Learning how to Sing by James Aitchison (Mica Press)
This new collection of poetry from James Aitchison is a delight – thoughtful, philosophical, lyrical and wide-ranging in subject matter: from stars and constellations, to genes and neurones. He is knowledgeable about scientific discoveries and revels in the world of nature where he perhaps feels most at home, most embedded, not through accident of birth but through hard work. As in Stone Works
where he describes the different kinds of stones he's used to build walls:
Making-unmaking-remaking – selecting stones
was slow and aching-sweet as poetry.
He is interested in time (personal) as in the changing processes in our minds and bodies; (social) the longer time cycles involved in building cathedrals; and (cosmic) the growth of galaxies. He is deeply concerned with human effects on the environment as in Futures
The land was fertile in their fathers’ days:
commodity dealers in Paris and New York
brokered futures in coffee and sugarcane
and On Iona
We plough old meadows and sow wheat, oats and rye;
we spray our hunger on beetles, tares, fungi.
And each year for the loaves of bread we buy
ground-nesting breeding pairs of skylarks die.
Specifically, he makes a reckoning of his own personal responsibility as in Possession
I work to repay my debts,
not to banks’ money-laundering protection racketeers
but to gardens, gardening, the living dead and you.
In this way, moving from the general to the specific, we glimpse the underlying theme of many of James Aitchison's poems, which is love, in its broadest sense. If 'gardening' is done with love for the worked soil there is a chance for all of us not just to 'repay my debts' but to help heal humanity's relationship with the earth. And if we have loved someone when they are alive, we don’t stop loving them when they die, so – 'the living dead'.
The poem Love Stories
is a brilliant rendition of a specific kind of love, and the delicious (or delinquent) madness that results. He depicts the two conflicting selves – the one that falls in love, the other that argues for balance and security. He contrasts the euphoria with the everyday – two states of mind (or being) and an alternating citizenship:
You could cut and run
or try to naturalise your statelessness.
Both voices are persuasive and while we may think we know which one will win out in the end, the other voice persists and (I felt anyway) that we don't know (yet) what the end is, not really, and we might wonder if there really is ever an end, this dialogue is perhaps one we continue to live with, neither entirely ceding to the other.
Behind the Waterfall
in a sense treats with the same subject, only this time the falling in love is with art. The obsessive pursuit of it might destroy human relationships – or require different kinds of relationships:
He needed women. He didn't need a wife.
He should have lived with childless mistresses.
The voice relating this dramatic monologue accepts the unusual points of view (in both art and relationships), has both loved and suffered, but is not judgemental. (We do in our lives what we must do it seems.)
The series of poems on islands sometimes depict loss – of communities, of human populations (Picture Hirta
) and of flora and fauna (On Iona
) but in others, there is the sheer enjoyment of what islands are good at – strong winds, fresh air, birdsong and sea sounds, the 'conversations of the seas' (Soundings
). This short poem sums up for me the experience of listening to the ocean – reassuring some deep part of us – a longing that only the sound of the sea can fulfil.
The title poem Learning how to Sing
addresses 'the art and craft' of writing, the sense of being 'an apprentice endlessly in debt'. Written in gratitude to language and the tools we've been given, to strive to make the best use of it. And it should not be taken for granted:
I'm still in debt, still paying the mortgage,
still learning how to sing.
How refreshing this is to acknowledge our indebtedness (in a world where we have so much, and clamour for more) to language and literature and to the opportunity to work and shape our efforts:
Through 'revision and slogwork', Heaney said,
a poem can gather spontaneity.
And from gratitude to a different concept of wealth (in Why Would a Wealthy Man…?
I'm a rich man, free to choose the kind
of tasks that grip my hands and fill my mind.
Some of the poems deal with the limitations of the body and its failing faculties, yet these are countered by the poems which express gratitude for life's gifts. In a world of rapid change (and sometimes decay) we have the celebration of the world of nature, of birdsong and sea sounds, as well as Handel's music and song (The Messiah in Tewkesbury Abbey
the chorus of a lost oratorio.
The poems are rendered with musicality and a great technical ability with rhyme and rhythm, often infiltrated by the numinous and uplifting. This latest collection from James Aitchison is a pleasure to read and re-read.