Review: A Good Cause by Tessa Ransford

A Good Life

Founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, political activist, translator and tireless campaigner for human rights, Tessa Ransford used poetry to make a “better nation”. The Good Cause of her title resonates throughout this work and her life.

The eponymous first poem cites Thomas Muir’s vision for a more just society, “the cause of the People”, where the poet chooses Calton Hill over Parnassus, “as Burns would”. Ransford asks, “Will it finally prevail?” Her answer is cautionary: “Not while the New Town still / lays its upholstered values / on our systems”. This anti-materialist thread binds the collection together, weaving political considerations and a sense of justice with the search for a Scottish identity.

‘Cliffs’ conveys frustration over the inability to reach a higher truth amidst shallow, transient trends: “…we gather crumbs dropped / from the functional picnics of arts administrators”, but the poem ends with a steadfast belief in “a good cause”:

“…we eat our crumb and continue our path…

our daft but intense belief in our task

we reach those dunes, those cliffs

over the sea”.

For a woman of many accolades and prestigious awards, the poetry remains grounded:

“It is hard work –

from hand to mouth and mouth

to hand from heart to head

and head to foot”

Ransford’s political activism and environmentalism also ring true. ‘The Floating Iceberg’s Song’ is based on a “news report of an iceberg the size of Hong Kong floating past the African coast”:

“my waters will flow as judgement

a mighty stream in the desert. […]

the planet floats like the Titanic in space

and can sink, can be utterly wrecked”.

In ‘To remember or not’, Ransford recalls the war years. “Memorial events and religiousness I do not enjoy”, she says, adding: “…How can I forget the nuclear weapons that lie / behind the lie in acts of official mourning?” Her father is remembered as “he who had ‘served’ as a sapper and RE signals’ officer/ throughout those four insanely slaughterous years”; whilst also recalling him as a “graceful dancer and witty charmer”.

The poems move confidently from wider themes to intimate portraits, as Ransford pays tribute to such literary and poetic luminaries as Duncan Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid and Iain Crichton Smith, among others. ‘The Great Tapestry of Scotland: a missing panel’ celebrates the Scottish Poetry Library, its logo “a cross-stitched heart” that can be read “in all languages” and uses Iain Crichton Smith’s phrase, “the grace that musicks us” to sum up the spirit of this unique institution. Ransford’s ‘Tribute to Duncan Glen’ tells of the man whose design saved the Scottish Poetry Library: “the brain in your head made thoughts into words / and sent you for treasure to library hoards”. It references a quote from Glen: “If you are born with a love of books and have a brain in your head, I think you just do it”.

Despite the knowledge of her impending death, Ransford’s writing is clear and controlled, removing herself as subject. In ‘The Loving Spirit’, the poet is referred to in the third person, or through dialogue: “‘I want to die but I don’t know how / and her fingers pluck and cling’”. ‘Endings’, the last poem of the collection, uses a “Teddy” with its torn nose and sagging stuffing as a symbol of herself:

“I’ve thrown him away

today […]

for he cannot look forward

to dying”

The collection is dedicated to Dara, her youngest grandchild, and she writes lyrically of her grandchildren, without being overly sentimental. ‘Lily of Raasay’ ends with a look to the future:

“Now I behold you

give you my words.

When I have left here

they will be with you

silently singing

for all my sweet loves.”

– Seawolf

 

A Good Cause by Tessa Ransford

Luath Press Ltd., RRP £7.99, 108 pp