David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.
In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.
The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.
Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.
This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:
Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just
for his wife but for the lands that are within him...
Yet he is here with us and at home with us;
he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk
extending us with his experience -
an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland
transported way beyond the madness of borders.
Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:
As far as Michael is concerned
all birds are essentially ducks.
Not for him fluffy cats or dogs
or even farmyard animals.
For him any bird means a quack
and if he can he will chase them,
possibly hoping to enter
into flight if he does not catch one...
As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.
The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.
The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”
The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:
by Jim Aitken
All the leaves were later this year
with the extended cold and the snow.
And when the first buds burst open
delight and relief became one.
Now in full flush they shine and sway
in sunlight as they always should.
Yet so many seem to take this
for granted as they always do.
In a world turned upside down
by the monstrous greed of the few
there is little of permanence
and much more precariousness.
Late leaves mean zero hours contracts,
a shuffling people on the move
from one bedroom just too many
imposed by those in their mansions.
Late leaves like the merging seasons
should be telling us something true,
to challenge the drift to darkness
where stunted trees produce no leaves.
By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live
and through our dumb disharmony
we threaten the leaves’ appearance
where all their wealth then turns to dust.
It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.
It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.
His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!
Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.
David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.