Poem of the Week: Norman MacCaig, Praise of a thorn bush

  18 Jan '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

An Edinburgh school teacher by profession, poet Norman MacCaig spent his summers in Assynt in the far north west of Scotland. From their first visit in the summer of 1947 a long series of annual holidays were spent by the MacCaigs first in Achmelvich, and then, from the mid-1970s, at Inverkirkaig. With the accretion of time spent there, Assynt’s landscape and people began to be a significant thread in MacCaig’s poetry, especially during what his son Ewen believes to be the period of his best work, from the 1960s onwards.

Some 140 of MacCaig’s Assynt poems are gathered together in Polygon’s collection, Between Mountain and Sea: Poems from Assynt edited by Roderick Watson, and for which Ewen McCaig provided a foreword. It’s a beautiful, and substantial, poetry collection, with the arc of a lifetime emerging from its pages. Here are poems vigour, of climbing mountains, fishing, and lugging boats over land; later there are poems of memory and loss. There’s another distinct rhythm, though, that of the seasons. As Ewen McCaig points out, ‘almost no poetry was written while he was in Assynt. This was partly because it was crowded out by other activities but mainly because this was a time for refuelling. The poetry came later.’

Later usually meant in the dark Edinburgh winters. MacCaig himself said of this seasonal rhythm:

When I go up, as I do every summer, for 10 weeks – the stuff is there. Hoist your Venetian blinds, there it is. And I never write a thing. But I fatten my camel’s hump then feed on it all winter, quite unconsciously. I never say, ‘there’s a nice skinny rosebush, that’ll make a nice skinny poem.’ But sitting here, a year later, that skinny rosebush will scratch my mind and demand an utterance.

Source: archive interview with Norman MacCaig, transcribed in this review

The rosebush is a recurring theme across the poems and across the years in MacCaig’s work. Here’s a January poem about a rosebush that scratched in the wintertime, and produced a triumphant utterance.

Praise of a thorn bush
You’ve taken your stand
between Christy MacLeod’s house
and the farthest planet.

The ideal shape of a circle
means nothing to you: you’re all
armpits and elbows
and scraggy fingers that hold so delicately
a few lucid roses. You are
an encyclopedia of angles.

At night you trap stars, and the moon
fills you with distances.
I arrange myself to put
one rose in the belt of Orion.

When the salt gales drag through you
you whip them with flowers
and I think –
Exclamations for you, little rose bush,
and a couple of fanfares.

[January 1974]
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