16 January 2012

Seditious: A three part series on poems at The Story Boat

Angus Calder’s “Ye are na Mary Morrison!” (pub. 2003) is one of the poems I’ll be reciting at The Story Boat  at the Alter Schlachthof in Hamburg on Fri., 27th January. First the poem; then I’ll be discussing why it matters –
         “Ye are na Mary Morrison!”                                                not

There wis a kinda plainness                                                                           was
(and, tae be frank, plookiness) tae Mary.                                                      to, spottiness
She stood short and square
like the dream of a nation
in which truths wid happen – not scary,                                                      would
not altogether ruled by vainness –
and very definitely there.
I appreciated the whiff of her knickers
wafting towards me above the heather
eftir we’d done the business thegither.                                                         after, together
Her fingernails were strong, but nae vicious.                                               no
There wis a tang of parsley in her hair.                                                         was
When she peed and flushed it wis like an avalanche,                                   was
and somehow her every utterance was seditious.

(Published in Chapman Magazine, Nr. 102-3, Edinburgh: 2003.)

Who’s this Mary & which seditious things may she be saying to us? And why should a reader in Germany – or, tae be frank, anywhere outside Scotland – bother with a poem that they may mistakenly take to be written in dialect?
A mistake, because this here isn’t a dialect, but rather a text written in Scottish English, with some Scots included. A lexis accessible to any reader who’s familiar with Standard English and who’s ready to stretch out a little into the pleasurable unknown;  I’ve attached a gloss down the right-hand margin in any case.
            Calder wrote in Scottish English and in Scots for two vital reasons. Firstly it was the language he went on hearing throughout his life (c. 1948 – 2008), particularly when back home in Edinbra, on the buses, on the streets and in the pubs. Secondly he had an acute historical awareness – exemplified in his book length studies on colonialism & his work as the co-editor of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature in the 80s – that writing in minority, endangered languages was a welcome duty, an act of sedition in itself.
            Which the poem is full of, from the hissing, sibilant “ss” sound in “plainness” in the first line, right through to the susurrus  in “seditious”. In the susurration – the whispering & rustling “s” sounds running through the poem – plainness / plookiness / short /scary / viscious / utterance / seditious – to name but a few words in which these sound occur – we hear the voice of the poem consistently enjoying saying that which is not meant to be said, just like the snake talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden. You’re not meant to start a love poem by talking with unsentimental honesty about the beloved’s limitations – about her “plainness, and, to be frank, plookiness”. If those who new Calder can be sure that the poem is partly about an actual lover that Calder had, I wonder how this lover took to being described as plain & plooky in public. Yet if this poem is about one of Calder’s actual lovers, it’s also about another real man’s relationship perception of another real woman, and here again, Calder is enjoying the transgression in his unique take on this relationship.
 The clue to this other couple comes from the title, Ye are na Mary Morrison! On first reading, this title sticks out like a sore plook; the “na” in it is anachronistic, not recognisable as part of the late 20th C. Scots and Scottish English that Calder uses in the poem itself, or at least not from the limited Edinbra / east of Scotland context as I knew it. I first thought it could only be a scrap of language picked up in a school playground, two girls fighting as part of a game, one girl claiming the right to pretend to be an older girl of some reputation, Mary Morrison, the other girl refuting that right with scorn: “Ye are na Mary Morrison!” Sadly, the facts that the internet offer so nakedly dismiss this fancy: “Ye are na Mary Morrison.” is a line taken from the song Mary Morison written by Robert Burns in 1784-85. (The full text of which plus decent critique is available here. Joann Gilmartin’s singing of the song makes me want to hear more Burns sung live, & to facilitate in this happening.)
So Calder’s poem takes the key line from Burns’ song as it’s starting point. In this line of the song the poem’s narrator is sat at a fine dance, the fiddle’s “trembling string” stirring up gaiety amongst the fair looking-guests assembled, but he’s looking at all these bonnie ladies & thinking of his true love, saying inwardly to all of them, “ye are na Mary Morison.” In writing a poem with this title which goes on to give Calder’s imagination of how Mary actually could be, he’s subverting the cult of good-looking, sexual physicality that all Robert Burns’ work is steeped in. No writer’s portraits – aside, perhaps, from the portraits of Goethe – have been so fetishised as Burns’ have been, with always the same image or two to be found on ten-thousand tea towels & pieces of kitsch, pseudo-modern art in ten-thousand Scottish tourist traps. There can be no doubt from the evidence of the portraits that Burns was a handsome man. But to derive from that – as Scots do – that the sex Burns had was a frivolous, light-hearted thing with women whose beauty matched his own is to suppress the sexual desperation that comes through Burns’ work: that of a man intensly into “doing the business” and ideologically committed to it, living in a society where rigid class division & the iron-hand of a calvanistic church prevented him enacting many of his sexual-romantic visions. Burns’ sex must often have been a matter of taking what he could get, a matter of plainness, plookiness even, lice, gonorrhoea, damp & diry bedclothes.
            Calder gives us the Mary Morison beyond where Burns’ song stops, filling in the naturalistic, novelistic detail which is utterly absent in the song. His major sedition – agitating against the Scottish residing elements of the UK state, who, for almost two hundred years were happy to see Burns kept wearing the strait-jacket of a depoliticised romantic – is built on a number of minor seditions, of breaches of public order. Which other public intellectual - & that’s who Calder was in Edinbra, albeit in quite small circles – will write a poem in which it’s ambiguous whether it is he, or Burns, or both, who, “appreciated the whiff of her knickers” after scratchy, itchy, open-air sex on the heather? A tad embarrassing, isn’t it? – Where’s the cleverness, the get-out clause, the irony? Where else is the closeness in sound & sense between “sedition” and “seduction”, between “seditious” and “seductive”, more evident than in this poem? Despite, or maybe even because, of this Mary’s plainness & plookiness, she manages to seduce the reader, taking them into her fantastic, revolutionary world, where every thing she says – her every utterance – was seditious. What, every one?  Pass the milk. Are you taking that book back to Davie. I’m off out. All said in a seditious fashion? Glorious. Makes me want to meet Mary & makes me regret that I never experienced Angus Calder live. Who knew that knowledge of your cultural tradition is essential, in order to agitate against authorities who house themselves, parasitical, on the backs of traditions. 

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