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A Choosing: Selected Poems
Liz Lochhead
Polygon, £9.99

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reviewed by Kirsten Irving

The roar of Makar. (Ok, sorry)

It strikes me that the best - indeed, only - way to do a selected poems by a living writer is to let the poet select them themselves. It’s clear from the get-go that Liz Lochhead knows her writing better than anyone, and has the confidence to seat later, Makar-era poems alongside greener selections from her pilot pamphlet, Memo For Spring. The collection spans a 40-year career, and undoubtedly, it must have been a huge job to whittle that output down to roughly 90 pages, but the conciseness of the collection seems very Lochhead. A modest, yet nicely produced, paperback, it sports an oil pastel cover of a woman undressing, drawn by the author in 1967, and has a feeling of quiet quality, along with a knowing, unpretentious air. For the principal poet in Scotland right now, it seems like an understated tribute, but at the same time, very appropriate.

The stylistic diversity and fearlessness here are formidable

Which is more than I can say for the foreword by Carol Anne Duffy. If you’re considering reading LL’s work, skip this section to retain any optimism. Let’s check off the cliches: “unique voice … streetwise speech patterns (yik) … zeitgeisty energy (double yik) … National Treasure (caps author’s own) … trailblazer ... life-enhancing poetry…” I understand that simply having CAD’s name attached to a book increases its chance of selling, but there’s something quite wrong about needing the English laureate (Scots poet or no) to sell the Scots Makar, especially with a foreword that sucks the fun out of Lochhead’s work.

And there’s lots of fun to be had. Heartbreak as well, and satire and comment, but always a sense of the poem as wriggling and eager for life. Opener ‘A Night In’ is a great example: intimate and expectant, it tells of the speaker prepping “rat-trap cheddar” and plonk for the lover soon to arrive. The excitement of what is to come, very much rooted in the everyday, is infectious and genuine.

This is no early-to-recent chronology. Lochhead has begun with a 2003 poem and ended with a brand spanking 2011 poem, and between these points, the decades intermingle, while for the most part, the concerns and voice of the poet, though they come in varied guises, remain consistent. We witness the presexual wonderings of the child in ‘My Mother’s Suitors’, underpinned with the dominance of the English accent (or at a push, “Educated Scots”), as well as the meta-poetics of ‘Kidspoem’/‘Bairnsang’, which sees a child taught to forget its natural slang-speech in favour of an English aesthetic. We see the heartbreak of the student who sees her class rival fade into obscurity, wasting her fine mind. There is a humanity to these poems, and a sense of prying open windows that have been nailed shut.

Throughout the collection, a vast array of females are represented, as speakers, cameos and silent extras. I counted witches, adultresses, girls, lovers, mothers, brides, divorcees, daughters, dancers, sisters, schoolgirls, bawds, spinsters, students, wives, teachers, aunties, churchgoers, grannies, cows, waitresses, fairytale maidens, ladies of the house, queen bees, authors and goddesses. All are welcomed and their stories are told, fixed to an accessible point with Lochhead’s real-world detailing. By way of example, the hybrid ‘Rapunzstiltskin’ features an unwelcome prince invading the princess’s solitude with his outmoded notions of rescue (“‘I love you?’ he came up with/as finally she tore herself in two.”). Two neat pairings also emerge, with ‘Spinster’ and ‘Bawd’ sitting across from each other, while ‘The Other Woman’ and ‘The Hickie’ tell the tale of an affair from the wife and mistress’s points of view.

Indeed, there’s a touch of Victoria Wood’s comic pathos to “My life’s in shards/I will keep fit in leotards.” and “All the couples we know fall apart/or have kids.” A sense of entrapment and escape through art. Just as the woman on the cover is either stripping or dressing, the author is examining ideas of comfort and restriction in the familiar and everyday.

Lochhead’s stylistic diversity and fearlessness is formidable, from the early erotics of ‘What The Pool Said, on Midsummer’s Day’ to the brutal reportage of ‘After a Warrant Sale’, and offers us a rich range of tones, emotions, sonics and topics to get stuck into. The skill is in the poet’s control of these strands, though emotional pivot points - heartbreak, Scottish identity, generation clashes, faith and miscommunication. In ‘An Offering’, anger and disappointment in the church is channelled through repetition and playing with familiar phrases, as we learn, “Never in a month of them/would you go back.”

LL strides determinedly into love poetry. It’s a tough genre and a gauntlet of cliche, but one in which she thrives. ‘Epithalamium’, dedicated as it is to a couple, was clearly written as that commission most poets fear: a wedding poem. And yet it’s fresh, crisp and sensual, avoiding soppy ‘forever and ever’ pitfalls to emerge with an impression of new love that’s as tangible as it is tender. As Lochhead notes of love and vulnerability: “When at our lover’s feet our opened selves we’ve laid,/we find ourselves, and all the world, remade.”

There are occasional green moments in this collection. ‘After A Warrant Sale’ is heartfelt and tragic, but at times overwritten, and comes across clearly as earlier work, but for the most part, it was impossible to guess whether a piece was old or new, which could be a bad thing, suggesting a lack of evolution, but in this case owes more to a clear, unmistakable voice. Even when the language shifts to Scots, for a non-Scots reader it’s got the same dark humour and the same surprising vitriol. Long may it retain its bite.

Kirsten Irving is co-editor of Sidekick Books and Fuselit magazine, and one quarter of copywriting, proofreading and copy-editing collective Copy That. Her pamphlet, What To Do, is available from Happenstance, and her first collection, Never Never Never Come Back, is out now from Salt Publishing.