Echoes of Scottish history in the writings of two North American poets

I was on a northbound train a few decades ago when the conductor announced that we had crossed the Scottish border. A car full of drunken Yorkshire men put down their playing cards and lagers and burst into an impromptu chorus of “Donal, where are your pants?” – reminding me that while the Act of Union of 1707 may have established a United Kingdom, I was entering a country very different from its neighbor to the south. Americans might lump the two nations together as “Great Britain,” but the environment – its stunning natural beauties, a punitive climate – and Scottish history are all its own.

In literary terms at least, Scotland strikes way above its weight. Jamaican American poet Shara McCallum No ruined stone focuses on what is perhaps Scotland’s most famous cultural export, the life history and writings of the “plowman poet” Robert Burns (1759-1796). Burns was the master of tender love lyrics and hymns to freedom and equality, as well as savage social satire and exuberant pornography. In 1786, plagued by depression, alcoholism, the failure of his family farm and the complications of his various love affairs, he was about to emigrate to Jamaica to become an “accountant” on a plantation there. -bas – a post that would have made it by default the slave job manager: a slavedriver. Burns did not go to the West Indies, however; the success this summer of its Poems, mainly in the Scottish dialect encouraged him to stay in Scotland.

The McCallum Collection is a series of dramatic monologues imagining what might have happened if Burns had made this trip. Before dying – at the same age as the historic Burns – he had a long affair with a slave woman, Nancy, who bore her child, Agnes; Agnes is pregnant with brutal plantation owner Charles Douglas and dies giving birth to a child, Isabella; and Isabella, fair-skinned enough to ‘pass’, emigrated with her grandmother to Scotland, where she married a doctor in Edinburgh.

Most of the poems of No ruined stoneBurns himself talks about the first half, sometimes in the form of letters to his brother Gilbert back in Scotland. He longs for his house; he notes with nostalgia the growing popularity of his poems, published in Scotland in his absence; he is torn with remorse for the role he plays in the brutal regime of the plantation; and he desperately clings to the comfort of his relationship with Nancy:

           Suffer me
to ask love to dwell
in a place not meant
for love’s habitation …

Her granddaughter, Isabella, having returned to Scotland with all the advantages of respectable bourgeois whiteness, but with full knowledge of her own origins in the tangled confluence of violence, slavery and poetry, occupies the second half of the book. In “Voyage”, she recalls the passage to the east, where “we, / abandoned by history, by memory, / have become in between”. This is not just a transatlantic journey, but a journey of self-discovery:

	   the stars,
numberless as the souls lost
to the sea’s depths, revealed
the routes we would have to take
to recover the wreckage of ourselves.

McCallum’s free-verse monologues do not attempt to imitate the language of polite regency society or Burns’ poetic forms (rightly: Burns is inimitable). But an occasional scotticism or quintessentially Jamaican turn of phrase – and, at one point, a Ghanaian lullaby – reminds the reader that the institution of movable slavery was not just an economic regime, but a site of exchange. intercultural. For McCallum, a poet of color, born in Jamaica and bearing a Celtic name, one suspects that the imagination of these emotionally and morally complex exchanges is to some extent personal. As she writes in “No Ruined Stone”, a poem dedicated to her grandmother,

           the dead return to demand
accounting, wanting
and wanting and wanting
everything you have to give and nothing
will quench or unhunger them
as they take all you make as offering.
Then tell you to begin again.
Karen Solie, The Caïplie Caves, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020 (image courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In The Caïplie Caves, Canadian poet Karen Solie does not live in Burns Ayrshire, but on the Fife coast, where her main problems are not just with the washing machine and heating in her rented house – although they all turn out to be two recalcitrant – but with a deep seated unease that one could identify as a symptom of modernity itself. This suite of poems presents a contemporary rural Scotland, torn by economic insecurity and echoing the tumults of 21st century history, in which a barely intelligible and semi-mythical Dark Ages past is still palpable, both in prehistoric standing stones and in the accounts of such figures as the hermit Ethernan.

It’s hard to say anything specific about Ethernan. He appears to have been a seventh-century Irish missionary to Scotland who retreated to the caves of Caiplia on the coast of Fife, to decide “whether to engage in the solitude of a hermit or establish a priory there. ‘Isle of May’. His cult seems to have enjoyed a certain popularity, but no outright miracle is recorded about him; “Ethernan”, notes Solie dryly, “would have survived a very long time on bread and water.”

The implicit parallel The Caïplie Caves suggests is between Ethernan and Solie herself, both facing “this foggy and conflicted landscape”:

Where should we find consolation,
dwelling in the north? Amid the stunted
desperate plant life clinging 
to its edges, thriving on atmospheric
vengeance or neglect?

The poems in Ethernan’s voice seem justified on the right, and the pious but doubtful hermit finds himself doubting his own motives in mortifying the flesh:

  I can’t be sure now there ever was humility in it
                burning the self as though it were a city
                     believing the past might be destroyed
                                                             and remade

The poet herself, spending time in this same dreary region, is struck by the lessons of the nature that surrounds her. In “A Plenitude”, she examines the plant life that grows everywhere and finds,

            Arguments for and against belief
volunteering in equal profusion.

My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.

A boat trip to the mouth of a cave on a rocky beach teaches mutability: “The wind can make it harder to get back to the boat. Any visit / is a lesson in how quickly conditions change.

Solie immersed herself in the history of Fife, which, like the history of most inhabited places, is a chronicle of human exploitation of the natural environment and various violent human follies. One poem consists primarily of a list of the invertebrate fauna of the Firth of Forth (taken from an 1881 article), all characterized in terms of how many were harvested and with what ease. Another painfully recaps the “Battle of the Isle of May” of January 1918 – not really a battle, but a nautical disaster in which at least 104 Royal Navy sailors died in a series of awkward collisions. “A Trawlerman” reflects on the unpredictability of schools of herring during the season before WWII:

           No one can predict how herring run.
They are a tender species, easily
influenced. It was luck brought them in
with money circulating freely
as the German prepared for war.

(Ethernan: “Even in my white martyrdom wars find me.”)

It is characteristic of Solie’s wonderfully quiet voice that it is only on re-reading that one realizes that the “tender, easily / influenced species” describes not only herring but also humans. She is a poet much more fond of evocation and innuendo than direct statement, although she is not above the ironic juxtaposition, as when she finishes a poem on the closing of the power station in the Cockenzie charcoal watching wryly

           the land
newly earmarked for habitat, an eco-village
and cruise ship terminal
on what some are calling the Scottish Riviera.

As the book progresses, Solie turns her attention more and more to Dark Ages Scotland, to semi-mythical tales of men like the 6th century missionaries Kentigern (better known as the Holy Mongoose) and Columba. This is not, however, a triumphalist conversion story; like Ethernan, whose dubious and wavering voice continues to resonate in his own poems, they are characters of dubious provenance, men who have no definitive answers.

Examples of clarity, of sudden but momentary insight of the mind, occur not in the hermit’s restless introspection, but in the poet’s confrontation with the alien natural world. The last poem in the book, “Clarity”, begins with the speaker stumbling upon a dead northern gannet on a path, which she initially confuses with “Styrofoam perhaps, / a sweater, peach”. It ends with an aquatic view of life itself, in all its diversity: “A lot of what I feared” in her own childhood, writes Solie,

has happened,

though not always
as I’d feared.

And so much more to fear 
than I’d imagined.

On an afternoon beneath
the Quiraing, we watched

the gannets dive,
looked from the cliff edge

straight through the clear water
to the origins of variety.

No ruined stone by Shara McCallum (2021) is published by Alice James Books. The Caïplie Caves by Karen Solie (2020) is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Both are available online and in bookstores.

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