The Touch of Time, Stewart Conn’s recently published collection, serves as a retrospective of a lifetime spent writing, concluding with a section of new poems. Ayrshire-born Conn is one of Scotland’s quiet poets who has created a steady body of work over the last 40 years, making him one of the most established and appreciated voices on the Scottish literary scene. This book follows a trajectory from childhood to old age, yet its structure is circular, beginning with his own childhood view of an aged uncle in Todd and ending, in “Stone Lion”, with the beginnings of another young life, that of his newly born grandchild:
while the world waits for you to find
focus and subject ourselves to scrutiny.
These lines, which open the final stanza of the very last poem in the collection, are made still more poignant because over the preceding 221 pages we have been called to witness all that the poet has focused in on, and shared from his own life. This is verse of detailed observation, alert to the small moments of change or meaning – what he describes as ‘the unguarded epiphanies of everyday.’
Whether exploring the wild landscape of his much beloved Scotland or considering the nature of enduring love, Conn’s poems hold his essential fragility, sensed through his repeatedly expressed yearning to have time to stop a little longer. His experiences of nature, familiar haunts, family, old friends and of his own life are, for him, all too fleeting. Conn attempts to fix a moment, a memory, an adventure, an appreciation – a love even –and to cheat time of its relentless progress. But his poems are not nostalgic. He does not want to replay his life or revisit past times. His regret is that the present has to pass so quickly.
His poetry is thoughtful and delicate, making use of assonance and half rhymes, giving his words gentle pervasive rhythms and tender lyricism, as in the final lines of “The Predators”:
The bird beats itself senseless
Against the stone. Below, the web waits.
From his earliest poems there is self-awareness that it might be he who is guilty of going too fast, his curiosity and appetite for discovery speeding his life experience. In his rural playground he would ‘run downhill’ or ‘tear through bracken’ while a ‘tasselled waterfall’ or a lark that ‘slips through song’ would hold time still. This confession of his hurriedness, in a world full of things to savour, offers the reader a thread of intimacy which runs through most of the collection. In “Return Visit”, recalling family visits to the Kibble Palace – a generation upon generation tradition – he says:
I concede that what’s lost
is within myself: the past
cannot be repossessed.
What makes these poems so haunting – for haunting they are – is that as you read through the five decades of Conn’s writing, the poet’s voice begins to make its own harmony – that of the child, the young, the middle-aged and the older man. At times they sing together, then separate, but still they stay in tune and always connect. The book’s title, The Touch of Time, is fitting for this collection which invites us to share a poetic journey through life, from urban to rural landscapes, through travel and adventure, to love and loss, but always with an insistent questioning and a longing to understand, always keeping the child inside alive. In his poetry, Conn takes us to the heart of himself, with all the preoccupations and loyalties that shape humanity.