Although already established as a novelist, Dancing Underwater is Andrew Murray Scott’s debut poetry collection. Published by Cateran Press, the collection’s cover is off-putting aesthetically and although we should not, of course, judge a book by its cover, I must admit that I picked the book up with some reluctance initially. Dancing Underwater had quite a bit to prove as I began to read.
As the title (and cover imagery) suggests, Dancing Underwater uses the motif of water to explore its subject matter. Reflective, obscuring and also drowning imagery are plentiful in this collection. In addition, Scott writes of time and its passing in many examples where the ancient and the modern are juxtaposed. He expresses the anxiety of the passing of time and being forgotten in the opening poem, “At Gruinard Bay, Losing a Ring”:
Tides recede and the rocks will rise,
the sand is powdered bone of our ancestors,
and their ash, each grain numbered, named,
dear to someone. All this will remain
long after long after.
And again later in “Touching Old Stones”:
As lichen crumbles, my skin will wither, be forgot,
anonymous rocks outlast fingertips that caress,
approve, their own reliquary.
These ideas, whilst reminiscent of Romantic concerns also have a more self-reflexive purpose for Scott. What these lines (as well as others in the collection) also express is an unease about the whole process of writing of poetry. These poems in Dancing Underwater explore the anxieties of writing, what should be written and how should it be approached, and is keenly aware of how words are destined to outlive the wordsmith.
“Nearly Away” represents this idea rather explicitly. A poem about a cancer patient, Scott writes, “He has no tongue; communication is difficult” and so he writes what he wants to say, “Until the sedation takes hold”. Morbidly, we are made aware that these written communications “among words that are not words” will outlive this man, if not merely on paper but in the mind of the poet. These lines follow, “There is no film; some things are best left / unrecorded”; there is tension in his work as Scott himself is acutely aware of that the scene was not his to write about; in a line of its own, the word “unrecorded” intensifies this concern. The responsibility of poetry is thus explored as well as the ethical awkwardness surrounding what can and cannot, should and should not, be discussed through a poetic medium paid for or presented for public consumption as a piece of lyrical art.
The final lines of “Nearly Away” indicates that the constructing of a poem is never far from a poet’s mind:
Afterwards, returning home
I meet a neighbour, smiling in the cul-de-sac,
(the sun filters through cherry blossom)
‘Is he nearly away?’ she asks, quietly, fearful,
like it’s a destination – or the title for a poem.
In conclusion, I was impressed to some degree with Dancing Underwater despite my initial reservations. Apart from the overt, possibly overused water motif, Scott explores some rather interesting ideas in this collection that can only be found when the lines are unpicked through close reading. Dancing Underwater has reminded me that it is words that are important.