Monday, 04 July 2022 11:25

Crossing Troubled Waters: A review of Jim Aitken’s 'Declarations of Love'  

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in Poetry
Crossing Troubled Waters: A review of Jim Aitken’s 'Declarations of Love'   

What I like about Jim Aitken’s poems is the way they can surprise us by travelling at speed from A to B, and sometimes a lot further. The starting point may be a person, a place, an image, an event, or an idea, typically taken from a real-life here-and-now, while the destinations of the poems can be anywhere and anytime. A prime example of this fast-travelling is a lyrical three-parter called “Beachcombing”, a poem that comes early in Jim’s latest collection, Declarations of Love.

It starts with “a boot / of salty leather” that George Mackay Brown once found on his Orcadian shore, and wrote about in a poem of his own, “Beachcomber” – a poem, that, in his school-teaching days in Edinburgh secondary schools, Jim read and got his pupils to appreciate. That boot leads by association to other sea-tossed findings, including a seaman’s skull, and then, because our poet sees the world whole, and holds it in his mind as if in a net, we “dance the waves” back to the Mare Nostrum of the Ancient Greeks. Why, we may wonder? What is the relevance of such a dancing back? As the poem draws us to its conclusion, we find out:

The universal brotherhood
of brine understands no borders…

For fragile is what we all are,
vulnerable our condition…

 We are all at sea, all at sea...

The source of energy for this “Beachcombing” poem, as for all Jim’s writing, is a combination of a powerful imagination and what Fran Lock, in her insightful Introduction to Declarations of Love, identifies as a “radical empathy”. This empathy springs from a deep-dyed structure of thinking and feeling for the “mutually vulnerable community” of which we are part, as humans in the company of the rest of Nature. This empathy entails large measures of both anger and love. It is the second of these, the greater, that informs the book’s title, and inspires its contents. In Fran Lock’s words:

For Aitken, love appears not merely a matter of individual emotion, but also of perception – a way of encountering the world and its myriad “others”...

We can see how well these observations are borne out in a second poem from near the start of Declarations of Love, the beautifully cadenced “On Raglan Road Remembered”. It is in part a homage to Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road”, one of the world’s great love poems, especially when sung, as by Luke Kelly, to a tune that seemed destined to partner it, namely "The Dawning of the Day" (Fáinne Geal an Lae).

Jim’s poem starts with “one of Autumn’s golden leaves /somehow landed on my shoulder”. This reminded our poet of a line from Kavanagh’s ur-poem, “And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.” From this starting point, Jim goes on to reflect on “the enormity of grief that there is”, citing those “who have died of Covid or drowned / Trying to cross troubled waters, leaving behind them war…” But he refuses to “leave it all at that”, thinking as he does of next year and new life and Kavanagh’s “clouds over fields of May”.

Jim’s choice of starting points and destinations is more than eclectic – it is extensive – and at the same time it is integrative. If Declarations of Love was a bale of cloth, all the poems in it are made of that same cloth. Following Hugh MacDiarmid, we might say of them that they are of the closest weave, “owre close for the point o’ a pin / onywhere to win in”.  Let us have a look at some more examples:

A dog sniffing scent, Pacman and Super Mario, Calgacus, drones, knowing the dancer from the dance, scumbag millionaires, being fair scunnered, a black padding cat all wrapped up in itself, a blackbird singing and needing no permission, ancestors, voices of the dispossessed, going on as a mode of being,

faces hard like rock and faith rock-sold too, grouse-shooters and Famous Grouse, Abbot Bernard’s vision and the Declaration of Arbroath, riverruns and all things merging in a global sea, am bradan fiadhaich, a spectre haunting Europe, putting clowns in power, cramped ships with chains, the naming of storms, standing beside a silent loch sensing ghosts,

wisps of grass peering out from the bottom of a shop door, new words with a Scots accent of voice and thought, a sixty something granny remembered as a twenty someone else, spying twa stars high in the heivens, chasing the deer, lighting a candle for a Big Issue seller,

smoke from your pipe, a childhood robbed early, geese scenting a cold turn to the air, a cannula renewing a precious life, an Arab in Scotland (one of our ain folk) extending us, writing our own version of the Beatitudes without the meekness, seeking the light, auld lang syne,

bees having their fill of fuchsias, Little Sparta on a cold hillside near Dunsyre, millions of words lighting up the darkness, a piece of broken glass among sea shells, Ukraine as the latest slaughter bench of history, guided missiles and misguided men, all things passing, if only...

If this list of content-matter appeals to you, the whole of the collection will appeal to you. I netted the list in a single quick trawl of the sixty poems in the book. How Karl Marx would have approved, given his favourite maxim, that Nothing human is alien to me! Here we see the deep philosophy that underpins the socialism that Jim embraces. It is a socialism of the heart and will, as well as of the intellect. It is humanist and internationalist and republican and green and local and personal, finding expression not only through political action of the party political kind, but also through cultural events and through education, trade unionism, PEN and family. So when I say that Jim is one of the best of our socialist poets, it is in the context of this expanded notion of socialism.

Declarations of Love speaks in the voices of the many, and speaks also for the things of Nature. Its sixty poems eloquently show up the monstrous injustice of the world, while indicating that this need not be the case. Capitalist exploitation, division, war, hate, etc. – no!  There is a better world possible, eloquently indicated by these beautifully varied poems.

Complementing this verbal beauty, the talented Edinburgh artist Martin Gollan, whose book illustrations will be known to readers of other poetry collections published by Culture Matters, has provided a striking visual commentary to Jim’s words, in a series of fourteen coloured pictures and two in black and white.

The last lyric in Declarations of Love makes a perfect ending, both in its looking back and in its looking forward. It is an invocation of the three bridges that Jim sees from his new home in South Queensferry, that span the Firth of Forth, “happed in mist / as if suspended in the cold mid-air”:

Three centuries of bridges and three centuries
of workers who aided their construction
with St. Margaret now a distant memory
to the ferry she created for pilgrims to St. Andrews…

These iconic feats of engineering that are already there, however, are not enough for the poem. Jim goes on to envisage a future in which other bridges of another kind can be built – those that link “all people over all the world”, from A, B and C to beyond Z.

Declarations of Love by Jim Aitken, with drawings by Martin Gollan, is available here. 

Read 196 times Last modified on Tuesday, 05 July 2022 07:30
David Betteridge

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.