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These Islands, We Sing (2011): We Are All Scotsmen

Kevin MacNeil (ed.), The Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry (Polygon, 2011)


photo credit: Scots Whay Hae

This is poetry that will smack your head against the wall and demand you read it.

I’ll put it this way. I sprung for the hardback version of this book; when I bought it, it wasnt out in paperback yet. And I paid full shipping to have it sent over from Britain to America. This was not an inexpensive purchase, not at all. And I will tell you: had the book done nothing but introduce me to the poetry of Jim Mainland, I would still consider every penny well spent. All the other wonderful poets in the book I’d never read before? Icing on the cake.

Some of them, of course, I had heard of before. I would imagine it would be hard to be a reader and writer of poetry for three decades without coming across names like Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown, all of whom are represented here. But editor Kevin MacNeil seems to have been aggressive in his attempts to promote lesser-known writers whose careers had centered around Orkney, Shetland, Skye, and the rest, and he did a bang-up job. The inevitable downside to that is that once you get past a certain critical mass of poets, you end up being able to include only a few pieces per poet unless you want to end up with a book the size of your average Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Now honestly, in this case, I think MacNeil could have probably pulled something like that off; judging by what’s here, a lot of the poets in this book are good enough that reprinting a larger selection of each’s work and ending up with a twelve-hundred-page monstrosity that cost three times as much would have been a worthwhile risk. (Says one guy who does, in fact, understand that very few people buy poetry any more, though one of my goals as a reviewer is to endeavor to change that.) Then we could have gotten more work by such talented folk as Aonghas MacNeacail, Jen Hadfield, Angus Peter Campbell, Alison Flett, and dozens more.

It’s ridiculous to quote one poet to try and give you the flavor of an entire anthology, so I will just say right up front I’m not trying to do that, I just want to quote from Jim Mainland’s “Prestidigitator” because it blew my goddamn head off:

“Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes;
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I’m spooling tissue from an ear, I’m sawing her in half, no, really,
I’m vanishing your dosh, I’m giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in my hand, open the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,
gimme a tenner gimme your valuables this is a hammer this is an explosive
see the cleverdazzle off the mirrorgleam, moat me that you peasant!
over here, here, oy you, break-up Britain, toff off! watch this instead,
it’s my way, it’s bodies out of the hat, watch out, that’s had your legs off,
this is brainsmear this is scorcher this is dying doing the job you loved this is
pure dead victim”

…and this from the guy who hates political poetry. I’m still going to tell you Jim Mainland is the best new poet I’ve run across since Richard Siken half a decade ago.

I am fond of saying in just about every review I do of an anthology that the quality of the work therein varies. These Islands, We Sing is a glorious exception to that rule. I should note for the record, since it might bother some of you, that many of these pieces are printed in Scots dialects, some presented bilingually and some not, so unless you know said dialects or until you pick up their rhythms and inflections, you may have trouble reading bits of this. I found it helped to read those bits aloud (I was reading pieces of this book aloud to my then-infant son, perhaps the only baby on the planet to grow up on both Boynton and MacNeacail in equal parts there for a while!).

The bottom line: if you have any interest at all in poetry, buy this. If you can’t find a copy domestically (though that’s getting easier), it’s well worth springing for the exorbitant shipping you’ll have to pay if you elect to pick it up from It’s a stunning collection, one of the few where you can slide a paper dagger into the book, open to the page it picks, and be almost guaranteed a solid read. Easily one of the best books I read in 2012. ****


Jan Hadfield, one of the poets in this collection, reads.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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