This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 21 Nov. 2014
‘Ask most Scots to name a Dundonian poet and it’s a pound to a peh they’ll say McGonagall.’ So say poets W. N. Herbert and Andy Jackson in their introduction to Whaleback City, and if this anthology of poetry stemming from Dundee and its hinterland does one thing it will be to convince such folk that there is far more to this city’s poetic output than McGonagall’s ‘magnificent mangling’. Though Dundee is, admittedly, ‘in the second rank of Scottish cities, leaving Edinburgh and Glasgow to fight for primacy in political, economic, and, usually, cultural terms’, it quite clearly ‘punches well above its weight in literary terms.’ In a 1994 episode of The South Bank Show exploring the new generation of UK poets, five of the twenty poets featured were ‘based within thirty miles of Dundee’. Such an impressive statistic is unsurprising when the poetry on offer here is considered.
Whaleback City is split into five pleasingly alliterative categories: The Tay, The Town, The Times, The Types and The Temper. The first section revolves around the famous river, from the ‘epic outlines’ of Douglas Dunn’s exquisitely rendered ‘Tay Bridge’ to Kathleen Jamie’s beautifully unsettling ‘The Tay Moses’, a weird and biblical take on an expectant mother’s fear that she might not bond with her unborn child. Lorraine McCann’s ‘A View of the Tay’ is a darkly atmospheric depiction of the river, made all the more troubling by the startling line: ‘This is where we dumped the body’.
The second section includes the rousing, heroic bombast of Arthur Johnston’s ‘Taodunum’, translated from the Latin by Robert Crawford: ‘The marble palaces of Genoa, / The pyramids of Memphis, count for nothing / Compared to you.’ Kate Armstrong’s ‘Blackness Road’ depicts the coal-stained faces of Dundee buildings, blending the industrial with the natural: ‘Great gaps in the buildings now / let light wash in like the stirring sea / into Fingal’s Cave.’ Colette Bryce’s ‘Self-Portrait in the Dark (With Cigarette)’ is a fresh and modern poem, full of the acid wit of a bitter ex and laced with dark humour: ‘… Morrissey / is jammed in the tape deck now and for eternity’.
Robert Crawford’s ‘Mary Shelley on Broughty Ferry Beach’ is an imaginative and playful take on the beaching of the Tay whale, alluding to a certain ‘sad girl’ who ‘walks from the beach’, stepping over the ‘monster littering the promenade’, perhaps inspiring Frankenstein itself. In Douglas Dunn’s ‘Broughty Ferry’, the poet’s humanity is inherent in his perception of a ‘winey down-and-out […] Defiant in his cap of weathered tweed’, his poet’s self-awareness (‘My comfortable, mind-aggrandised visions’) undercut by the true beauty of the scene: ‘… roselight’s neutral flawlessness, / Dismissing what I think of what I see’.
Anne Stevenson’s gorgeous and celestial ‘Night Wind, Dundee’ evokes a nocturnal vision of the city: ‘Someone’s ripped cobwebs from a great vault’s rafters, / Revealing a moonface, a starfield, / Barbarian Orion crucified in God’s heaven.’ David Fyans’ ‘Haiku for the Law’ sees style and form combine as this simplistic and lovely haiku swells across the page in the shape of a hill. W. N. Herbert’s ‘Port Selda’ is packed with images that are at once familiarly couthy and pleasurably surprising: ‘his helmet gleams like a pie-dish on the drainer […] A policeman like a column of oatmeal’. Jim Stewart’s ‘Night Gulls, Dundee’ locates the eerie in the ordinary, a ghostly poem despite the speaker’s opening statement: ‘… I know there are no ghosts’. It is full of a poetic deference to nature (‘The night is theirs not mine’) and yet the speaker imposes his own unease onto the birds, making phantoms of them. In in the end, however, it is the speaker who becomes spectral: ‘… I / haunt their streets, untimely, revenant.’ J. B. Salmond’s delightful ‘Mount Pleasant’ is sweet as a nursery rhyme, revelling in wordplay involving Dundee’s unusual street names.
The third section includes Pippa Little’s spine-tingling ‘Slant’, which resurrects Dundee’s dead, hidden amongst the streets or in black and white photographs: ‘look slant, you’ll see us, / and through all the layers between the light / we’ll see you.’ Judith Taylor’s funny but affecting ‘The Life Cycle of the Barracuda’ describes a naff Dundee nightclub, ‘like a nightmare based on a Wham song […] And God, the desperation […] By the nineties it was property / like everything else in the Nineties.’ Now there is ‘nothing but dust and buddleia’ where the nightclub once thrived. Mary Brooksbank’s ‘Strike Sang’ is rousing and, sadly, still pertinent today, whilst Hugh McMillan’s moving and haunting ‘Dundee Jute Mill, Turn of the Century’ bewails Dundee boys lost to war as well as industry lost to shifting times: ‘He will not live to see the skeleton of his mill / or hear the women, weeping still.’
Section four sees Joseph Lee’s excellently titled ‘Grizzel Jaffray’ conjure a fascinating account of a Dundee woman burned for being a witch, as well as C. B. Donald’s ‘Death of a Comic Artist’, a darkly comedic take on one of those three ‘J’s’. John Glenday’s ‘Etching of a Line of Trees’ is one of the most musical and bewitching poems Whaleback City contains: ‘Some shadow’s hands moved with my hands / and everything I touched was turned to darkness / and everything I could not touch was light.’ Dorothy Lawrenson’s ‘Peggy’ dissects the status and plight of Dundee women who worked ‘among the din and the dust’ of the mills, ‘their coarse beauty / strong as spun jute’, whilst A. D. Foote’s ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ tells the tale of a fantasist mill worker, the kind of pub-lurking blowhard everybody seems to know.
John Burnside’s ‘Children Sledding in the Dark, Magdalen Green’ is laced with challenging but beauteous imagery: ‘the sky is glass, the distance is a train, / angels are sealed in the gaps / of walls …’ Andrew Murray Scott’s ‘Reaney’ is steeped in affection, a poem about a Dylan Thomas-style pub-dwelling literature lover, the air around him thick with booze fumes and fag smoke, full of fabulous imagery: ‘And when Reaney talked / The redsea waters of our ears / Divided and were strange / In a backroom bar in the Hawkhill.’ The mingled grief and hope of Douglas Dunn’s elegiac ‘Leaving Dundee’ is set alongside the startling brevity of Joseph Lee’s ‘Bullet’: ‘Perhaps I killed a mother / When I killed a mother’s son.’ The poignancy of Brenda Shaw’s ‘Auction’, about a deceased amateur painter’s legacy, is matched by Andy Jackson’s powerful but tender ‘Sour Jewel’, a poem about Dundee-born singer Billy MacKenzie, who killed himself aged thirty-nine: ‘his steep falsetto rise let off the leash, / foreshortened by the accidental melting / of the precious piece of vinyl, out of reach, / a limited edition, perhaps the only pressing.’
The final section contains Michael Marra’s jazzy and inventive ‘Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar’, a song which quite perfectly does what it says on the tin. Sean O’ Brien’s ‘At the Wellgate’ includes wonderfully rich evocations of homeless men: ‘The boreal flaneurs donate their stains / And thick cirrhotic sherries to the bench / Outside the precinct where they’re not allowed …’ Don Paterson’s ‘11.00: Baldovan’ is a deceptively simple tale about two wee boys taking the bus to the Hilltown (‘I plan to buy comics, / sweeties, and magic tricks’) with a sting in its tail so potent it will stay with you for days. The anthology ends with Sean O’ Brien’s ‘Dundee Heatwave’, its last line ripe with hope: ‘At the foot of the page, the beginning’; a fitting ending given Dundee’s continuing flow of first rate poets.
A great deal of the poems in Whaleback City have a set rhythm and rhyming scheme, with simple, monosyllabic rhymes deployed in the classic a/b/a/b pattern. Whilst such poems are often technically masterful, such a repetitive and predictable framework may well render many of them old fashioned, even, at times, plodding for some readers, particularly those of a younger generation. However, as Herbert and Jackson rightly state in their introduction, the poems here are intended to represent the works that have emerged from Dundee throughout the centuries, and therefore omitting the more traditional poems would do the city’s writers and history a disservice. Quite often, traditional forms are used to great and stylish effect, such as Herbert’s ‘Ode to the New Old Tay Bridge’, a deft but affectionate pastiche of McGonagall’s clunky and embarrassing verse: ‘but it disnae tak a Storm Fiend tae plant some gelignite, / like it disnae tak a genius tae pen a load o shite.’ But it is the younger, fresher, non-rhyming poems about modern life that elevate Dundee – and Whaleback City – above the pithy, tourist-friendly, but ultimately reductive label of ‘journalism, jam and jute’.
There are therefore pits and peaks in the quality of the anthology, which is understandable given Whaleback City‘s bold ambition to represent the poetry of Dundee from the past six centuries. As Herbert and Jackson state from the start: ‘The editors have […] selected that aspect of the work of excellent writers which focusses on Dundee; and the most successful work by those writers who may, in the compendious scheme of Scottish literature, be regarded as representatives for the city.’ Because the anthology encompasses work from such a vast time period, it would perhaps be useful to have dates unobtrusively listed next to each poem, as it is sometimes difficult to contextualise individual works.
The anthology is lovingly dedicated to Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra, who died in 2012, and it is washed through with the warmth of Marra’s songs. Some are perhaps better heard than read, but others, like the elegant and emotional ‘The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke’, are as good to read as hear: ‘They say he fell for an Indian maiden / Who was more lovely than mere words could tell / Hey lay in her arms and they bathed in the moonlight / He sang softly of the Bailieborough Belle …’ Marra’s work is described by the editors as ‘a perfect ambassador for the Dundonian character’, and if Whaleback City introduces a younger generation to his songs then so much the better. Whaleback City will tug at the heartstrings of those who were born or live in Dundee as much as it will inspire those who’ve never visited to jump on a train and cross the Silv’ry Tay into a city still blazing with poetic promise.