I was a on a northbound train some decades ago when the conductor announced we’d crossed the Scottish border. A carriage full of drunken Yorkshiremen laid down their playing cards and lagers and burst into an impromptu chorus of “Donal, where’s yer troosers?” — reminding me that while the 1707 Act of Union may have established a “United” Kingdom,” I was entering a country very different from its southern neighbor. Americans might lump together the two nations as “Great Britain,” but both the environment — its stunning natural beauties, a punishing climate — and the history of Scotland are entirely its own.
In literary terms at least, Scotland punches far above its weight. The Jamaican American poet Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone focuses on what is perhaps Scotland’s most famous cultural export, the life story and writings of the “ploughboy poet” Robert Burns (1759–1796). Burns was the master of tender love lyrics and stirring paeans to liberty and equality — as well as savage social satire and rambunctious pornography. In 1786, beset with depression, alcoholism, the failure of his family farm, and the complications of his various amorous affairs, he was about to emigrate to Jamaica to become a “bookkeeper” on a plantation there — a position that would have made him by default the manager of enslaved labor: a slavedriver. Burns didn’t go to the West Indies, though; the success that summer of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect encouraged him to stay on in Scotland.
McCallum’s collection is a series of dramatic monologues imagining what might have happened had Burns taken that trip. Before he dies — at the same early age as the historical Burns — he carries on a long affair with an enslaved woman, Nancy, who bears his child, Agnes; Agnes is impregnated by the brutal plantation owner Charles Douglas and dies giving birth to a child, Isabella; and Isabella, light-skinned enough to “pass,” emigrates with her grandmother to Scotland, where she marries an Edinburgh doctor.
Most of the poems of No Ruined Stone’s first half are spoken by Burns himself, sometimes as letters to his brother Gilbert back in Scotland. He longs intensely for his home; he wistfully notes the growing popularity of his poems, published in Scotland in his absence; he is lacerated by remorse at the part he plays in the plantation’s brutal regimen; and he clings desperately to the solace afforded by his relationship with Nancy:
Suffer me to ask love to dwell in a place not meant for love’s habitation …
His granddaughter, Isabella, having returned to Scotland with all the advantages of respectable bourgeois whiteness, yet with full knowledge of her own origins in the tangled confluence of violence, slavery, and poetry, occupies the the book’s latter half. In “Voyage,” she recalls the passage eastward, where “we, / marooned by history, by memory, / became the between.” It is not merely a transatlantic voyage, but a journey of self-discovery:
the stars, numberless as the souls lost to the sea’s depths, revealed the routes we would have to take to recover the wreckage of ourselves.
McCallum’s free-verse monologues make no attempt to imitate the language of polite regency society or Burns’s poetic forms (quite properly: Burns is inimitable). But an occasional Scotticism or characteristically Jamaican turn of phrase — and, at one point, a Ghanaian lullaby — remind the reader that the institution of chattel slavery was not merely an economic regime, but a site of cross-cultural exchange. For McCallum, a poet of color, born in Jamaica and bearing a Celtic name, one suspects that the imagining of these emotionally and morally complex exchanges is to some degree personal. As she writes in “No Ruined Stone,” a poem dedicated to her grandmother,
the dead return to demand accounting, wanting and wanting and wanting everything you have to give and nothing will quench or unhunger them as they take all you make as offering. Then tell you to begin again.
In The Caiplie Caves, the Canadian poet Karen Solie sojourns not in Burns’s Ayrshire but on the coast of Fife, where her primary struggles are not merely with the washing machine and the heater in her rented house — though they’re both proving recalcitrant — but with a deep-seated malaise that one might identify as the symptom of modernity itself. This suite of poems presents a contemporary rural Scotland, riven by economic insecurity and echoing with the tumults of 21st-century history, in which a barely intelligible, semi-mythical Dark Age past is still palpable, both in prehistoric standing stones and in tales of figures like the hermit Ethernan.
It’s hard to say anything definite about Ethernan. He seems to have been a seventh-century Irish missionary to Scotland who withdrew to the Caiplie Caves on the Fife coast, to decide “whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island.” His cult seems to have enjoyed some popularity, but no outright miracles are recorded of him; “Ethernan,” Solie notes dryly, “is said to have survived for a very long time on bread and water.”
The implicit parallel The Caiplie Caves suggests is between Ethernan and Solie herself, both of them confronting “this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape”:
Where should we find consolation, dwelling in the north? Amid the stunted desperate plant life clinging to its edges, thriving on atmospheric vengeance or neglect?
Poems in Ethernan’s voice appear right-justified, and the pious but doubting hermit finds himself doubting his own motives in mortifying the flesh:
I can’t be sure now there ever was humility in it burning the self as though it were a city believing the past might be destroyed and remade
The poet herself, spending time in this same bleak region, is struck by the lessons of the nature around her. In “A Plenitude,” she surveys the plant life springing up everywhere, and finds,
Arguments for and against belief volunteering in equal profusion. My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.
A boat visit to a cave mouth of a rocky beach teaches mutability: “Wind may complicate return to the boat. Any visit / is a lesson in how quickly conditions change.”
Solie has immersed herself in the history of Fife, which, like the history of most inhabited places, is a chronicle of human exploitation of the natural environment and of various violent human follies. One poem consists mostly of a list of invertebrate fauna of the Firth of Forth (drawn from an 1881 article), all characterized in terms of how many have been harvested, and how easily. Another painfully recapitulates the January 1918 “Battle of May Island” — not actually a battle, but a nautical disaster in which at least 104 Royal Navy sailors died in a series of blundering collisions. “A Trawlerman” reflects on the unpredictability of the herring shoals in the season before the Second World War:
No one can predict how herring run. They are a tender species, easily influenced. It was luck brought them in with money circulating freely as the German prepared for war.
(Ethernan: “even in my white martyrdom the wars find me.”)
It is characteristic of Solie’s wonderfully understated voice that only upon rereading does one realize that the “tender species, easily / influenced” describes not just herring but human beings. She is a poet far fonder of evocation and insinuation than direct statement, though she is not above ironic juxtaposition, as when she ends a poem about the closure of coal-fired Cockenzie Power Station by wryly observing
the land newly earmarked for habitat, an eco-village and cruise ship terminal on what some are calling the Scottish Riviera.
As the book progresses, Solie turns her attention more and more to Dark Ages Scotland, to semi-mythical narratives of men like the sixth-century missionaries Kentigern (better known as St. Mungo) and Columba. This is no narrative of triumphalist conversion, however; like Ethernan, whose doubting, vacillating voice continues to sound in his own poems, these are figures of doubtful provenance, men who have no final answers.
Instances of clarity, of the mind’s sudden yet momentary insights, occur not in the hermit’s restless self-examination, but in the poet’s confrontation with the alien natural world. The book’s final poem, “Clarity,” begins with the speaker happening upon a dead gannet on a footpath, which she initially mistakes for “Styrofoam maybe, / a sweater, fishing gear.” It ends with an aquatic vision of life itself, in all its variousness: “Much of what I feared” in her own childhood, Solie writes,
has happened, though not always as I’d feared. And so much more to fear than I’d imagined. On an afternoon beneath the Quiraing, we watched the gannets dive, looked from the cliff edge straight through the clear water to the origins of variety.
No Ruined Stone by Shara McCallum (2021) is published by Alice James Books. The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie (2020) is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Both are available online and in bookstores.