Turn to page twelve of poet MacGillivray’s collection The Last Wolf Of Scotland (published by Pighog), and you’ll find a picture of Robert McGee. Aged thirteen, McGee was scalped by Sioux-chief Little Turtle in 1864. Not just scalped, in fact, but – as the quoted text on the opposite page will tell you – shot, stabbed, tomahawked and bludgeoned. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your outlook) McGee survived this experience, and went on to live (with a large part of his skull exposed for all the world to see) for at least another twenty-five years.
It’s nothing if not an interesting way to begin a poetry collection. McGee’s matter-of-fact description of events is complemented and contrasted by a preface from MacGillivray in which she explains that the collection we are about to read is, in fact, a dream experienced by Robert McGee as he lay bleeding to death in Santa Fey, “his scalplock speaking back to him, a hallucination projected in a near-death cinema.”
There is certainly a very dream-like quality to the poems themselves. MacGillivray trips easily through a welter of vivid images, outlined in language that is so rich, exotic and earthy that it almost drips. She uses Scots dialect alongside invented words, repurposed language and surreal noun phrases pinned together with hyphens. Indeed, many poems are followed by a short glossary, which explains succinctly the alternate meaning intended for certain terms, or the definition of some more exotic words. For example, at the end of “The Night The Stars Went Crazy” you will find this short dictionary:
“leaf-holstered – forked lightning
bird-mouthed – tender in finding fault, unwilling to speak out
bachelor-coal – coal that doesn’t burn but just glows white
hand-lanterns – moons
boutefou – incendiary”
Read again the poem with this information in mind and it becomes quite a different experience. Trees that were “once leaf-holstered” become trees that were once struck by lightning, rather than trees that were holstered in leaves. And yet, by decoding this alternate meaning only at the end of the poem MacGillivray allows both meanings to exist at once. It’s a clever device, and means that each poem in The Last Wolf Of Scotland stands up to multiple considered readings.
That said, however, it’s often a struggle to keep up with the sheer density of the language. Whilst the dexterity and confidence of the writing is enjoyable, I found myself longing for meaning, for precision and clarity. There are glimpses of this – certain poems are preceded by explanatory notes. “Lobo”, for example, is many times more effective than it might have been due to the explanation that precedes it. The title of the poem, it transpires, was the name given by Ernest Seton, watercolourist and hunter, to a particularly strong and intelligent wolf which he was tracking.
“Lobo tripped traps, scatted on strychnine and overturned poisoned meat. Eventually Seton brought Lobo in by killing his mate Blanca. Lobo followed the body of his partner and was caught by Seton who couldn’t bring himself to kill the animal. Lobo died that night of his own accord, held in a barn. Seton never fully recovered.”
This matter-of-fact summary of events is practically a poem in its own right, and it does a great deal to enhance the verses which follow. MacGillivray’s words are at their most beautiful when it is actually possible to know what they are describing, when the wild and untamed language can be related to something real and tangible. I was therefore grateful whenever MacGillivray chose to assist the reader in understanding her words, rather than seemingly seeking to confound them as much as possible.
Despite feeling that I missed the true meaning of many of the poems in The Last Wolf Of Scotland, I was nevertheless intrigued by the journey on which the book takes the reader. The focus moves from the valley in Santa Fey where Robert McGee lies scalped and dying, to the wilds of Scotland, into myth and folklore, into ancient legend and back out again – and always it does so while pulsing with life, with invention and imagination, with the sheer joy that MacGillivray takes in language.
Reading The Last Wolf Of Scotland is an exhilarating, unnerving and constantly-changing experience, but my reservations about the collection remain. The cover promises a book that will “…have you by the throat of your heart”. That is an assessment that I would agree with – though I might add that it is also a book that will sometimes simply confuse or frustrate.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.