You can tell much about a city by its attitudes to the arts. Or perhaps it’s the art that alerts us to the victories and vicissitudes of a city. Even a brief list of Dundee’s leet of literati would include a high number of leading poets, such as W. N. Herbert (one of the editors of this new anthology), Don Paterson, A. L. Kennedy, Tracy Herd, Bill Duncan, James Meek, and John Glenday. This anthology is stuffed with the works of poets who spent time in the city, along with significant references to the area by leading luminaries such as Walter Scott. The medieval bard Blind Harry, too, makes an appearance. The editors favour twentieth- and early twenty-first-century writers, but that seems appropriate for a city in the midst of major civic and cultural renovation. The vast majority of the poets come from Dundee or nearby. Many have won notable literary prizes. Many work or have worked in teaching, broadcasting, nursing, and woodturning, among other things. Some have achieved greatness on their own terms; others have brushed against greatness. The Jamaican poet Robert Dallas, for one, was related by marriage to Lord Byron. Some, such as Valerie Gillies, come from overseas or settled elsewhere. And some continue to write and publish.
The editors don’t shy away from confronting the issue of William McGonagall’s “magnificent manglings”. Bad poetry is still poetry, after all, and warrants our attention. But we shouldn’t be distracted by it. Indeed, the editors subsume McGonagall’s works within sections on Dundee’s locations, history, and character: The Tay, The Town, The Times, The Types, and The Temper. Other poets lend their voices to the issues and events addressed by the Great Topaz. Meanwhile, Mary Shelley’s connections with Dundee are perhaps little known outside of the town (“…my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee”. “Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them”, she continues, “they were not so to me then”). Robert Crawford’s elegant poem “Mary Shelley on Broughty Ferry Beach” nevertheless invites us to think about the iconic, gothic creativity harboured there:
A sad girl walks from the beach, carefully picking
Her steps as she sneaks past a leftover eye
Flung on the sand, and other small last bits
Of monster littering the promenade.
Take that, Switzerland. Here the Tay “flows quiet”, an introspective alternative to the busy sublimity of Wordsworth’s Prelude (“Along his infant veins are interfused / The gravitation and the filial bond / Of Nature that connect him with the world”). Introversion aside, Herbert himself offers a compelling image of a Dundee grappling with the world of change, “the modernist bomb, / the bomb that cleanses”. The collection also marks the city’s position in Scottish history and myth: “Upon a day to Dundé he was send; / Of cruelness full litill thai him kend” (“Blind Harry sings of William Wallace”). William Montgomerie rings an elegiac note in “Lifeboat Disaster, April 1960”: “Sand and fine rain find / warped wood and weathering stone”.
The decline of the Jute industry features prominently, particularly in Hugh McMillan’s haunting image of “these hemp women made from shadow / with their skull heads doubled over machines”. It is the people, above all, that are brought to life in these poems. Scott’s “Bonny Dundee” remains as punchy today as it ever did. The first-world-war poet Joseph Lee revisits the last of the witches burned at the Mercat Cross in the Seagate in 1669, and F. W. Swan sketches a weirdly wonderful array of characters in “The Worthies o’ Dundee”. By bringing together such an impressive range of voices we witness the fullness of Dundee and its hinterland. But it is with the touching domestic notes of ‘Hermless’ by the late Michael Marra that we shall end here:
Hermless, hermless, there’s never nae bother fae me-
Naebody’d notice that I wasnae there
If I didnae come hame for ma tea.
Dundee, sea, tea.