Of late, Tom Pow has been preoccupied with journeys. Astonishingly, he has two full collections out this year, and both have journeys at their heart. In A Wild Adventure Pow traces the life of Thomas Watling, an artist from Dumfries sent to Botany Bay, Australia, convicted of forgery. Atlas of Scotland, with its beautiful cover depicting J. Blaeu’s 1654 map, Extima Scotiae, is a collection of expeditions, the writer checking on the inside cover that the reader has his umbrella:
I hope you are sensibly dressed
for such an adventure. It looks like rain.
This second collection is the product of Pow’s residency at the National Library of Scotland where he was the Bartholomew Artist in Residence. Both collections are sumptuously illustrated, and visually engaging.
But what lies beneath the covers? Turning first to A Wild Adventure, the reader is offered extensive biographical notes on Watling, who became the first professional artist to work in the colonies. Poetically, Pow maps Watling’s journey, starting with the moment of his arrest, where the voice is that of the Bank of Scotland:
Beware of giving the suspect alarm.
Rather indulge his security: smile.
This verse structure, couplets of loose tetrameter, forms the structural basis of A Wild Adventure. It is an excellent storytelling form, deft and capable of supporting a single narrative line whilst using the short stanzas to home in on certain small details and aspects. Feeling rather like degraded heroic couplets, that tetrameter gives the book a feeling of almost-epic verse. Indeed, it is a perfect form to contain the subject matter – Watling’s extraordinary life was not quite heroic but it had a quality of heroism nonetheless..
Pow’s strengths lie in capturing interior selves on the page, and Watling comes to life for the reader throughout, and particularly in “The Afterlife of Names”:
You committed (twice) means your steadfast pride
Ensures “Thomas Watling” shall live, twice named.
First as forger, a lowly supplicant.
Then, as one who plays a different game,
Who sees his signature as lubricant
To lasting fame.
Throughout the collection, Pow plays with Watling’s dual identity, and includes fragments of his letters to allow the reader an idea of his voice. Here we see Watling’s duality played to his advantage, Pow intricately maintaining Watling’s criminal proclivities with his dubious respectability.
Pow also attends to Watling’s actual art, much of which is reprinted in the collection. Zoological drawing of the period is fascinating, especially the extent to which, in the manner of taxidermy, dead specimens rather than living ones were recorded, and the artist’s trick lay in making them seem animate. Pow writes about this disjunction in “Calcutta, VI”:
Back in New South Wales
they’d brought his subjects to him
Dead.[…] He’d become
A Ressurectionist of sorts.
Pow’s poetry contains little glimpses of meta-poetics and here, alludiing to his own resurrectionism (or at the very least ventriloquism) in bringing Watling, the dead specimen, back to life with all of his variegated foliage.
The second of the two collections, Atlas of Scotland, begins with a quote from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “Each of our lives traces its own map onto the shared terrain”. This is very much a signpost for this volume, which draws its inspiration from the extraordinary map collection of the National Library of Scotland. He draws poems out of all sorts of maps, from a 1900 Life Insurance Map:
Much to my wife’s distaste,
I’ve a weakness for shortcuts
to a map tracing R.L. Stevenson’s travels in the south seas, a poignant tribute to the recently deceased Gavin Wallace:
Gavin, it’s a beautiful winter’s day –
East coast, clear and bright. Let’s leave it there,
rinsed of all metaphors.
This is the gift of the map: it is both the land as it is, “rinsed of all metaphors”, and it is also in itself a metaphor for the land which cannot be known until, as Solnit suggests, we venture out into the actuality of “shared terrain”. This is what makes “Flight” all the more poignant: Wallace has slipped beyond the possibility of shared terrain forever.
One of the final poems, “Map Man” contains a glorious stanza that echoes the sentiment of the whole, varied, collection:
Each name glows in its own firmament. And I think
if God’s house has many mansions, one of them
is surely papered with maps.
This idea of God poring over the infinite pathways and geographies that make our world is somehow extremely comforting. Picking a path through the wilderness of maps in the National Library and forming them into this lucid, captivating collection is a feat of poetic ingenuity that Pow pulls off perfectly.
These two collections offer two very different, but equally interesting, narratives. It is fairly uncommon for poetry books now to tell a single continuous story across one collection let alone two, but Pow does this in both collections to varying degrees. Whilst A Wild Adventure has more adventure and derring-do in its pages, Atlas of Scotland is rich with wanderings and meditations. They make an excellent pair if read together, engendering a wanderlust in any reader and a desire to pore over the old OS maps at the back of the cupboard.
Tom Pow in conversation with Alice Tarbuck is available on the DURA guest pages.