The rule of three
Emigration, immigration and the movement of peoples must be one of the great subjects of our time. Strange that it doesn’t feature in more poetry – or maybe I’ve just missed it up to now. I certainly found it here, in this triple emigration: folk leaving Scotland for Canada (and Nova Scotia) at different times.
The first leaving is not a voluntary departure: it’s a result of the Highland Clearances that forcibly removed most of the sheep-farming communities of the Scottish highlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
Sheep roped together
in the hold bleat plaintive song
against the waves: the stink of animal
and human trepidation.
The second emigrant is closer in time, and the poem moves into the voice and colloquial Scots of a twentieth century victim of the collapsed ship-building industry of the Clyde. He shifts into English in the last two lines of ‘Ship-building’, just as he (or his children) will change their speech patterns in a new culture.
The third leaver exists now: ‘ . . . downsized. Outsourced.’. Unlike the first two, who leave on boats, he travels by ‘flying steamship over water’. He is raging (‘Who stole my country?’).
This chapbook, which packs a punch greater than its weight, offers three waves of emigration in three sections of three poems: first the leavings, then the crossings, then the ‘new found land’. It’s a structure that allows the reader to make sense of huge ideas, political and historic. The number three comes to rest in the third section with ‘The Third Wave’.
The final poem, on its own, acts as a sort of coda and a lament. No more threes. It’s full of irony and question, exhortation and assertion, a splendid piece for performance. Through anguish and coursing rhetoric, it moves to a resolution:
your old ways in this place,
find new customs, start other
traditions that blend North
with South, East with West:
an eagle dips its wing. Nature will not rest.