‘The Poems of Norman MacCaig’ edited by Ewen McCaig, Polygon/Birlinn. Reviewed by Andrew Greig.
To anyone who feels most alive in the mountains, on a loch, following up a Highland river rod in hand, or just lying on a heathery bank watching a buzzard circle through clouds, Norman MacCaig is the poet and this is his definitive collection.
He wrote the sort of poetry that is in danger of giving poetry a good name – brief, witty, at once lyrical and wry, freighted with emotion, balanced by reflection. At its best, his poetry has the clarity of a hill stream pool. His heartland was the parish of Assynt, in the far North West of Scotland, around Lochinver, with a fretted coastline and some of the most individual, strange mountains in the country – Suilven, Cul Mor, Stac Polaidh, Quinag. It also has some of the finest wild brown trout fishing in the hundreds of hill lochs clasped in the throat of those extraordinary hills.
Along with whisky, music and convivial conversation, MacCaig’s great passion was fly fishing – for itself, but also for the occasions it gave for being in the hills, for being still for hours, for being alone and being with friends. Anyone who fishes knows that the fishing itself is only part of what is going on and what we value. What that strange, simple, unfathomable pursuit gives us is a vivid sense of connection – to the physical world, to ourselves, to the elements and the life forms and weathers – and time to distill and reflect on it.
‘He loved everything that accepted
the unfailing hospitality of his five senses.’ (from ‘A man I agreed with’)
This collection contains over 800 poems, and though they treat of many other things and places, it is as a poet of Assynt, its places, people, wildlife, culture, that he will be remembered. His vision is earthly, corporeal, embodied. I love him for his celebration of our physical existence, and his ever-present awareness of its downside, our own mortality and that of our friends. He is at once a poet of celebration – he wrote praise poems for a collie, a road, a loch, a boat, a thorn bush – and a great elegist. His greatest poems unite the two.
I visit him there
between the mountains and the sea.
We sit by a small stream
that will never run dry. (from ‘Tighnuilt’, an elegy for Charlie Ross)
In the course of writing my fishing quest/ memoir/ homage to Assynt, Norman, his peers and life and love and loss in general, ‘At the Loch of the Green Corrie’, I have spent a lot of time in Assynt. Alone and with friends I have had many days in its high hills fishing the lochs Norman knew and loved. I can vouch for the accuracy of his seeing, down to the tiny, improbable jewelled frogs found among heather at 1,500 feet.
His poems are so place-specific, so luminous and illuminating, that being in Assynt is like being inside his head. Following up the Balvaig burn, I found myself looking and murmuring
The stream is leafed, sunned, skied and full of shade;
Pot-holed with beer and shallowed with lemonade.
How witty a transformation, and if you go and look at such a stream, how accurate.
In particular, at his late request, I had to find and fish his favourite place in all Assynt, the Loch of the Green Corrie. It is quite a climb, a couple of lung-busting hours up from the road. It is strikingly austere and feels at once remote and the centre of the world. It has big lazy fish that are hard to cast for in the swirling corrie-wind, hard to catch.
It is a place where you lose and find yourself. It is so worth the climb – and there are so many of them out there, and they have all enriched my life, as these poems do. As Norman MacCaig wrote in ‘Small lochs’
I know they’re just H2O in a hollow
Yet not much time passes without me thinking of them
Dandling lilies and talking sleepily
And standing huge mountains on their watery heads.
PS Anyone keen to fish in Assynt would do well to consult Cathel MacLeod’s ‘Trout Fishing in Assynt’, for a guide to the Loch of the Green Corrie and other gems.
Copies of The Poems of Norman MacCaig are on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.00