The Shearsman Review

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MacGillivray - The Last Wolf of Scotland

Pighog, Brighton, 2013. Paperback, 98pp, £9.99. 

Reviewed by Will Shutes

Some readers coming to the debut poetry collection The Last Wolf of Scotland might have first encountered its Scottish author, MacGillivray, from situations off the page. Variously a performance artist, musician, and clan chief, as a writer she is aware of—indeed she exploits—the intimacy of words on a page, in space, encountered in solitude and silence. Her book enters into the public traditions of oral culture, lyricism, and mythography to reinvent an unfortunate 19th-century historical figure. Yet, instead of being about these traditions, it uses their methods to reinvent the man locally, personally, and really.
The occasion of the book, its subject and take-off point, is described in the preface. It is 1864. In a Santa Fe gully, scalped thirteen-year-old Robert McGee lies bleeding to death. This book is his dream, etched onto the plate of pioneer America, his scalplock speaking back to him, a hallucination projected in a near-death cinema. A photograph of and short 1890 account by McGee, nicknamed "The Man With Fourteen Lives", depict the violence of the attack, carried out 'by about 100 Brule Sioux Warriors under Little Turtle, their Chief', who held McGee to witness the massacre of all his comrades. McGee concludes: 'I have suffered terribly for over 23 years, and now offer this my photograph to help support myself and family. I will now take myself with William Cody, Buffalo Bill as part of the Wild West Show to Scotland for which this likeness was made.' The book's intention is to walk this same line from Topeka to Glasgow, from Plains to Highlands.
McGee's statement suggests his awareness that he had become an attraction of cowboy culture, that his suffering was prolonged by the media and the landscape of invention which surrounded him. Indeed certain elements of the source material do not ring true: 'Little Turtle' is not a Sioux name, and it is not clear who the figure of that name was; furthermore, the attack was presumably a retribution for something, glossed over by the colonial literature. MacGillivray brings McGee (who might have been illiterate) out of media-created image, and reinvents him into language.
One of her methods, a motif throughout, is to focus on the role played by cinema in creating modern myths. The Western film, in particular, collapses identities and reinvents history—to MacGillivray, the figures in her poems are not American, as they would erroneously be in films, but rather of Scottish and Irish descent. Her personal reinvention of a story which was fictionalised by the media from the start is akin to cinematic reinvention. 'You are the cinema of my country', she writes. She sees there to have been a 'zoopraxiscope of broken wills', by which 'the holy optics of freak show union' made McGee something like a circus attraction.
MacGillivray's idiosyncratic use of language is appropriately visual, cinematic, and experiential, yet the point is that it is language and not cinema. Using a unique combination of familiar and highly unfamiliar vocabulary from Scots dialect, her mixture of registers creates a depth of meaning across place and time, and ultimately tracks, or draws, McGee to Scotland. The authenticity of the words is not necessarily clear, but that unconcern is part of playfully reinventing the man. Many of the words are footnoted, the notes acting as bad shadows akin to the bad shadows in the poems, such as those who scalped McGee.
Unusually, the poems are also centred on the page, creating horizontal 'moving-picture planes' visualising the distances and landscapes in the poems. McGee's prostrate dying in the desert is pictured by passages such as:
lying unlidded in the desart
where the dirt, like a friend,
made a strange bell-pow
begratten, grounded
The format of the poems portends the arrival of strangers, benevolent or malign, on the horizon, and adds physicality to the at once literal and metaphorical movement of McGee to Scotland. Words enter the poems' horizons like riders on the storm, with MacGillivray making reference to Jim Morrison as a reader of both the Scottish poet James Macpherson (as Ossian) and the American Hart Crane.
The Last Wolf of Scotland presents 'a wild west palimpsest, on compressed heat', upon which MacGillivray drives 'recollected imprints'. In one poem, 'Black Elk', the lines are given twice, in English and in dialect side-by-side. She describes McGee, 'burnt in chest', walking in pain, 'intention gripped in a dry fist', until the doubled lines are broken by the single, centred line 'and released'. The translated form of these two words, 'an lowsed', is found in the line beneath, alongside the English 'keeps dropping it', whose translation has in turn been dropped to the line beneath. With methods such as this, MacGillivray's poetry plays out the movements and emotions of McGee, as well as the violence of his story. The uniqueness of her voice makes this an accomplished collection, both playful and serious in its aims and techniques. As it reinvents one man into language, it offers huge inventiveness of its own.
6 August 2014