WE LEARNED TO BURN: Pibroch by John Bolland

By Cáit O’Neill McCullagh

This collection moves, fluid as oil, fast as fire; poems are populated with bodies in motion: running, climbing, jumping.

John Bolland’s Pibroch assembles a kaleidoscopic dialogues comprised of forty-one poems in diverse forms, interspersed with constellated charts (plotting the coordinates of the poet’s own research and analyses of the ‘discourse structure’ of formal reports, including from the IPCC, United Nations and The Climate Security Advisory Group) and sheet music – transcriptions of the movements of ‘Cumha na Cloinne’ (Lament for the Children), a ceòl mòr; pibroch / piobaireachd (bagpipe music), composed in the seventeenth century by Padraig Mòr MacCrimmon after seven of his eight sons were killed by smallpox within the space of one year. The whole ensemble spins principally, gyroscopically, around the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster on the 8 July 1988; chiefly the initial explosion at approximately 22.01 that evening.

It is this timestamp, and its quotidian association with the collective act of sitting down to watch the nightly news, that becomes one of a series of iterative constants (rhythmic as the piper’s measured meting out the proscribed themes of the piobaireachd).

Domestic memories; accounts of other fossil fuel-linked tragedies, and of the consequences of coloniality and Imperial projects are synergised with folklore and cuttings from the equivocations of corporate reports and insubstantial enquiries.

These cyclical themes are interfaced with plosive, singular words plucked from first-hand accounts and other archives: ‘swim’, ‘guilt’, ‘gas’, ‘jump’, ‘anthropogenic’, and organised around the formal arrangement of the ceòl mòr into four separate movements.

Each section acts as a kind of chamber within which Bolland progresses personal, reverberating, and associative experiences of the explosion, initially unnoticed by news reports close to home as it collided with that night’s scheduled roster of stories; an out-of-sighting made more poignant by the poet’s proposal that the disaster’s ignition likely synchronised with the nightly power surge of kettle boiling. It is a metaphorical fulcrum for mutual and cumulative un-seeing:

You watch the news / it’s what we do / Tune in. The water’s on the boil // and all across this broadcast world, we / draw in power and generators kick / in, hum, air starters bark and flames ignite. / A whoosh of blue about the kettle’s base. // But this one day // will not remain available upon-demand [. . .]

From these opening lines, Bolland unrolls the script of an Anthropocene plot, transgressing linear time to travel readers along connective cables between the 167 men who died in, or soon after, the disaster and numerous other lives and livings across millennia, all impacted pursuant to increasing scales of extractivism and globalised growth – the many heedless exploitations of environments and labour in pursuit of gain. In ‘Sweetness’, he drills into the unconscious base mechanisms that drive such expansionism:

The violation probably started / with the tentacles of basal jellyfish. / Poisons permeated, points tore into flesh, / antler-picks prised ore, we learned to burn [. . .]

This poetry bursts the strata of deep time, navigating the truncations of pasts by present events. No doubt, Pibroch is a lament for climate crisis and its final destructive outcome – uncompromisingly imagined in ‘Worst Case Scenario’:

The brief but brilliant atmospheric transit of the asteroid will / not be seen. // Nothing will hurt or disappoint … Nothing will be known. // Until it is again. Nothing.

It also cross-cuts tuning, creating upending interplay between other likely outcomes of this, our Anthropocene. The implied enjambment of the infection of MacCrimmon’s children with a virus travelled to them by a migrant from the herring processing undertaken in the off-shored busses around seventeenth century Lewis – Blameless. / infectious. / Plagued – and our recent pandemic, cannot be avoided. This becomes particular in the lines of ‘I Watch the Forecast’ (one of a series of siblings to the opening poem):

They phrase the flood and fire as / food insecurity or loss of ecological services, / burden of disease or economic risk [. . .]

It is important to note that whilst Pibroch might appear to connote a thesis concerning the entanglements of the non-sustainability of the apparatus of capitalism – well expressed in ‘Kitten Up a Tree’, where the precarious climb through bills and branches, twigs and mortgages, expensive / habits, lazy choices peaks as hedonistic orgasm – this poeisis is never compromised.

Rather, as Roger Robinson proposes poets ought, John Bolland engineers his poems as ‘empathy machines’. Crafting the Piper Alpha trauma into something we can face through a poetic way of being that Robinson describes generally as ‘being radically vulnerable’, this former oil and gas industry worker takes seriously the affective power of his own grief at surely one of the most searingly collectively remembered tragedies of the offshore work environment to connect, and imagine more possible futures.

The poems in this collection are crafted with great lyricism and musicality. It is no surprise that Bolland was able to lift them into a recently toured collaborative performance with piper Fraser Fyfield.

Even at his most forensic in eviscerating the embroiled characteristics of a systemic un-care for the planet and those lives who share it – as in ‘The Last Haul’ where a predominant culture of offshoring production, labour, and consciences is vilified as ‘a gentlemen’s agreement’ to – [b]ake bones dry between / grim caravanserai of razor wire and portacabin / boredom and abuse contracted out – the words are arranged as rhythmic and sonic treasury.

A sense of life in process and precarity is sustained. Bolland’s tone is both intimate and sonorous, drawing on traditional forms including the fabular, to develop a somehow mythic voice that also feels familial. The language is rich, including technical terminologies, most effectively syncretised in the concrete poems ‘Choke’ and Choked’’, mimetics for a valve used on oil platforms, and for the twinned sensations of being mid-explosion, and enveloped in environmental tragedy.

In places, poems are given a rippling of Scots and/or colloquial English. We see ourselves, and those around us, in these vernacular voices, as we do in the poems eliciting ‘Lost Time Incidents’. Iteratively embedded in each section, they evoke intimate experiences of loss at the disasters in Aberfan, Kirkyard Hoast, and the universal mourning ‘Quayside’ of Scotland’s fishing coasts:

The beach is patient. / Others know the numbness of the empty berth.

Bolland is generous in caring for his readers’ understanding of the logic of the work, so that whilst the construction of the collection might be considered a complex conceptual distillation of experiences, research, imagism, and narrative, we are never left floundering.

Just as with the rubric of piobaireachd, we are guided through the cycles of Bolland’s ceòl mòr in the entwining of near repetitions, and distinctive motifs. Feeling and comprehension deepen through paced progression. Music is made in the ‘between’ of connecting the symbols of the futures might mobilise; in the drowning of a refugee child, or the sprinkling of a newborn baby’s head. Hope clings drookit.

Pibroch exercises our consciousness; reading and re-reading is to practise it like finger-work over a chanter. In the wake of the Westminster Government’s recent approval for the opening-up of the Rosebank oilfield – decried as an ‘act of war against life on earth’ by broadcaster-activist Chris Packham – taking-up these poems feels far more than a poignant memorialising. In truth, it is an orientation; an attunement to necessary awareness.

About our contributor

Cáit O’Neill McCullagh is an essayist, journalist, and (since December 2020), a poet. Her writing is published widely in print and online in journals, magazines and anthologies, including Bella  Caledonia, Howl: New Irish Writing; New Writing Scotland; Northwords Now; Poetry Scotland, and The Poets’ Republic. A Co-winner of Dreich Press’ ‘Classic Chapbook 2022’, she received a Saboteur Award in 2023, and was longlisted for the Bridport Prize. Her first full-length poetry collection will be published by Drunk Muse Press in 2024. A trustee of Moniack Mhor and Co-director of The Wee Gaitherin, Cáit also facilitates writing workshops throughout Scotland.

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2 responses to “WE LEARNED TO BURN: Pibroch by John Bolland”

  1. […] WE LEARNED TO BURN: Pibroch by John Bolland […]

  2. […] His latest poetry collection, Pibroch was published in 2022 by Red Squirrel Press (and reviewed in the GRB here.) Find out more about John’s writing and other work here […]

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