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Saltire Society Scottish Poetry Book of The Year Award Winner 2014
People want pleasure from poetry, and in Bones & Breath – this masterly collection from Alexander Hutchison – they will find it in many forms and registers. Power and beauty, mischief and humour. Longer poems mix satire with tender affection. Others offer everything from solar loops to red-throated divers.
The opening section of the book provides a scattering of poems in shorter forms, characteristically “elegant, humourous and deft by turns” as David Kinloch described elements of earlier work, and it contains several striking pieces, such as “Gavia Stellata” (“smallest/and brightest/and speckled/with stars”), a sharp catalogue of uncustomary characters in “Tabouleh” – and the informative and affecting “Parable of the Willow”.
A longer piece in several short parts – “Camp Four” – is picked out next, where satire and wry speculation are combined, and in a typical positive twist at the end we get not only a hint to sort out what has gone before, but the possibility of something “reverberant/resounding”.
Section 3 opens with “Out of Magma: the Moon, a Witness” a beautiful and startling account of something that happened on the slopes of Etna one winter recently – never to be forgotten by the observer, and surely affecting us all. There are, too, here several poems in Scots: building on a welcome extended in “Aye, Plenty, an Mair” in the opening section of the book. These are riddling, droll, foul, inventive and hilarious by turns, and the mix of native, demotic speech and sophisticated fancy takes us up and down some strange wynds and byways.
There is also a longer sequence, “Matter and Moisture”, which sets out a view of the world – even proffering advice – in a fashion that is mischievous, focussed and beguiling all at once.
Rounding things out in Section 3 are “Tod” – where a fox heads with real purpose into one of the Galleries off the Mound in Edinburgh – and “Everything” – a poem given a broad and popular endorsement from audiences of all sorts since its creation early in 2013.
Section 4 is made up of a long poem “Setting the Time Aside” which is a tribute to and engagement with the shade of a great poet from the last century: encountered on his home patch, quizzed and reckoned with, sounded out and given tribute, before a memorable and moving rapprochement.
One of the features of Bones & Breath as a collection is the range of personae – voices of birds, creatures, a tree, for example, as well as a mixed choir of accents and registers – and the oddest, and certainly the tiniest is saved for last.
In Section 5, “Tardigrade” a real (oh, aye) microscopic animal sets out a description of itself in illuminating, if not always pleasant, detail, and in addition provides an appraisal of us: wondering, not unreasonably, how we compare and what we might become. Since it turns out the beastie has more than an edge on us in terms of its capacity to survive, what it recommends should not, perhaps, be lightly dismissed. In any event, “Tardigrade” offers scope – even vision – beyond our current perspectives.
‘My desert island suitcase contains the poems of Alexander Hutchison. The lyricism; the quizzical explorations which land happily upon the mysterious and stay there; the lively metaphysics; the poems in Scots which extend and light up the language while still sounding like a real person talking in real space; the generosity of tone and judgement; the friendly nudge; the frisk; the finesse: all these qualities make them essential reading.’ —A.B. Jackson
‘I love these poems: conversational, incantatory, thrawn, at once international and profoundly Scottish ... wide-awake ... always surprising, swerving from dark seriousness to playfulness. Demotic, direct, subtle: the real deal. Treat yourself! Treat yourself.’ —Andrew Greig
‘Charms, incantations, classic satire, contemplation, bawdiness – rumbustious here, elegiac there – Hutchison is a poet of depth, range and magic.’ —Richard Price
‘Has the ferocity, indignation and bite of the old flytings, even the mad word-hoard of the Admirable Urquhart of Cromarty; a Scots Martial, but with the unabashed tenderness and exactitude of John Clare describing water lilies or Gerhard in his Herbal, on the subject of the Wild Chervil. A mentor, a bristling master, and a total original.’ —August Kleinzahler