ALAN Riach introduces a macaronical Makar – a poet given to employing a range of languages and different vocabularies in his mongrel verse – and sets against it the absolute uniformity enforced by military might and ultimately killing. The choice is yours.

DAVID Bleiman begins his slim volume This Kilt of Many Colours (Guildford, Surrey: Dempsey & Windle, 2021) by explaining: “Identity is a complex mixter-maxter of family, history and of places, not only of origins but destinations. Language, be it mother tongue, lost language or learned language, carries the double weight of identity and communication.”

He continues: “My own Jewish background is Ashkenazi, from the Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian empires. But when my son moved to Madrid I started to learn Spanish and to understand that, nearly five centuries before the Holocaust, Spain, like Germany, had sought to cleanse itself of a rich and diverse mixture of peoples and cultures.”

This comes through most poignantly in his poem “Place Markers”, bringing the sense of loss to our own experience in Scotland, beginning with Aberdeen and Pittenweem where “the painted people left a smudge / of language lost” but then noting:

Old Jewry stalks the Judengasse

and Juderia sticks to ghetto walls;

or take the many-seeded fruit of Andalus,

the Moors knew as Gharnata of the Jew;

Boabdil looks back on Granada and sighs;

five hundred years of sun won’t clear the dew

from gardens where the pomegranates grew.

Bleiman insists that mixed identity and multilingual experience are normal, so enforced uniformity (think of the current hostility to Scots and Gaelic, the militant “superiorism” of English) is nothing less than attempted linguistic genocide. But the seriousness of the question can be attacked by laughter and in “The Trebbler’s Tale” Bleiman has a lot of fun with his macaronicality:

Dreg yer tochus frae the lochan,

scraich the rouch o the mama-loshen,

then, gepocked and gemaisled wi schmutz and wi smot,

Scot-Yiddisher mish-mash is whit ye hae got.

Misguggled, gemisht wi “achs” an wi “ochs”,

a crowdy-shmeered Bannock an maimisher lox.

Edwin Morgan would have loved the brio and endorsed the point made here, and Hugh MacDiarmid would have placed it in the most mortal of contexts. In fact, he did, in the poem not uncharacteristically entitled “England’s Double Knavery”

All soldiers are fools.

That’s why they kill each other.

The deterioration of life under the régime

Of the soldier is a commonplace; physical power

Is a rough substitute for patience and intelligence

And co-operative effort in the governance of man;

Used as a normal accompaniment of action

Instead of a last resort it is a sign

Of extreme social weakness. Killing

Is the ultimate simplification of life.

And while the effort of culture is towards greater differentiation

Of perceptions and desires and values and ends,

Holding them from moment to moment

In a perpetually changing but stable equilibrium

The animus of war is to enforce uniformity

– To extirpate whatever the soldier

Can neither understand nor utilise

Bleiman’s gift of languages is a blessing and hope in human potential, beautifully caught in his Scots-Yiddish “Dream mash lullaby”: “A squeeze of honey in cinnamon milk”

for a dream grandchild

who cries

for all reasons and none,

who will not be consoled.

And in the book’s title poem, he connects the macaronic in languages, the diaspora of peoples, and the fragmentariness of poetry with the potential that is life’s gift, so often, so badly wasted: “We choose to be sporadikos” weaving “southern spools / through bolts of northern light” into “this kilt of many colours.”

The Greek word for “scattered” is “sporadikos” and Bleiman’s poems are a gathering of such scattered meanings, in balance, in a “changing but stable equilibrium”, as MacDiarmid puts it.

The pathos of the vulnerability of that “dream grandchild” is a haunting presence in Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards: Modern War Poetry, by Michael Brett (Mumbai, India: Bombalaya Books, 2017). Brett’s poems were written during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia when he worked in the press section of the Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina in London.

His horror at the widespread massacre of civilians continued through the Gulf Wars and the atrocity of, and the atrocities that followed, the attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Again, we’re faced with the extraordinary capacity of poetry to confront and face up to the worst of what the world surrounds us with, and to slow us down enough to evaluate its meaning, and also to force our resolve.

In “Cadets” the young soldiers are “just kids staring out of a canvas cave”, smelling “the hot sperm smell of cordite” with “an infinite sense of possibility, of medals by the truckload”. Is that sense of potential pride in achievement common to all young soldiers, of whatever army? And is that what’s exploited by the governments and pontiffs of whatever rule or country or religion? There’s no looking away from the consequences:

What haunts you after an explosion

Is the eggshell nature of things.

The art forms and the dreams of madness:

The red pools, the Jackson Pollock zigzags

On grey paving slabs …

And there’s no looking away from the masses of humankind whose lives in city crowds speak silently of pathos, loneliness, loss, whether in Bangladesh or London:

Everyone thinks they want to go home.

Like tube trains unwinding. Himalayan rain

Runs in streams through the trees of Nepal

And everyone wants to go home.

Poems that confront such brutal, blatant facts and the avalanche of realities that war brings upon us take the risk of flattening themselves, losing nuance and sensitivity in response to regimes that run right over them. Verbal violence can be opposed but only through the careful application of imagination, not by a mimicking of the violence.

Laughter can destabilise banality and the imagination can subvert what brutes assume is practical. But sometimes the horrors are so great that laughter is silenced, imagination frozen, and human resources might seem inadequate before blatant implacable force. But then, try this, “The Entry of Osama Bin Laden into Paradise”:

Imagine that it exists, and that he travels there –

The bright warrior star – the meteor

Climbing forever up a rainbow reputation.

At his hands, at his feet are angels one-five at angels one-five.

Their singing unravels death’s mysteries and its stillness.

And Heaven’s runway unrolls like a long and famous tongue to meet him as he arrives, and the predeceased and all their children are there to meet him, and the parents lift up their children so he can see them: “So many dead. / So many dead.”

But Brett’s poems are not all grim with judgment. They can also be slyly comic, obliquely funny, as in “Underpants are the Philosophers of Clothes”: “Men’s underpants are the most ascetic of all clothes, / Most suited to espionage, intelligence work. / They are Pimpernels: travelling alone, unnoticed.”

Underpants have secret lives, like snails, occupying

The forest floors of our lives: under beds,

In cupboards, some even climb behind radiators.

Even in the bridal suit, they are always

Walk-on, vaguely comic and slightly sad bit players:

Hilarious, abandoned, patient.

Les Murray would have enjoyed that, or even written it, an exercise in seeing something another way, a small exhilaration, a flexing of imagination, a small demonstration of poetry’s capacity to renew, to sensitise. This is how, in the face of so much horror and waste, so much human potential devastated, we might imagine an answer, an adequate response.

John Purser explained that his poem “A Storm of Decency” from his book, This Much Endures (Edinburgh: Kennedy & Boyd, 2021) was written as a gift to its dedicatees, Paddy and Fiona Bushe, after hearing from them that “their local authority had pulled the rug from under an arts venue in which Fiona was closely involved.

“The authority took it over and then let it go to nothing. Paddy and Fiona were much distressed by losing this battle and I wrote them this poem as a kind of fairytale to lift their hearts a little. They liked it and it was only after that that I considered publishing it.” And fairytales sometimes come true.

A Storm of Decency

For Paddy and Fiona Bushe

They never saw it coming

and nobody could have forecast it.

The weather men and the weather women

were all wearing the wrong clothes:

but the great thing about it was

that the oppressed and the forgotten

the humiliated and the hurt

the innocent and the loving

were all perfectly dressed for the event.

And what an event!

The Apocalypse had nothing on it

Judgement Day was a rained-off parade

Ragnarok was a ball game

for mice

and the priests and the Doomsday men and the Doomsday women

and the nay-sayers

and the cheats and the liars

and the torturers and the killers

and the war-mongers and most of the financiers with them

were all caught totally unawares

and swept right off their feet

and held upside down

until all the malice and wrong-doing

was shaken out of them

along with all filthy selfish thoughts

and petty demands

and hoarding habits

and all mean-mindedness

was blown away by a storm of decency.

How it came about

will never be known

but the old poets set aside their pens

and rejoiced

and the sun fell backwards with laughter

and then skipped across the heavens

to catch up on its duties

and the moon smiled for the first time

in its long serious life

and the stars all came to an agreement

and dropped down in the daytime

to smile in the eyes of children.