Poems, Stories and Writings by Margaret Tait
Carcanet, Paperback, 2012
186pp, 978-1-84777-159-9, £12.95
In a letter to Sean Connery of 1972, the artist and gallery-owner Richard Demarco referred to Margaret Tait as ‘a classic example of a first class Scot living here and being ignored, [who has] something significant to say to the whole world about Scotland’. Sarah Neely, editor of this new collection of Tait’s writing is as passionately concerned about ensuring Tait’s work receives the recognition it is due now as Demarco was forty years ago. In her introduction Neely asks us to see Tait as perhaps the best 20th century Scottish female experimental poet and film-maker that we have probably never heard about. On the evidence that follows, Neely’s claim is probably right, even though competition for that epithet may currently be somewhat thin on the ground.
Born in Orkney in 1918, Tait was the subject of two short television profiles during her lifetime but was otherwise shy about publicising her own work. A rare photographic portrait by Gunnie Moberg taken towards the end of Tait’s life is included in the book. The black and white image shows Tait as an unprepossessing elderly lady with thick-rimmed glasses; the shot frames Tait’s head and shoulders tight against a dark background so she appears more kindly grandmother than artistic radical. A zipped-up mackintosh coat and wind-swept hair are the only evidence of the closeness of Tait’s connection to the natural world, what she affectionately refers to in ‘Pomona’ as ‘the land of the North’.
Before she studied filmmaking at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia during the early 1950s, Tait had qualified in medicine and served abroad in the Royal Army Medical Corps a decade earlier. As a result, a fascination with the limitations of the scientific register is present throughout much of Tait’s early poetry. This manifests itself in two interconnected ways: first as sheer wonder at the workings of the natural world as in ‘Water’ where she ponders how ‘Oxygen… combines with that light explosive of a hydrogen / And makes – / Water’. The second manifestation is as uncertainty or doubt about the empirical grammar of science. In ‘Hooray, Hooray, Hoo Ray Ray Ray’ Tait questions the usefulness of a system whose ultimate explanation is ‘It is what it is’. Rhetorical questions – ‘See?’ ‘Can you believe it?’ ‘Is that so?’ – pervade the poems, as if to suggest that the explanations science offer us about the experiential world, whether we agree with them or not, are somehow not wholly adequate. Hence the turn to poetry.
Many of the early poems in the collection, however, feel rather too prose-like. Lines like ‘All living with little bits of the one huge consciousness thrust into us like the processes of the amoeba poking out and filling with particles of the parent protoplasm’ sit uncomfortably on both page and tongue, and the pagination struggles to cope with the verbiage. These early poems also fall into the trap of too often commenting on their own poetics. Codas claiming that ‘Poetry too / Finally / Is inarticulate / Like science / Facing wordless wordlessness’ feel redundant and detract from the otherwise complete nature of Tait’s work. If the purpose of Tait’s poetry is to ‘smash an abstraction’ as she says in ‘The Unbreakable-Up’, does the reader have to be told so explicitly? The later poems in the collection, including many previously unpublished or uncollected works gathered here for the first time, reveal the poet more at ease with herself. A series of character sketches of Norse gods are witty and show Tait off at her best.
Also included in the collection are three short stories from Tait’s 1959 collection Lane Furniture and a number of prose exerts that Neeley designates as ‘writings on film’. The short stories are wonderful compositions that confirm how central narrative and perspective are to Tait’s aesthetic practice, and more of them would have been welcomed in the collection. The ‘writings on film’ mostly take the form of personal memoir rather than theoretical discourse but are a valuable addition to the book. It would have been nice to see them presented chronologically alongside the poems rather than grouped together at the back of the book. The obvious absence in this otherwise important book is Tait’s film work, which the small number of stills present do not do justice. Examples of Tait’s work on film are freely available on YouTube – any interested reader should be sure to check these out to fully appreciate the best 20th century Scottish female experimental poet and film-maker that we have probably never heard about.