The three book-length poem sequences in A Drinan Trilogy were originally published under the pseudonym “Adam Drinan” in the 1940s and 50s by modernist poet Joseph Macleod (1903-1984). This is a timely re-publication, as two of the pieces concern the very topical issues of Scottish cultural, national and constitutional identity.
Macleod was a BBC newsreader during World War II and there are strong echoes of his journalist’s voice throughout the trilogy. Set in war-time Cornwall, “The Cove” is a sequence of thirty-three poems which describe different aspects of the Cornish landscape and seascape – the warships, fishermen, rock pools, landowners, cormorants, cliffs, tides – in lyrical, vivid and often surprisingly offbeat detail. The sequence opens,
The cliff path swerves round rocks and gorse
Where chats flutter and daws flock
on a war wind roaring in Atlantic ears.
Forward a convoy with destroyers cantering on torpedoes
a little mine sweeper in front
as a grown-up, gallant
as a pale spanish donkey sagaciously leader of mules.
On first reading, the “cantering” destroyers and “pale spanish donkey” jarred but, as with so much of this trilogy, they grew on me with further readings. Sometimes Macleod’s descriptions resonate immediately. Of a plummeting gannet, he writes,
Our world must turn on its side
to appreciate the grace.
However, sometimes Macleod’s word choice is not quite accurate enough. For example, to my ears, black back gulls don’t “snarl”. And some of his puns are too knowing for their poem’s good –“Serfs at the masts,/where are your manors?” just made me groan out loud.
In the two “Scottish” poems, Macleod tries to capture something of the Gaelic syntax. By comparison, in “The Cove”, inversions can feel rather laboured and a little inauthentic in amongst otherwise beautiful language:
Learn you from the gulls that squabble on the garbled beach
for offal in sea-rope, sea-straps, sea-tangle sanded:-
Pacific are they also, …
Poems in each sequence vary satisfyingly in tone, rhythm, language and pace, providing some starkly beautiful yet suitably oppressive images and sounds:
Granite steps and granite stiles
field-walls of granite cubes
bond of subinfeudated land
lips of prehistoric pots.
“The Men of the Rocks” is set in Scotland, with the Highland Clearances casting a dark shadow. It’s an ambitious piece and largely successful in conveying shifting moods and undertones of oppression. MacLeod often uses sound patterns to great effect to immerse us in his meditative observations. For example, of a waterfall, he writes:
The falls sound: and the sound is a shape
the falls shape: and the shape is a changing
the falls changing ever the same.
Occasionally, however, didactic elements bump up against the lyricism:
But men were in two classes: rich and poor,
the poor excluded from the purple beauty,
the, rich needing no more, played on the moor.
“Script from Norway” is a 2700-line poem script, calling for Scottish independence. It follows a group of film-makers who intend to make a documentary about Norway (which gained independence from Swedish rule in 1905). Again, the piece attempts to mix political messages with lyricism and a romance which can sometimes veer perilously close to sentimentality and indulgence. There are some beautiful, dreamlike descriptions, however:
Pinkness of mist, notions of wafted snow,
gauze of gold, golden fur
on creamy shoulders…
To my mind, the poetry of A Drinan Trilogy could have benefitted from tighter editing. On each re-reading, I have found new elements to love and to be irritated by, in equal measure.