The first thing to strike you is the amazing cover design. I tell you, the contents live up to the gleaming crimson heart! I am particularly fond of poetry books where the title is buried deep inside a poem as if the germ of the book is nestled in the text.
Many of Maggie Mackay’s poems are like this in that they often concentrate on a thing or a place and in examining this from all angles they keep touching, lightly but firmly, on the abstract. There is a breath of risk, a humanising humour and a great effervescence that surprises and delights all the senses. Surprising turns of phrase grab your imagination. For instance, a gardener is a winter gale. He walks on air. Her mother becomes a polecat and her father a zephyr. Metamorphoses are everywhere! The generous spicing of Scots words adds to the magic.
In Rope Walk you can feel the place, its layers of history and busyness, in the rich language, the way she has conjured it up like an alchemist:
Hemp-fuelled bottleneck, thick with guttural laughter,
the stramash of creameries and barges,
clang-echo of metal in the forge, the clop of cart horses.
Sparks spiral heavenward. Rough language.
Genesis of dangerous, filthy
demonstrations of tumultuous joy,
the Grassmarket Ball is an annual infamy.
From the roperie of the incendiary Samuel Gilmore,
he sets aflame a fiery-wiry turpentine football
swung, whirled, sling-fashion far into the air.
She describes this event with pitch-perfect concision: language for Maggie Mackay does just what she wants it to do. As Mark Doty wrote, The pleasure of recognising a described world is no small thing. (The Art of Description)
The poems range from Malawi to Scotland along with family and friends with mortality stalking them all as well as a huge love of life embodied in every stanza. Every one of them, however ordinary on the surface, takes a sudden plunge into depths, the title’s ambiguity adding to this:
The Last Carbonara
One ordinary, weekday teatime Sonia,
that friend with the stockpile of life force, rings:
‘I’ve made enough for two. Come over.’
She strains the pasta. ‘It’s not death,
you see, that worries me,
but how I’ll face the pain.’
She cuts the garlic bread, almost too neatly.
‘I suppose they’ll have something for that.’
And how is this for richness of language, a verbal sensuality from How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt?
Acids blend with ethanol, transform into esters, fruity and aromatic.
A Hebridean sunset copper-pots your tongue, biscuit-beaches rise in your throat.
There’s a nip in the air, a lifetime of goodnights fermenting in a kipper fire.
Her arm entwines in yours. She comes home, full flavoured.
Task begun, the heart of the run is now, my middle years of fear and longing.
I haven’t heard Maggie read as yet but I can hear her distinctive voice in this book with its love of place and sense of identity. And that evocative, almost aromatic, phrase the heart of the run.