Review: The Road North by Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn

Journey as Poem

the road north by alec finlay and ken cockburn

In 1689 the poets Matsuo Bashō and Kawai Sora embarked on a journey to the Oku region of Japan, in the North. Their trip formed the basis of Oku no Hosomichi, Bashō’s haibun prose/ haiku hybrid, blending travel observation, philosophical speculation, personal reflection and moments of sublime poetic distillation. Bashō’s text forms the inspiration and textual hinterland for the road north, Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn’s new collection of poems inspired by a journey around Scotland, including Perthshire, Argyll, Lochaber, Lochalsh, and the Outer Hebrides.

Finlay and Cockburn’s project reflects one of Bashō’s intentions in undertaking the original journey, which was to visit places that feature in the writings of older Japanese poets, connecting these touchstones of past literature to his own technically exquisite and revolutionary approach to haikai. In their twenty-first century Scottish version, Finlay and Cockburn reimagine this vital link with poetic forebears by using Oku no Hosomichi as a guidebook or map to psychogeographically explore their own deep norths. The book begins, as Bashō’s does, with a question; perhaps the most fitting introduction to a poetic sequence that is so much about exploration and inquiry rather than answers and definitions.

The range of poetic forms explored across the road north as it riffs in and out of Oku no Hosomichi is breath-taking and even exhilarating, as though the language of the poets is responding to the diverse undulations of the landscape itself. There are delicious haiku: “if the sea knew what / it was it wouldn’t / keep coming back”, counterpoised by extended poetic explorations, in which, for example, the poets find “time for a skinny dip” on “wee gravel beaches / each just big enough for one”, “inviting an act, a rite / done right”. There’s a circular visual poem, some list poems and incantatory chants. In some, the conversation and collaboration of the poets spills joyfully over into the poems: “you climbed / and you climbed, Ken! / Ach how you climbed!”

One of the characteristics of Bashō’s poetics is the freshness of his observation, as his emotional reactions to the world observed take many surprising turns. This is a characteristic which many of the poems in the road north also share, perhaps for me most pronouncedly in ‘an evening walk, Longmaddy, South Uist’, where the moon on water is observed with such clarity that suddenly an image of it seems truly surprising:

“constant in phases

the incremental moon

gets a good washing

in the waves”.

Solitary examples of superlative lyric expression don’t give a sense, though, of the effect of reading the road north as a book, as a journey and as a pointer toward a wider journey through text and through life. The great American poet Cid Corman, who lived in Japan and translated the Oku no Hosomichi once wrote of Bashō that his poetry “evokes a context and wants one. These are not instances of lyricism but cries of their occasion, of some one intently passing through a world”. While the particular cultural context of contemporary Scotland is important to the book, by tying their poetic pilgrimage across continents and centuries to Bashō’s similar journey,  Finlay and Cockburn remind us that the moon washing itself in the waves is the same moon that Bashō depicts (in Corman’s translation) as “dripping / in storm-fraught waves”. The same moon, maybe, but seen and experienced differently. Lyrical, expansive and inspiring, the road north is an important book, not least for reintroducing and reimagining Bashō’s poetics into a Scottish context.

—Speedwell

Shearsman, £9.95, 136pp