Richie McCaffery reviews two chapbook offerings from recently established Wayleave Press:

burns-web-sscowcroft-web-smallA Scarlet Thread   Elizabeth Burns
Wayleave Press, 2014   ISBN 978-0-9928946-2-7   £4.00

Moon Garden     Ron Scowcroft
Wayleave Press, 2014    ISBN 978-0-9928946-1-0    £4.00




On paper, Elizabeth Burns’ spare and elegant pamphlet A Scarlet Thread is a short sequence of poems dedicated to the life, work and memory of Scottish painter Anne Redpath (1895-1965). Yet, there is a feeling of substance and time-well-invested when reading this collection of ten short poems, and there is also a sense that Burns is delving much deeper than most ekphrastic poetry we see nowadays (the type that Paul Batchelor has cheekily said poets indulge in to cheer themselves up when they’re stuck for better ideas).  There is a much more synergetic force behind Burns’ poems than merely the poet responding to the surfaces of canvases.  The opening poem ‘Tweed’ seems to subvert the usual art-speak of exhibitions and catalogues by showing a voice responding to colour in highly private yet specific ways, such as the colour of a lilac sea at Pittenweem. We are shown ways in which the poet may follow in the footsteps of a late, great artist, but in a way that ensures the individuality of each artist is upheld, preserved:

I used to climb the same worn common stair as she did,
when I lived above her old flat in the New Town: our flat

its twin (…)

But how different the kitchens: ours with its cold ox-blood floor,
its dripping twin-tub, the daily smell of the landlord’s
.                                                                                   burning toast;

hers, a kaleidoscope of colour…a room at once joyous and
containing perhaps her golden table, golden cups, her
.                                                                                       painted cockerel.

.                                                                                      [‘The common stair’]

There is a tension in many of the poems between colour and historical events, with World War Two running beneath many of the poems and artworks:

(…) here in the foreground,
a glimmer of gold in the tree, a streak
of pale apple-green on the ground, a foretaste
of what is to come – the end of the war, and then,
fresh out of college, travelling, being in love,
living in France, soaking up colour and heat.
                                                          [‘Painting the Borders in wartime I’]

These poems deal with Redpath’s travels through Spain and the impact of different lights and experiences on her work, but the collection closes on a return to the hard-wearing tweed and themes of war, how a fabric as seemingly dour as tweed is often made up of a spectrum of colours, how there is a magical quality even in the most quotidian of settings:

All those dour, post-war years, she painted brightness,
a glimpse of something bolder, full of possibility
– you might paint your own chair orange, wear red slippers –
her colours like flecks in tweed, flowing through darkness.
.                                                                   [‘Tweed’]


I wonder if Ron Scowcroft’s pamphlet Moon Garden might have benefitted from a similarly Spartan approach to that in  Burns’ A Scarlet Thread. I say this because the collection begins very strongly with the effect that half of the following poems lose some of their potency. That said, the pamphlet ends on a high note with the striking reverie of a title poem ‘Moon Garden’:

When evening comes I wait to sleep again,
place my back against the soil,
raise my hand to a cloudless sky
and cover the distant blue of the earth with my thumb.

It is difficult to pin-point themes in this collection, but the earlier poems are marked by their evocativeness and enigmas, from childhood memories of witnessing a plane crash to contrast this with ‘Red Aeroplane’ which recalls making model planes:

I slept with lacerations, left tiny smears
of blood on balsa robs and struts (…)

I hurricaned the living room,
strafed the stairs until he surrendered
and drove me where cotton grass and heather
lay unbounded and the wind fell light.
I remember a snatch of breath,
how it rose and rose, my father
running the moor and me, flying after,
arms outstretched from view.

My favourite poem here also concerns the speaker’s father – ‘My Father’s Phonograph’. This poem delves into the ritual and ceremony of playing records at home and how he had to adapt and change with technology whilst retain his old tastes and preferences. The poem is deftly written with strong imagery: taking a 78 to the brass nub and felt platter / like an offering. It reminds me that many acts or artists we consider as game-changers in music actually began with the approval of older generations. My grandfather, an inveterate classical and opera man, had LPs of the early albums of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and here the speaker’s father justifies the purchase of Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home by claiming he Sings older than he is. Poignantly, the story can only go so far and the poem ends in the era of CD when he stepped into a diamond sky / with one hand waving free.

Some of the later poems are less convincing when set against poems such as the one discussed above. ‘Horsetails’ hits a note almost too reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’ or Vernon Scannell’s ‘Nettles’:

plugged into towpaths, sidings, neglect,
thriving like envy,
black roots wired so deep in the past
nothing kills them,
not even salt, not even flame.

That said, I was drawn towards certain poems underpinned by what I would guess is military experience. Poems such as ‘Dog in a minefield’ have a fragmentary and elliptical style that never seems to fully spell the poem out and leaves the reader with a troubling sense of mystery. In ‘Sharing Territories’ we hear of the cordite reek of guano and I can’t help but think this is a heavy clue as to the speaker’s military background. This poem is about a penguin colony on East Falkland but the speaker draws a parallel with the huddled penguins like the prisoners we took at Stanley / who stood, hooded cagoules grey and wet across their backs’. These are poems that do not splurge, gush or easily divulge their stories or emotions, but leave enough of a clue to hint at traumas hidden from view; and while some poems are stronger than others here, this is a pamphlet to return to and reconsider.

Richie McCaffery is the author of two pamphlets (Spinning Plates from HappenStance Press and the 2014 Callum Macdonald Memorial prize runner up, Ballast Flint) and the recently published collection Cairn from Nine Arches Press. He is a PhD candidate at The University of Glasgow’s Scottish Literature Department and has written reviews for a number of publications, such as The Warwick Review, Northwords Now, Elsewhere, Sabotage, Sphinx and The Edinburgh Review.