RAYMOND Raszkowski Ross’s new collection of poems, At the Sign of the Curly Snake (Curly Snake Publishing), includes a number of polemical poems bringing out the nightmare realities that one hopes must haunt the dreams of certain sleeping Scots of history and now.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s most famous speech, the thoughtful prince pauses to wonder about the long sleep that would end the heartache and shocks of being alive, but in such sleep, “what dreams may come” – and that’s the problem.

Heartaches and shocks, the challenges simply of being alive, and with an active memory, a family, and a national history embedded in modern Europe – these are the personal subjects Ross’s poems address.

In a vision of disdain, he describes the Scott Monument (below) as a missile poised in Edinburgh’s city centre, “the city that never wakes”. But in that erstwhile capital’s dozy sleep, “what dreams may come” and with them, nightmares, fantasies and horrors. Of such visions, what can be recorded, annotated, and filed in a book like this?

The National: EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - APRIL 3: Edinburgh Scott Monument quiet during covid-19 pandemic, Edinburgh, Scotland on April 3, 2020. (Photo by Robert Ormerod/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images).

George IV, visiting Edinburgh in 1822, is commemorated in a statue at the corner of “Hanover and George”: Ross invites us to imagine the “swastikas chiselled / Hard into his blank, unseeing eyes.” Writing in “Lockdown Scotland” he asks how long we’ve been in “lockdown”: “Since 1560 thereabouts or 1603? / By 1707 the virus was certainly well-spread”

It’ll be a long time before there’s a thistle-sharp injection for a contagion like this, or until a Saltire is flying above Dunadd, or until we do more at Clearance villages than sit among the ruins with our picnics. Meantime, each summer, the Edinburgh Festival fills with “flaccid stand-ups”, comics and clowns aiming as high as a guest spot on Radio 2 or (holy of holies!) Have I Got News For You!

Well, Edinburgh has a long tradition of two-faced sell-outs: James VI and I; Deacon Brodie; Dr Knox; Jekyll and Hyde; Burke and Hare; the double acts; the one-eyed jacks, the jackals.

The most extended of Ross’s satires is “Fort William Fort Augustus and Fort George”, in which our wandering narrator encounters a series of horrible men in each of these former military garrisons, back from the dead and looking to reclaim the towns that have been named for them: King Billy, Butcher Cumberland and George himself once again.

It’s a lovely seven pages of grim, good-humoured, scornful aggression in verse, picking up and casting down the repulsive legacies these figures embody and the unpleasant residues we still put up with.

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Why stop at statues? Why not change the names of all these towns? There are a few statues that could come down while we’re at it. And a few other statues might go up in their place. Would new statues and better names mean greater reason to visit these towns?

I see the current fleet of Irish ferries has been named after great Irish writers or their works – the Ulysses, the WB Yeats, the Dublin Swift, the Oscar Wilde, the Lake Isle of Innisfree. (And what would your answer be when asked, disembarking from the ferry Oscar Wilde, “Have you anything to declare?”).

Well, in Scotland we don’t have to worry about naming ferries yet, just about getting them built and into the water.

Meanwhile our poet reflects on his stop in Fort William: … I was only passing through The best way to treat Fort William If you must In my experience And everyone else’s that I know … There’s more in this book than polemic, however. The passionate ironies are given complement and counterpoint in personal poems that arise from Ross’s family experience.

There is a moving autobiographical account of his “first real job” as a boy with a measuring rod helping to chart and lay down the foundations for roads and drains in new-town Livingston, looking back on a time of transition when the pastoral, rural world was being overlaid with the priorities of industrial commerce: … we used to daunder And stravaig Squashing brambles in our mouths Or chomping tumshies In the autumn air And chewing hips and haws Before the wintering in Of startling frosts As an adult, in the London Underground, seeing posters advertising the “new” Livingston, he recognises the weight of the chain of exploitation he still feels, across time, from then till now, realising, “At Aldgate East // I was a chain boy once” Personal elegies for the composer, musician and singer Martyn Bennett, and for Father Hubert, the poet’s uncle, killed by Nazis in 1939, and for the “auld hill fairmer” who showed the boy poet a Covenanter’s sword he’d kept in his own family: “his people’s sword”: “For near three centuries / Kept hidden safe away”, which, the old man clearly, silently, smirkingly implies, might still hack off any offending flesh. His wife brings in a cold leg of mutton for dinner, takes up a knife and slices it to the bone.

Ross has played an important role in modern Scotland’s literary history, helping to initiate and then edit the vital cultural-political periodical Cencrastus in the 1980s, with Glen Murray, Bill Findlay, John Burns, Sheila Hearn and Christine Bold; co-editing with Joy Hendry breakthrough volumes of critical essays on Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean; writing on Hamish Henderson; and producing a series of successful plays, including explorations of Scottish, Jewish and Polish modern history, engaging with youth theatre and the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh.

This new book of poems might seem elusive, a small-press publication appearing beyond the provenance of the “big” poetry publishers – such as they are. But it signals another way of reading poetry, understanding what the language of poetry is, a vital human activity in a culture too far gone on a road that prevents most of us from knowing anything about it.

And there are many more poets similarly unheralded, all worth looking for, all with poems worth reading and returning to, very few championed by any kind of mass media.

Stuart A Paterson’s Wheen: New and Collected Poems, published by the Ulster Scots Community Network, with the support of the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Scottish Government, gathers a large harvest of poems in 11 sections, most of them in Scots: Leid (Language), Folk, Sulwath (The Solway Firth), Rabbie, Love, Hame, Craturs (Creatures), Covid, A Wheen (A Large Number), Commissions and Politics.

The Scots of the poems is rich, varied and sustained: there is nothing “inauthentic” here. The tones range from pawkie, humorous and light to serious and committed, and the categories established in the contents pages, while they make the book seem defined, belie the crossover liveliness that keeps the poems in a state of bounce and buoyancy, even when cautionary points are being made, as in “Forecast”: I’m told that writing about weather in the language of my parents is “inane”, that plosives, gutturals, fricatives & words like “dreich”

are indicators of a low-born nationalistic tendency to complain & little more than wittering out of a biscuit tin.

Our country bus approaches with the slowness of a heat when you’ve been droukit… And the poem entitled “Mair” gives a clear directive to be followed without shame or hesitation, embarrassment, or deviation, with no need of insistence or even repetition: Dauner no walk, toon no town blether no talk, doon no down.

Pad no path, brig no bridge glaikit no daft, scaur no ridge.

Nith no river, cowp no mess aye no ever, aye no yes.

Richt no right, yonner no there, rush aye skite an more aye mair.

After the poems on the Scots language, there are a series of portraits of characters, family, friends, historical figures, then another series of landscapes around the Solway, a sequence reflecting on Burns as poet and man, of love in various guises, of the meaning of home (or, “hame”), on animals, on the experience of Covid, and then miscellaneous poems, including an “Ode tae the Finnieston Cran”, an “Address tae Stranraer Oyster Festival”, and “A Blythe Yuill”: It’s time tae be eatin an drinkin an cantie, it’s time fir mince pies an a wee nip o brandy.

And in the later poems, Syria, Poland, Ukraine, George Floyd, Brexit, are among the international subjects, addressed alongside poems prompted by personal and public occasions, various parliamentary elections in Dumfries, the UK General Election in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum.

All of Paterson’s poems testify to an engagement with the larger political questions and local and domestic matters as part and parcel of one another. And the question of language sums them all up.

For Paterson, as for Ross, there is no division between national and international, local and worldly, domestic and universal. There are only the particularities, and their human application, across genders, sexes, generations, living things, geographies, locations. Good humour can defuse but it can also attack. You can’t really attack anything with sadness.

One of the finest modern poets I know to use humour as a weapon was the American Edward Dorn (1929-99). His book Abhorrences (1990) is a treasury of venomous barbs, arrows steeped in poison, deliberately dated and located in American geopolitics, a chronicle of what he called “The Rawhide Era” of the 1980s, of Reagan, Thatcher and as much malaise, it seemed then, as today’s monsters of politics give us pause to think about today.

LET me give an example from January 1983. We need some context first. We can surely recognise Ronald Reagan’s gestures towards the religious right and far-right in an edict about getting more “prayer” into schools but perhaps “Cap Weinberger” and “Jeanne Kirkpatrick” have faded a bit from memory.

Caspar Willard Weinberger (1917-2006) was a Republican American politician and defence secretary under president Reagan, 1981-87. He took a hard line against what was then the Soviet Union, promoted the “Strategic Defense Initiative” and was indicted on charges of lying to Congress and obstructing government investigations as part of the Iran-Contra investigation.

He was pardoned by president George HW Bush before facing trial. Weinberger was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and an honorary British knighthood from the Queen.

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Jeane [sic] Kirkpatrick (1926-2006) was a major figure in US foreign policy in the Reagan administration, a fiercely anti-communist neoconservative. After serving as Reagan’s foreign policy adviser in his 1980 presidential campaign, she became the first woman to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations.

What was known as the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” involved support of authoritarian regimes around the world if they went along with Washington’s aims.

Now that we have all both these horrible historical figures in our sights, we can see what Dorn has to say about them in his very ferocious, very funny poem, “Wait Till the Christians Hear About This!” And as a lesson in tone and articulation, you can skip back to 1984 and watch and listen to the recording of him reading HERE. In his effort to get prayer into the schools President Reagan reminded us that the ancient Romans and Greeks fell when they abandoned their gods: students needn’t “pray” exactly, for instance, they might “think” for a while before school starts.

If he means that, Thought could get the biggest boost it’s had for years.

Maybe they could think about some Greek myths.

And what about sacrifices?

I wouldn’t mind seeing Cap Weinberger on a spit.

Maybe they could consider the Aztecs – I wouldn’t mind at all seeing Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s frosty heart raised to the heathen skies.

Like all political poems dated by their references, this one would need updating. If the UK Prime Minister Sunak wants mathematics taught more extensively throughout the school curriculum, maybe we should take the notion further.

Maybe we should roll out a new curriculum of “Calculating Human Sacrifice” and what the costs have been or might better be.

And then there’s what was once called “Geography” now mainly foreign places as resources, the still rich reserves of fossil fuel, the sandiest beaches for the very rich with freshly laundered dunes, the safest archipelagos for banking-shifted money.

With this in mind, we could propose “Creative Writing” exercises in devising new applications for Rome’s Colosseum, or just re-instate the old ones. Who wouldn’t want to see the spectacle of certain individuals in that arena: Alister Jack? Suella Braverman? Michael Gove? You can name them. They’re not in short supply.

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Two more “Abhorrences”, which really need no further explanation – a bad enough fact in itself. Here’s one called “Something we can all agree on”: Suppose there were a new acronym for an old disease – very awful and very incurable.

Let’s call it HELPS for Heritable Endemic Longrange Poverty Syndrome Now here’s the question: do you think there would be much tea & sympathy for this plague?

Neither do I.

That one is dated “Summer 1985. So here we are in summer 2023: anything further to report on this question? No, I don’t think so either. And then, try this one to end with: “Proclamation 15 May 88” – it will sound familiar, I promise you: Where there is wealth let us create excess … where there is need, let us create hardship, where there is poverty, let us create downright misery.