Thursday, 25 June 2020

Joseph Macleod, 'Earthscape'

Joseph Macleod

Work continues on Macleod. James Fountain’s work is coming out as a book from Waterloo. I read much of his archive, in Edinburgh, in the very cold first week of January 2001. I realised recently that there are some other poems which aren’t in the Macleod archive in the NLS. While looking in New Verse for something else I was disturbed to find in issue 3 a 1934 Macleod poem, 'Earthscape', which was not in the archive. It is one of his best. I think he tended to type single copies of poems and send them to magazines, so that if they were published the magazine kept the typescript and Macleod retained nothing. Slightly alarming if you want to be a Macleod expert! For the moment, it seems that the body of texts we have is incomplete.
This is the poem:


they are excavating under the briars of paestum
a parian fragment of an old Goddess:
tackle is hoisting
the earthy torso up.
the season is nearly over
and russet roseleaves in recognition
deserting hips and sere bedeguars
sacrifice themselves
in libation Upon her.
she is Cold as they prise her up:
they are forcing her out of season:
for spring is her time, whoever she,
spring is her time to return
not this,
unrecognised by spade or diggers
another to join many
a goddess evading collection,
her Return from death to antiquity
the fall of a crabapple is pointing
like a single bell.

on sard hard edge of a distant mountain
a drab clad man
is he sitting? standing?
too minute for a thick finger to indicate.

walls of a harem in a narrow street
are peeling open:
corner of a house on the opposite side disclosing
half a group of women, looking:
as thirsty enclosed cattle look
on boats that row up and down a river:
with large round eyes
on orientals thronging the streets
merchandising without wine
obedient to books their authors have forgotten.
the stripes on the feminine clothes
Swing to the distant rock:
but the Scale is incommensurate.

miniature parables
to the sun does he compose?
among the stars hymenopterous mysteries?
and humbly lay his forehead on the rock?

heraldic Light is quartering the escutcheon,
how Dare we call this sunlight pitiless?
tenderly it warms the chilled widowed,
only in daylight the tortured wife has peace,
gently it revives dim philosophers,
compensates exhausted gunners
moleminers and batclerks
and trousered savages knowing only
that something has changed in the world,
who cluster to carry in annual procession
a mutilated image of a virgin.
through men's provinciality
she Returned from her virginity
to fulfil herself in vain.

her open eyes are not fixed on her child any more
nor question heaven any more
but Rise to the receding mountain.
is he a Demiurge?
a steward of the heavenly bodies?
their banker, telling each how its account stands
and where at any hour it ought to be?
away from him an eagle and a fulmar
are swinging: they will cross
over the valley
hillside woods where jays fight
finches flash in honeycomb leaflight
badgers freshen warrens
bees lie crazily with careful orchids
and lonely oxlips.
over vetched fields they will cross
and jackdaws playing with rooks and performing plovers,
watermeads in which
blue herons fish and rushes flower,
just visible roofs of a country town:
too High for little eyes to se:
for they are getting rare now
and were beautiful.

he does not see them.
to know everything he has made himself Astigmatic:
two men on two rocks
disregarding two landscapes
slightly superimposed.

where his height meets level ground
is a quiet Group.
twisted aluminium and torn matter
an aeroplane stands with its tail erect
and crushed nose
driven deep in earth.
from the silence, from the suspense
is made the recognition of Death.
the workers from the jam factory
shocked and astonished, Watch:
navvies have come to Watch
with hops and wheat in their bellies:
respectful reporters chase away
bran-fed inquisitive pullets, and Watch:
vegetable sheep and potato pigs
come up to watch:
and the sleepless sun pours down.

the bulk of the corpse-to-be
balances the bulk of the old earthgoddess.
Many goddesses, Many women,
little richness in barren Apices:
but brown Earth is an honest Plinth
that underlies
and is replenished by the sun.

I, as I painted this
becoming conscious of foliage
on my breast and back and shoulders,
paint in the bottom corner
as symbol and signature
the Hands that have touched me.

(This is on-line with the whole of that issue of New Verse at a site called I am not making any claim to copyright of the poem. As it is missing from the Selected Poems, it seems likely to evade notice altogether, which is why I am including it here.)
The poem makes an equation between this statue emerging from the earth and a flier crashing to his death and plunging into the earth. Like is exchanged for like in a kind of balance. It goes on to describe the state of the observer - who finally sprouts leaves in a transformation, the usual punishment for a mortal who observes a goddess too closely. The perspective bent by squinting strain mirrors the precipitous path of the aeroplane, downwards. The Virgin, carried around in procession, is a middle term between the buried statue and the pilot. the "hands that have touched me" may refer to a type of icon known as "akheiropoieton", not made by (human) hand. As I pointed out, what may be the most successful poems are scattered in magazines and don't show up if you go through all the folders in the archive. Describing the work entire is not tractable as he was simply too prolific - between the visible and the invisible. I can't wholly approve of the move into documentary. The reasons are excellent but I wish he'd gone on with the modernist style.

I located an essay by Macleod in Little Reviews Anthology for 1949. Bearing in mind that ‘Adam Drinan’ was a pseudonym for Macleod, check out what he says about Drinan: “Writing in English, George Bruce and Adam Drinan from the East Coast and the West respectively, rediscover the traditions of their people in a style that is simple, accurate, vivid and deep. George Bruce's output at the moment is small, but he is always alive and compelling […] Drinan is more graceful. He explored such relics of Celtic forms and rhythms as have survived the onslaught of the Presbyterian Church. But he is also a Marxist, and his awareness of to-day never allows him any indulgence in Celtic Twilights. He has a faculty for translating into poetry the light, colour, people and living conditions of the islands and the West Coast; and it is significant that his poems, as I have been told, have been read to and approved by Kintyre fishermen. Also significant is the rumour that his forthcoming volume of poems is about the London blitz.”
The blitz poems must be “The Macphails of London”, a typescript of which is in the National Library. The anthology reprints material from little magazines, in this case from ‘Anvil’, a miscellany edited by Jack Lindsay, which suggests a link to the Communist Party. This would explain the name Anvil, linking poetry with virtuous metal-workers. The essay is titled “Poet and People”, and despite the links with communism and Scottish nationalism it avoids dogma, even if it doesn’t really answer any questions about the nature of poetry. Macleod had close relations with both the BBC (he worked for them for eight years) and the Party, and while those relationships with authoritarian and centralized organizations were likely to crush creativity, this is not certain and he did produce some good work in that period. He wrote a whole book about his disillusion with the BBC and its loyalty tests, but I have yet to see an equivalent document about the Communist Party. Quite possibly Lindsay and the group around him weren't a pain to work with, and the BBC were more oppressive with loyalty tests, political dossiers, personnel people vetting dossiers, etc. James Fountain has detected Macleod’s name on the list of “crypto communists” which George Orwell produced in 1948. There was a BBC purge of left-sympathising employees in the later forties, although Macleod had resigned in 1945 and I don’t think he was part of a purge at all. The purge is part of oral memory but I haven’t seen anything about it in print. Released MI5 files don’t describe internal BBC procedures and probably only capture a fraction of the process.


  1. Macleod is a difficult poet to find, arguably underrated, you strenuously make a case for him, and yet on the basis of this poem I am not quite convinced.

    1. there are now three books of Macleod's poetry in print (due to heroic efforts by Rich Owens, Simon Jenner, and James Fountain). The evidence is in the poems & I am just drawing attention to them. the Paestum poem was a tease for me because it is't in the archive and I read all the poetry in the archive.