The Lost Leader
Faber and Faber £9.99
Review by Catherine Woodward
..........Mick Imlah’s proposed retelling of Scotland’s historical identity, I found to be quite unlike the human experience of time’s actual progression; at least for the readers participating in Imlah’s history, providing they stick it out, grit their teeth and persevere, things will eventually get better, honest. In fact it may be advised that Imlah either drop the medieval and stick to his far more successful observations of near history, or abandon chronology all together.
..........The ending lines of The Lost Leader pronounce the cause of the book; namely that the poet is ‘powered with the purpose of having been’ (The Library III). The collection presents itself as a backlash against the accusation of a diluted culture and dehistorisisation, using the quirks and heroics of Scottish historical icons to justify a jaded and resentful venting of pride and desperation.
..........An especial problem with the older heroes and folk legends is that although Imlah’s sardonic, bluntly realistic tone lends a human face to the less identifiable characters, that face is the same one for them all, and (due to the odd clash of time period and contemporary speech) neither does that face always sit well. For almost every character it would seem, Imlah ramps up the focus on their wounded pride or tarnished glory, implicating them purposefully in his cause but in so doing actually detracting from their personalities, using them plainly as lessons in tenacity and pride, symbols through which to garner sympathy for what he sees as a dwindling culture - consider the retreating soldiers in the collection’s title piece ‘In coats of soaking silk’ for whom ‘The fire of belonging was out’, a dwelling on lost dignity and a cry for sympathy and respect.
..........In this latest collection for twenty years however, Imlah excels in detailing nearer, personal histories; his speaking portraits and monologues take up the lost voices of more recent characters flawlessly. While they too serve the purpose of expressing anger at the loss of Scottish identity, they are dealt with far more tenderly; they feel real, alive and warm, altogether more pitiable and therefore better instruments to Imlah’s purpose. The Queen Maries for example, an anecdotal poem bright with character and at the same time deeply sad, witnesses a decline in ‘Scottishness’ identified in the loss of Mary, the traditional name (‘there are no new Marys anymore’) and ends with the hurtful metaphor of an honorable culture now estranged, pasted over by a new, sickly shallow one
....................Thank heavens likewise, for all the little girls
....................Or not so little, ganging upstairs in a spiral
....................Of swear words, text-tones, midriff and brutal candy
....................To back seat country, putting as much distance
....................As buses allow between them and the elderly.
..........It is easy however, to be impressed by Imlah’s technical skill and exuberant imagination; ever daring the poet plays with heroic couplets, 19th century style correspondence, lines of brisk shortness and equally confounding length, not to mention an ingenious and humorous representation of a hypothetical afterlife of the poets. It just seems a shame to expend such an array of style and tone on such an unsubtle and single minded purpose, as brilliant as The Lost Leader is when Imlah gets it right.
..........My advice on reading this clever yet ill-fated concept, would be to read it backwards, and maybe stop two thirds of the way through when time skips violently into the distance – that is unless you’re up for it.
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