Makar/unmakar: Twelve Contemporary Poets in Scotland
Edited by Calum Rodgers

Owen Gallagher
Smokestack Books

Each Scottish in its own way – Owen Gallagher, author of Clydebuilt, lives in London but was born in Glasgow to Irish parents, while the makar/unmakar poets come from all over but are writing in Scotland – these two new poetry collections occupy opposite poles. Uniting them is the theme of inclusion.

For Gallagher, born in the Gorbals in 1949, inclusion (or its lack) is about class and poverty of opportunity. “There wis nae careers advice / tae show how the future micht blow,” he writes in “Thi Clyde Runs Thru Mi”.

After 10 years of austerity, poverty is a theme for the younger makar/unmakar poets too. “There’s no magic money tree / unless its Quantitative Easing / which is not for me,” writes Nicky Melville in “End times of the month, November 2018”, a meditation on money management that incorporates text messages from the bank. But inclusion is more often about gender identity and sexuality.

“Their work follows from the gains made by Morgan, Lochhead and Kay, who overcame the stiflingly masculinist and heteronormative homogeny of 20th century Scottish poetry through chameleonic experimentation, omnivorous internationalism, and boldly revitalised approaches to performance and the presentation of identity,” writes makar/unmakar’s editor, Calum Rodger, who is something of a stranger to the simple and clear expression of ideas. No matter. His engorged introduction serves to illuminate the field of play.

For Gallagher is nothing if not heteronormative, dreaming in “Before I Make My Ascension to Heaven” of cuddling up to the ultimate tragi-queen of female objectification, Marilyn Monroe. This traditional outlook is reflected in his use of form. In stark contrast to the experimental work in makar/unmakar, some of which verges on the inscrutable, the structure, language and meaning in Gallagher’s poems are crystal clear (provided you parlez Glaswegian).

“Those are my father’s shoes on my uncle’s feet / the style like dad, plain and neat” runs the opening couplet of his perfectly punctuated five-stanza poem “I Watch My Dead Father’s Shoes Being Taken”. Contrast that with these lines from Callie Gardner’s poem “springletter”: “the fruits of frequent subtheorising hold / every body is a utopia: unmobilisable force meets / an unmakeable object, and the deep resulting pore / of atopia is here to rain stopped play.”

This musing follows quotes from writer Gertrude Stein and literary theorist Roland Barthes, which are woven into the text, and perhaps draws on them. One could trawl the internet to identify the allusions, but why do that? “Whit?” is also a perfectly valid response to “springletter”.

Which is not to suggest that poets should not experiment or do with language everything that can possibly be done. They should; they must; that’s their job. As Melville puts it, “you don’t know / how far / you can take things / if you don’t take things / too far”.

The poets in makar/unmakar, whom Rodger, in his breathy, hyperbolic way, describes as “a dozen of the finest and most vital poets writing outside the mainstream in Scotland today”, are all in their different ways doing that. Good for them.

And in taking it too far, the unmakars produce flashes of brilliance and moments of beauty. Kate Tough’s found poem about barbed wire sizzles with outrage and humour. Nat Raha’s eccentrically punctuated poem captures a certain ambient violence: “decimate, un/made & horny / , our shaven flesh and locks, dined on”.

In Harry Josephine Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia: A Future Fantasy, written in Scots, we find a delicious musicality in the depictions of “the stoor o light” and “the skyran dancers over the bowe o a roilan world”. Tessa Berring’s spare lines produce a bracing linguistic jolt.

Clydebuilt likewise has its moments. “Soot” takes us to a dark therapeutic place, while “Cut!” skirts round a memory of being sexually abused as a child.

Others of Gallagher’s poems are perhaps too much there on the page. In makar/unmakar, the problem is sometimes the reverse. Nothing for the reader to grab on to. Not so much depth as murk.

These collections are uneven, then, but that’s how it is with poetry. Writing poems is hard, and the rewards are slim. That people do it at all is a cause for amazement – and joy.

And when it’s good, it’s finger-licking good, as in these lines from Juana Adcock’s multi-layered The Serpent Dialogues” which capture the self-imposed tragedy of the mobile phone: “And something about reaching for my phone as a form of / noise or interference, like wanting / to be saved from experiencing this instant / with all its beautiful and devastating aloneness.”