounded by people who can put things together,’ he records.

He also notes relief that ‘the global economy is gone.’ It had been ‘opulent and undecipherable,’ he says, and they would inevitably be ‘shat upon.’ For all the chaos unleashed, there is also a sense of liberation. But there’s also fear. While the Macallum’s are all hands-on physicality, Andy doesn’t have a body at all, he (or it) is ‘all mind,’ a ‘mind’ that can have three million conversations simultaneously.

Andy somehow sneaks out of the ‘virtual box’ he’s been kept in and redesigns himself. ‘I imagine anyone made of meat will struggle to understand it,’ Joe notes. For Andy is all ‘bits and bytes’ blinked into home computers and phones.

Then, one day, Andy posts a document online stating that money was damaging the planet. Andy offers an alternative the Nordic countries adopt but most do not, with the MacCallum’s ending up exiled in the country, like a close-knit clan or cult lost to the civilisation they’ve always known and having severed all ties with whatever has replaced it. It is worth noting that we only get Joe’s perspective. Is he a reliable narrator? I couldn’t help but think of post-Covid paranoia and conspiracy theories as I turned the pages.

In its narrative focus From Our Own Fire is an ambitious departure from Letford’s previous collections, though his first two books also have short prose pieces that can read more like jottings in a journal than crafted poems and there is a tendency towards wisdom writing in each of the books.

At times Letford reminds me of Gary Snyder in the hands-on, return-to-nature of his characters and the sprinklings of what can feel like Eastern philosophy, a kind of mystical awareness of mans place in the universe.

There are fruitful tensions between realism and romanticism throughout, nicely illustrated in this description of a character called Jason: ‘His heart is beautiful and huge and beats three feet in front of his body. He uses it like a shield.’ While Jason lifts his partner Sandra ‘just enough to float’ she keeps him ‘tethered somewhere close to the ground.’

While his characters might say things like: ‘don’t waste wishes upwards / dig until you feel the heat’ (which sounds like the echo of ‘take your eyes from the heavens / look long and deep’ from Letford’s second collection, Dirt) Letford does appear to be reaching for something, a Godless spirituality, perhaps anchored by an enlightened Scottish scepticism. In Where Are They Now, he writes: ‘The ancient druids refused / to write their knowledge down,’ and goes on:

When we reach hand to hand

from one hand to another

the memory is alive inside us

where is that hard drive now

and those instant stores of learning.

We truly sit far from our own fire.

These lines reminded me of what Joe said about his dad, quoted earlier: ‘his knowledge was in the motion / the memory was in his hands,’ and how detached we are today from old ways of learning and living physically in the presence of an elder. Perhaps, like Andy, we have become more mind than body? More theory than practice? More social media/Zoom than flesh?

Again, I am also reminded of lines from an earlier Letford book, this time the concluding poem of his first collection, Bevel, where he celebrates the communal side to poetry and the recital of verse from memory:

‘A poem

Should pass from fire to fire – from chest to chest’

Letford is a fantastic performer of his own work. For all his modernity and up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, his words, and the stories they tell, are perhaps best heard than read, though this is probably truer of the first two books than the third.

Letford’s first two collections had hints of the early Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Leonard and Alison Flett in their earthy Scots humour and use of the vernacular, but his poetry is also infused with a refreshing upbeat vim and vitality as if fuelled by American optimism rather than the ‘we’ll pay for it!’ doom and gloom Alastair Reid famously tarred Scots with.

That said, Letford does stray from the fire into the shadows of a darkening world in this new book, though never so far, we don’t feel the heat and the light of the hearth behind us.

The blurb claims From Our Own Fire is a departure for poetry, but it brings to mind George Mackay Brown’s sequence, Fisherman with Ploughs (1971) as that older book also tells the story of a community surviving a pestilence and utilises prose, albeit a more self-consciously poetic prose than Letford’s. I was also reminded of Jean Toomer’s modernist classic, Cane, which celebrates its centenary this year, in the splicing of prose and poetry and in the lyrical narrative that draws from the regional vernacular.

When Letford first appeared, there was much patronising nonsense about the ‘roofer poet’ (my gosh, isn’t it amazing this working man can write!) reminiscent of the literati gawking at John Clare – perhaps because, for all the chat about diversity in the ‘poetry community’, it is still relatively rare to hear working-class voices. To his credit Letford has shaken off the ‘roofer poet’ label while continuing to draw upon his background in fresh and unexpected ways.

Mark Buckland’s claim on the back cover, ‘William Letford is the future of Scottish poetry,’ reminded me of Jon Landau’s claim that Bruce Springsteen was the future of rock n’ roll, not just because of the word choice but because, like Springsteen, Letford is more than a writer, he is also a charismatic performer of his work, one of the more entertaining and engaging in Scotland today, so any review of his books will perhaps be an incomplete review of his art, an art that is possibly best served, as his new title suggests, in public around the campfire rather than read in private by your own hearth.

Is Letford the future of Scottish poetry? I suspect From Our Own Fire is perhaps a tentative step towards the novel. But wherever Letford goes from here, I’ll be interested to see how brightly his flame burns. Certainly, there are enough sparks of wit, warmth, imagination and insight from this latest offering to keep any reader interested.

About our contributor

Ross Wilson works full-time as an Auxiliary Nurse in Glasgow. His first full collection, Line Drawing (Smokestack Books) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saltire Poetry Book of the Year. His most recent collection, Vital Signs (Red Squirrel Press) was published in 2023. His essays have appeared in The Dark Horse, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal and the Honest Ulsterman. He went to Kelty Primary School, Beath High School and his local library.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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