Alan Riach introduces a range of poems in which the priority of independence, the facts of nature and the true worth of language all work together – unlike the practice of almost all politics, big businesses and mass media...

HERE’S a poem by Mandy Haggith, entitled “Yichang” from her collection Castings (Ullapool: Two Ravens Press, 2007):

in from the riverside

where the putter of boat engines dulls

you practise scales

by a low pool among trees

long slow notes climb up your flute

as rain drops ring

young sad notes

almost as still as the leaves

sweet green notes

tugging at the sleeves of ghosts

pulling over the water

like a kind of grieving

reeling us in

to stand in the rain


Haggith comments on the Scottish Poetry Library website: “Yichang is the Chinese city just downstream from the enormous dam being built on the Yangtse River. It is a port for huge cruise boats, plying what is left of the Three Gorges, and also for all manner of river freight. These are the engines whose putter is left behind at the start of the poem, as we follow the sound of a flautist playing slow scales in a park.”

So we’re paying sensitive attention to the sounds of delicate music in a world overrun by uncaring industrialisation, exploitation of the most thorough and insensitive kind.

Haggith continues: “I went to Yichang as part of a long journey in 2006 researching the global paper industry. China represents extremes in the world of paper, having both ancient traditions of beautiful hand-made sheets and a fast-growing and horribly polluting modern pulp industry.

“The Yangtse dam is an icon of Chinese industrialisation, creating a reservoir that has led so far to the displacement of more than a million people. Thousands of farms, grave sites, historic monuments and sacred places have been drowned. The melancholy tone of this poem is a response to this loss.”

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You couldn’t have a more precise example of the mortal consequences of what big business brings about.

The sensitisation the poem proposes stands no chance against such brutality – does it?

Well, if we pause and choose to take the time to think about it, maybe it does. Haggith explains: “Raindrops on still water and the simple, haunting flute music stand in direct contrast to the hubbub of the river and its industry.

“I think it is important for poetry to listen to and convey the quietness that lies behind the noise of public places. I hope to show the slow notes of the musical scale through resonant single syllable words.

“There are lots of ‘ing’ words, to give a sense of the raindrop rings. It’s an oral poem, intended to be read out, slowly, allowing all the rhymes to chime. At its heart, ‘leaves’ and ‘sleeves’ lead to ‘grieving’.”

This explication of how the poem works is immediate, accessible and simply highlights the effectiveness of the poem itself.

I imagine that for many readers, such an exposition would be unnecessary – I hope so – but I know from experience that it will help many people for whom poems are a bit scary and generally, poetry is closed book.

I used to think this was a failure of formal education to engage with the pleasures and insights that poetry and the arts might open up to any of us but I suspect it’s much deeper and more systemic, a psychological or pathological destructiveness that affects perpetrators as well as its victims.

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If nobody is free who enslaves another, the minds of the oppressors are symptoms of their own suppression, even while they enact the suppression of others.

Haggith offers some further details: “This poem is in the third section of Castings, called ‘Casting Adrift’, the poems in which are the result of travels all over the world.

“It is the first of several about the Yangtse. The other two sections are from closer to home: ‘Casting Off’ is all about the River Kelvin in Glasgow, while ‘Casting Ashore’ is a bunch of poems about my home in Assynt.”

You can find more information and poems by Haggith at the Scottish Poetry Library, one of Scotland’s treasure houses, www.scottishpoetry

The National:

Haggith is a fine novelist as well as a poet and her work, centred in Assynt, a territory previously mapped out by Norman MacCaig, is a remapping of that area and all the world around it from an experience of life different from, of the next generation after, and essentially complementary and corrective to, MacCaig’s.

That’s not to diminish MacCaig’s achievement but to emphasise there are always other ways of seeing.

“Ah, wait!” I can hear the doubter.

What difference can this make in a world so far gone building Yangtse dams, exacerbating the destruction of the climate, the ecology, the earth itself?

And what’s the relevance of all this to independence anyway?

Well, there are answers. Here’s a poem by Alan Gillis, simply entitled “Independence”:

With such a way to

fall from leaf to turf

the chestnut swells

to burst from itself,

wrapped snug

in its bright green

spiny burr, bristling

to crack open,

rip away from its withering mothers’

catkins of gleet

and dead flowers,

to feel the air’s brace,

licks of sunlight,

a smatch of earth

before it’s too late -

high in the hold

of interweaved

branches bobbed by

winds, crisp leaves

in airborne spirals,

rustled into scarlet- y


umber seas of russet

where sparrows

perch to climb

into husk-sweet

skies - and it is time

to unsnig, let it

go, cut loose and fall…

to be conkered, roasted,

road smush, pigs’ swill:

to be flesh to fruit

the earth and root there

through five hundred rings

to branch-tips from where

with such a way to

fall from leaf to turf

the chestnut swells

to burst from itself.

This is from Gillis’s collection The Readiness (London: Picador, 2020), and for me it stands out as one of those extended metaphors that hits home and strikes me as a careful delivery of truth.

Those extraordinary words – “gleet”, “smatch”, “unsnig”, “smush” – all of them make you look twice and wonder. But wouldn’t it be nice to revitalise the dull old mantras of the indy brigade and have some new slogans:







The natural imagery of a chestnut cycle, a tree with 500 rings blossoming a fruit that has to let go and be let go, to break free and to escape its dependency, though it’s food for pigs or pulped by avenues of commerce: it’s a risk, to make the fall, but one we need to take.

Unemphatic, unexplained, the poem suggests all these things in its title, then works as close observation of nature at work, the vocabulary making unusual whatever we might have assumed or taken for granted. Nothing is taken for granted.

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Gillis’s book The Readiness is packed with beautifully accomplished poems, many simple observations of family experience, none of them boasting or showing off.

They resemble the works of the composer Domenico Scarlatti, who, as described by that fine Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting in his poem Briggflats (1966):

condensed so much music into so few bars

with never a crabbed turn or

congested cadence,

never a boast or a see-here

For Gillis, “childhood innocence” and “the resignation of adulthood” are in constant balance and interaction, so that his poems gently but precisely and sharply suggest that childhood is never entirely innocent and show how adulthood can never be only reduced to resignation.

Or else, why write at all?

The urgency behind that question is palpable in The Earth is Our Home, an anthology compiled by Gerry Loose. In it a range of poets are gathered after the epigraph from Polish poet Wisława Szymborska:

Even when you take to the woods,

you’re taking political steps on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political

and above shines a moon no longer purely lunar.

Understanding this is what Loose sums up in the first sentence of the introduction: “That the Earth is our home is clearly an incontrovertible truth, yet as a species we do not act as if we understand that truth which is staring us in the face.”

The trouble is, we do not act as a species at all, or at least, not consciously. We haven’t developed that far yet and maybe never will. Time’s running out for that one.

We can act as poets, though, if we can, and sometimes even collectively, sharing the knowledge carefully.

And by “carefully” I mean in a rather different way from most politicians, business “leaders” and media people.

For example, Alan Jackson has a beautiful little squib which summarises the party politician’s understanding of Szymborska’s “no longer purely lunar” moon, in a way that shows up a reductive vulgarity that is itself an entrapment:

What a lovely, lovely moon.

And it’s in the constituency too.

Dilys Rose, in “Wake of Vultures”, asks the scavengers of the world, “we too are prey to poison, pesticides, lead – and / how long will you fare when we’re dying, or dead?” For Joe Murray, war is “a game for men” whose objective is the creation of a “space” where we can “be monstrous / to witness / and be silent”. Kathy Galloway offers “Advisory Notes”:

Our advice is that you forget about schools and hospitals for now.

Think resource trading. We’ll give you competitive terms.

You send us your mineral assets and we’ll refine them for you.

Look what we’ve done for Africa.

Then you can open your markets and Bob’s your uncle, You’re part of the global economy.

Elizabeth Rimmer dedicates a poem to the refugees in the Park Inn Hotel, noting that “a flame’s / the only gift you share without division or loss” – and that flame might be literal, as we huddle round the warmth of a fire, or metaphoric, as the kindling idea of liberation, escape, independence, is shared, and grows.

But this is only a sampling.

There are more poems in this slim anthology than I can quote from, by Maryanne Hartness, Donald Adamson, Gill Russell, Nat Hall, Lindsey Shields Waters, James McGonigal, Gordon Meade, Denise Steel, Ian Stephen, Jim Carruth, Mandy Macdonald, Finola Scott, Lynnda Wardle and Katy Ewing.

George Gunn’s poem, “Six Thousand Years of Sunlight” is given 16 pages, parts 1 to 5, and centres on his favoured territory, the Province of the Cat, Caithness.

But the full poem runs to 11 sections and needs to be read at length to get its effect.

Here’s section 8, “The welcome of rain”:

"Blue is the male principle

stern & spiritual

yellow is the female principle

gentle cheerful & sensual

red is matter

brutal & heavy

& always the colour

which must be fought

& vanquished by the other two”

so wrote the German artist Franz Marc

just before he was killed

by a shell splinter

at Verdun in 1916

the bog is never dark

for how else can it be seen

red yellow or blue?

40,000 years ago

a yellow hunter gatherer

danced across the snow

at the foot of the great glacier

then 8,000 years ago

came the farmers

red in their slow

turning of the earth into acres

then a welcome of rain

drowned each arable field

their burial the bogs gain

red to the rain had to yield

then came the blue cattle

4,500 years after

driven by the inventors of metal

they grazed the bog to its present




Bronze Age pastoral

the obsessive human chronicle

homo sapiens have been on this


for 320,000 years

for 310,000 of those

we had no fossil fuel

no hierarchy

no religion

no money

no borders

to open or close

but we had art

& we knew its worth

for the past 400 years

we have created a society

that has been dominated

by worthless money

it has regurgitated

the killing mantra

of the traders in hydro-carbon

for the last 270 years

we have listened

to their deadly refrain

but wind & tide whisper to us

“what once was

so can be again

will have to be


red stones in the long cairn

we have much to learn

blue & yellow

is the welcome of the rain