Reviewed by Peter Jarvis, Michelle Smith and Christie Williamson
The Fife poet Tom Hubbard’s sympathies are both parochial and internationalist, evidenced in ‘Fife Child of the Fifties’, the nostalgic opening poem of The Nyaff, or in ‘The Hoose O Licht’, his homage to Patrick Geddes, where he expresses desire to
.............riggit oor space
That we cuild constellate the years
O the lang mirk and the tentit base
Wi the words o oor ain and the world’s seers
As was Duncan Glen’s, Hubbbard’s career is one of “lang/ Stravaiging” (‘Ravenscraig Elegy’).
With four poems in standard English, nine in Fife Scots (one of these with touches of the Doric), The Nyaff selects from seventeen years’ work, since the early 90s. Formally, Hubbard’s poetry here is conventional – quatrains, narratives in verse paragraphs, a ballad in short-lined rhymed couplets. He shares characteristics with medieval Scots poets in a liking for ballads, a penchant for political satire, a respect for scholarship (‘Aiberdeen Elegie Scherzando’) whilst relishing scabrous demotic (‘The Nyaff’). Overall, for his vocabulary Hubbard has dredged, it seems, the medieval makars and their modern exemplars.
When on song, Hubbard has lovely internal rhyming in his lyrics. Here is the opening quatrain of ‘St Bernard’s Well’:
Young they were when they found the source,
Guddling at the pebbles and leaping up the rock –
The fountain pappled, and the woodland chattered
While the town rose high, sedately, block by block.
With its epigraph from MacDiarmid’s ‘The Glass of Pure Water’, the political direction of this Hubbard poem comes to our ken stealthily, and is the more forceful for the fact. Unfortunately the social and political satires of the second section of this collection are stale news, somewhat blaring and blunt.
‘Ancestral Voices’ is a curiosity in three long phases of verse paragraphs. The setting is a town not unlike Kirkcaldy. The two characters are both of immigrant stock. Les Wick was Leszek Nowicki (his family East European, his mother maltreated by her now-dead husband). Les is a classic mother’s boy, now a lonely middle-aged maths teacher. The other character is an unnamed Canadian girl, “part Micmac, part Scots origin”, who provides the love interest as well as conveniently introducing the sub-theme of colonialism.
In true Arthurian fashion, they meet only after Les, like Percival, has one day ventured beyond his normal safe bounds. It is a portrait of a loner – part modern fairy tale, part (anti-)heroic quest, part passionless love story, part ghost tale. Further – it is an elegy for village life overwhelmed by urbanisation, and a last-minute paean against colonialism.
Reading this book was an adventure, not least because some of the poems are in Scots. I call Scotland home these days, but I’m here by a combination of chance and choice, and the way of speaking here – its cadence, its swells and silences – is still new to me. Despite this, and despite the fact that I wasn’t born in the fifties, I connected instantly with the first poem, ‘Fife Child in the Fifties’. It was the transition from the lines “I saw Pacific islets, sunset deepening on // Silhouettes of palms” to the image of a grandfather with “coal-dust in his spit” that did it. The feeling of recognition, of being told something that matters, is one of the reasons I read poetry, and it is important, the feeling in the poem of looking to the horizon (and what child doesn’t look in this way?) set against a dull yet shocking everydayness.
Other poems, such as ‘Ravenscraig Elegy,’ were beautiful, and sad. I think it’s difficult to write sadness, because it requires transparency:
Nature unknowingly saves us for her artefacts:
The stone seat by the path, the twisted tree
..........Where a girl plays with her dog,
So from the flux and flummox you rescued song.
Other poems in this collection are completely different, both in emotion, tenor and style. ‘The Choob’ took me along for a ride around Glasgow, and left me reeling. ‘Quatrains for a New World Order’ was sharp, funny and sly:
This is the new dialectic:
Being uptight in a downtown.
Carlyle was merely dyspeptic,
And Ruskin was nuts, we learn,
As was Blake.
The effect, when such different poems are gathered in one book, is one of collage. Hubbard takes us on a tour, one that is made up of linguistic twists and inflected with a host of emotions. Where the poems don’t quite work for me is when an element of judgement seems to creep onto the page, as with ‘Ancestral Voices.’ The anti-hero at its heart left me wanting something other, something more (yes, I do know this is a quality one might expect of an anti-hero, but nonetheless . . .)
My point is simply this – the meandering tale of Leslie Wick – cannot, for me at least, compare to lines such as these from ‘The Hoose O Licht’:
Wi the words o oor ain and the warld’s seers;
This is oor ootleuk touer: a guide
Fir the passin pilgrims ower the tide.
Tom Hubbard’s nae nyaff. We know this already, but his latest offering does confirm the fact. The Nyaff contains poems in both Scots and English – dating as far back as the 1990s, and coming right up to date with a damning flyte at Donald Trump and the poet’s alma mater’s acquiescence to his project on the Moray coast.
The poems range from compact, twelve line meditations to seven page narrative sprawls. The pamphlet begins with ‘Fife Child in the Fifties’, an evocation of how his grandparents “set me journeying when I was six or so”.
The first portion of this pamphlet is the story of important journeys Hubbard and others have taken. The second poem is dedicated, as the pamphlet is, to his PhD supervisor. ‘Aiberdeen Elegie-Scherzando’ is an epic recollection of “a chiel’s formation/ In maitters great (and smaa)”, a hymn of praise to a generation of poets with whom Hubbard has shared his path.
‘Vigil’, a portrait of the long wait for a Scottish parliament is despite its self-deprecating explanatory note as relevant now as it was in 1992, when even the current one was a long way away. Hubbard uses his gift for rhythm to great effect here – “Come the morn, we’ll win:/ Or lose, perhaps, with fingers double crossed”. Alongside the parliamentary hopefuls, we meet ‘The Choob’ and ‘The Nyaff’, both of whom are given memorable voice.
‘Ancestral Voices’, the seven page narrative journey of Leslie Wick, combines these concepts of journey, portrait and voice to paint a dream-like modern Scotland, where people of all backgrounds come to terms with their Scottishness and their humanity. The dates (1994-1995) indicate this took a long time to write. For this reviewer, the effort shows, and it was worth it.
Throughout all, we are treated to warmth, humour and a flair for words which insist on being rolled over and over in the mouth. It is fitting that the pamphlet closes with an affirmative elegy for Duncan Glen, whose song he hears as
The gull’s cry and the wave’s lap
.....................unmake to re-make themselves, as your long
Stravaiging halts, resumes and re-enacts.
Reviewing this pamphlet has been a rewarding journey. I am lucky to be able to return to it many times.