Review: The Last Wolf of Scotland by MacGillivray

Keep The Wolf From The Doors

“MacGillivray,” the inside cover of her first collection informs us, “has walked in a straight line with a dead wolf on her shoulders through the back streets of Vegas into the Nevada desert, eaten broken chandelier glass in a derelict East Berlin shopping mall, headbanged in gold medieval stocks in Birmingham allotments, burnt on a sunbed wearing conquistador armour in Edinburgh’s underground city, breast-fed a highland swan in Oxford and regurgitated red roses in Greenland. She remains the clan chief.”

Before the poetry, we get the poet. The reader wonders: how serious is this author-myth? And what does it mean for the poems? The described activities sound like discrete and completed artistic projects, and in a sense The Last Wolf of Scotland is no different: it purports to dissect “the Scottish imaginary” and build it up anew. It is an ambitious and wide-ranging project.

The point of departure is not Scotland but the “Wild West”, specifically the scalping of a 13 year old boy named Robert McGeeby a Sioux chief in 1864. MacGillivray quotes McGee’s 1890 letter in which he states his intention to travel to Scotland; along for the journey comes Buffalo Bill and, less directly, James MacPherson, Jim Morrison, Alexander McQueen, and many others in the collection’s vast associative web.

The poetry is peppered with beautiful phrases. There are pleasing sonorities throughout and some flashes of incisive thought. Too often, though, the reader wishes that the weight of work that has clearly gone into this book could be shifted or more finely dispersed. Despite the glossaries following most of the poems, the language, drawn from several dialects and vocabularies (from “quasi-aristocratic Gaelic”, the preface proclaims, to “French, Scots and Latin”), can be more gesture than meaning, striking poses similar to the artistic projects cited above. Such gestures are not, as they seem supposed to be, self-evidently worthwhile. Much is given; not enough is shown and the clarity of the poems suffers for it.. Take, for instance, the second stanza of ‘Lion Devoured by a Horse’:

“Whose quarters sentry, Genet smoked,

haunched in a moon-scrubbed diary,

a soporific dust-copse of frozen lice,

sifts a paste chettoun for a keening cat’s strand.”

The glossary tells us that chattoun (spelled differently) means “the setting for a precious stone”. But nothing else in the poem explains why this passage should be so grammatically confused, with its blurring of tenses and clauses.  Elsewhere, lines like

“I, dulled mirror, gloamin’-shot history

shelter watering hole, meteor shy

guzzle stone fright to tighten mystery,

to blush off thirstling flesh-flies”

are simply too compact and too packed to unpack. Their images are worked but not sufficiently worked out. The familiar rhyme “history” / “mystery” somewhat dulls their exuberance, and the punctuation offers little help to the close reader. Poems like this feel caught between traditional syntax and stream-of-consciousness automatic writing, their words also stuck between noun and adjective, finally operating as neither.

To its credit, this is not the kind of book that strives to mollify the reader or to elicit an audience’s satisfied murmur. Its language is a failed experiment, but an experiment nonetheless. The Last Wolf of Scotland is to be commended for its ambition, but even its glossary does not amend its imprecision.

Jeoffry

Pighog, RRP £9.99, 100pp

For an alternative view, see Gutter’s Live Review of Sound Lab presents MacGillivay and Pefkin here.