Andrew Grieg makes me consider, deeply, how much we need poets. The word poet (like all words) gets over-used and watered down. The poet, like the artist, is someone who should shock us into being awake, into being present. This is absolutely what Greig does, whether in his novels, his factual writings or his poetry.
The poet should be able to penetrate into the heart of darkness, into light which is so bright that it could blind us, and to show us the everyday which we pass by, unseeing, revealed in all its glory and despair. And how Greig does!
What is this factual book about? It’s about friendship between tough men who can be tender about their relationships with their women and with each other. It is about the power and the fragility and the mystery of the world, particularly the wild world, which keeps itself as removed as it can from mankind’s depredations. It is about the poet Norman MacCaig, influential in Greig’s own poetic development (as he himself no doubt is to a younger generation) It is about fishing and climbing mountains, geology and the Highland clearances, about fathers, both actual and father figures, about commitment between lovers, about savouring good whisky, facing death, about good conversations, and about poetry itself, language, and the heart of the mind, the mind of the heart. And more.
I have no interest in fishing, and whilst a keen escaper to the wild places I suffer from vertigo and would never climb a mountain in the way mountaineers do.
But this, this book. It’s like some divine and mystical text, which suddenly pushes you into reality by its carefully chosen images and thoughts. My copy was slowly and thoughtfully read, as if it were a long poem, rather than quickly raced through (I’m quite a fast reader) Writing this fine, this true, deserves no less attention from the reader, since the writer has been so thoughtful and attentive to his craft.
The structure of the book has a repeating image of the fisherman – the chapters come in pairs, Cast – where the line flies out, lands on the water, and an action is taken – and then Retrieve, where the action, the thought, the conversation is waited with, and then the line drawn in, and the caught fish revealed and examined, before the new line is thrown, and the fish of thought even thrown back into the deep glass of the loch again
Much annotated, much underlined (sorry if this offends, but my best and most remarkable, memorable books are the ones which have the most underlining) this is a book to return to, to re-savour, and to continue to allow to resonate.
“We arrive at who we are first by following, then by divergence”
” My predilection has always been, will always be, to sit until I sense the source, the place the wind comes from”
“The age of poetry is not entirely ended. Flecks of it still glitter in the pauses between stories, among the mud and gravel bed of the stream”
“turquoise lakes brim inside burning shores” (sunset over a loch)
And, recounting a small moment, when he and his fishing companions prepare to eat their evening meal, in the quiet of a deserted loch-side, as sunset falls:
“Nothing stops this, I think, the bubbling pan, the slow-oncoming dark, the light more lurid as it dies. Our choice is whether to cherish it, mourn its passing, or feel as little as possible”
Yes. That’s what the poet does. Takes the ordinary and shakes us out of our unawareness, fiercely challenging us `Awake!’ forcing us to see the timeless, the real, what matters, teaching us how to live better.
This joins the library of books which I regard as my teachers. And, like the best of teachers, opens up new vistas – Norman MacCaig The Poems of Norman MacCaig (I was ignorant of this fine poet), and Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland (The Canons)