Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Tom Bryan – Collected and Selected

Collected Poems Volume One 1984-2010; Collected Poems Volume Two 2011-2019 by Tom Bryan (Littoral Press) 2019

A Review by Anne MacLeod

Northwords Now and its predecessor Northwords have been blessed with editors of generosity and ability. Over the decades since its inception, writers such as Angus Dunn, Chris Powici and Rhoda Michael lent their poetic flair and infinite humanity to the magazine: Tom Bryan holds an early place in that hall of fame. Born in Manitoba of Irish-Canadian and Scottish parents, he has lived in Scotland all his writing life – for some years in Strathcanaird, Wester Ross, from where he co-edited Northwords from 1992-97.

Later, living and working in the Borders, Bryan founded The Eildon Tree magazine, which still flourishes. Librarian by training, over the years he has tackled such diverse occupations as steeple-jack, salmon farmer, journalist, pottery worker and now acts as full time carer for his wife Lis. He was the sixth Brownsbank Writing Fellow in Biggar, South Lanarkshire, has held literary residency posts throughout Scotland and acted as Royal Literary Fellow in York and Newcastle universities. His published work includes seven poetry collections as well as non-fiction, short stories and a novel The Wolfclaw Chronicles.

This busy life is reflected with elegance and economy in the work. Bryan’s clarity of vision and exact and beguiling use of language situate the reader in the strength, beauty or anxiety of any chosen moment. His poems are a deeply satisfying read.

A musician, he knows the weight of a vowel. A sure-footed editor, he orders the poems in such a way as to draw the reader unerringly forward. Not every poetry collection could be offered the description page-turner. Bryan’s could: in the first of these volumes Poetry on the Shelves ‘Whole lives between thin covers’ is followed by Planting Potatoes During Chernobyl ‘Death and potatoes/go a long way back in my family’, A Prairie Life ‘What colour for flight, for hope?’ and Swallow ‘Staccato zigzag is no party trick’.

The language rich, spare, the lines dense with imagery, sweeps you right to the heart of each and every chosen matter. His poems demonstrate considerable expertise in free verse and the lyric form. In Bryan’s hand, even the smallest poem will stop you in your tracks, strike universal resonances. In Pioneer Graveyard ‘I’ve seen how rain works on limestone./How it forms letter grooves./How pools will form./How words melt together./Goldfinches perch on thistles,/sassafras and maple roots roll stones/out, into the sun./Tiny yellow butterflies pause here/on the way to dying.’

A man of the land, he delights in landscape, in the animals there encountered, in the necessary work, as in Fuaran ‘I carry a hoe through the hailstorm/to clean our copper filter.’ An emigrant, of emigrant parentage, he meets in Diaspora Kurds, Shasta Indians, a giant Kerryman at Wimbledon ‘an Irish Moses parting a Saxon sea’ and ‘Two Lewismen choke on a dusty highway,/night is falling on the way to Medicine Hat./Chan’ eil ceilidh air a’ phreiridh…/( there’ is no ceilidh on the prairie)’

Even in his earliest work, he interrogates the world and his place in it, questioning the personal and political in any situation. In Haymaking, he describes himself a teen ‘too sullen to be a farmer’s favourite… …Truculent defender of rabbits before the baler…’. He records the fate of snakes rolled into the hay, ‘knew their shape and names,/ringneck, fox and corn,/blue racers.’ Those bales were ‘branded with broken rattles/in search of fangs.’

Scotland is his home, but his Canadian roots are always clear. The later poems amplify this sense of the international to include Russia, Catalonia, Asturia, and the last speaker of Bo on the Andaman Islands. ‘She died, the last speaker of Bo……an old woman who could only/speak to herself, answer her own/questions’.

He writes a poem beside Tolstoy’s grave. He reimagines the meetings at Brownsbank between Hugh MacDiarmid and Allan Ginsberg. He ventures into what Susan Sontag called the kingdom of the sick, examining the effects of dementia and ageing, and re-considering his father’s life and death.

One of the most beautiful and moving poems in the collection, First Signs, opens on a day of ‘Freckled daisy and buttercup lanes./Fritillaries, dragonflies. Cobalt sky,/trout lying deep, cool.’ and goes on to share the first warning symptoms of his wife’s Multiple Sclerosis. She falls and finds she is unable to rise again ‘… so/human and small, my love, under that/great blue unblinking sky.’

In Things I’ve Made, Bryan declares that, among other things, he has produced ‘a canoe of canvas’ and ‘a perfect ceramic bowl/ which will last a long time/ and hundreds of poems which won’t.’ On the evidence of these two volumes, that last statement is wrong. His vivid, eloquent lines have too much life – and truth – in them.