No 1 - Spring 2001
Candles Round the Rim of His Hat
Review of Stewart Conn
Stolen Light, Stewart Conn, Bloodaxe Books 1999, 192pp, £9.95, ISBN 1 85224 484 4
Selected and collected works often handle like textbooks, poems crammed together, print uncomfortably small. They generally lack thematic unity, their matrix more chaos than kaleidoscope. None of this is true of Stewart Conn's Stolen Light, a handsome book that sits well in the hand and sweeps us from Conn's early, angry lyricism to the deceptive conversational tone of his later years.
Iain Crichton Smith said of Stewart Conn: "About his poems there hover ghosts of rhymes, as if the world is held together by a certain frailty, to which the main answers are love and compassion …" Donny O'Rourke, poet and editor, praises "Conn's soft-spoken, gravely graceful verse … among the most distinguished produced in Britain in the last thirty years …". Raymond Friel, in Southfields, finds "a sense of redemption: through art, but above all through the attentiveness of the human heart …"
Conn is of one of Scotland's senior poets and playwrights, much loved. Stolen Light sifts thirty years of his published work, and it is typical of the unassuming nature of the man that the title poem casts him wishing for inspiration, for "… underwater treasure / you hold your breath and dive for …". Not the man to take his art for granted.
All hundred and ninety pages of this volume testify to a lifetime of honest practice. Conn's rigorous ethics, immense kindness, deep understanding of nature, of humanity, emerge from a chrysalis of verse, stretch their wings and soar in the warmth his lyrics lend us. He does not write in Scots, though the voice, the rhythms are unmistakably Lowland, hovering between Edinburgh and Glasgow's West End. A son of the manse, he was not brought up using Scots, though he has on occasion, used it in plays, and monologues.
The poems are grouped thematically, largely in chronological order, a tactic which allows the poet flexibility; instinctive control over subtext, texture and colour. It's one of the reasons Stolen Light is such a satisfying read.
We travel from Conn's early lyrics on the life and death of his father's uncle, Todd Cochrane, a breeder of horses, and the fastest thing on two wheels ("Forebears") to "Letters to Iain", a moving tribute to his friend the great Gaelic poet Iain Crichton Smith: both losses diminishing life, diminishing light;
I keep seeing two helmeted figures:
one in the throes of illness:
the other his joyous likeness
cavorting in space, like spun glass. ("Letters to Iain")
Between these two giants, men of knowledge and stature, each central to their chosen world, and master of it, we are beguiled by vividly rendered nature poems, by friendships old and new, landscapes from Orkney to Soweto: Conn, a traveller, has never been afraid to press his soft-spoken questions, even in difficult circumstances.
In "Outsider", the remarkable poem dedicated to Jeremy Cronin, a South African poet, Conn finds himself
… face pressed helplessly
against my hotel-room window
… unable to eradicate
from my mind the plate glass
through which for one quarter
of an hour, on the day
your wife died, you saw her mother
sobbing, and could not comfort her.
Unflinching clarity informs his vision of the world, the softness of his voice a subtle foil to its outspokenness.
He talks of Ulster … a charred land I lay no claim to … ("At the Airport"); and in "Arrivals" … Instead / we think of those living there, others / who have died…: In "Two poems" … I think of a lifetime / oft haunted rooms / of the violence / that is your inheritance.
Conn is angry, too, at Highland feudalism.
Dear Lord Vestey
he had to write, please
accept my apologies
for fishing your water
This anger extends beyond privilege to politicians. In "Driving through Sutherland" he remembers the cruelty of the Highland Clearances, but is scornful of modern government:
There are men
in Parliament today could
be doing more.
Conn is not often described as a political poet, but he should be. He is also a man who has found much consolation in art, which he says he came to late in life and found almost overwhelming.
In "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis" he describes
… Cupid and Psyche
and the Dying Gaul, in one room.
Life is there, from the first butterfly
kiss, to the torn side, the crushed throat.
And it is life he celebrates, though life may threaten art, sometimes comically; as in "Monte Mario" where he lies awake, admiring on his bedroom wall a sensuous Madonna ascribed to Leonardo, and dare not swat the hovering mosquito that keeps settling on the Madonna's nose.
The poem series "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" is a triumph. Conn allows many of the painting's characters a voice, often wry. They comment on the painting and its journey through the years, what the picture meant to them, what they were or were not, to each other. Madame Renoir reflects on the irony of being
… preserved on canvas, in full bloom
while the body fails.
… that time is best recaptured
when I sit beside him in his wicker chair
and sense in his eyes …
… light glancing on water
Here, Renoir defends his work. I tried simply to mirror nature, to give joy. But in "At Les Collettes" he confides
… I admit (in trust) to a desperation
that once what is new has been superseded
by the 'new' new, my early work …
… may be seen in perspective:
it be conceded I opened shutters, let light in.
In another poem, Conn banishes Renoir to Orkney, isolating him from heat and colour in clinging mist, but Renoir finds consolation in the weather-beaten palette of fishermen's faces, in a girl / with skin like mother of pearl. ("Renoir in Orkney").
Searching for light in difficult circumstances has always been Conn's mission. He compared "Todd" to Goya, who went painting / at night with candies round the rim of his hat.
In "Night Sky" he declares
The power of lenses and mirrors
wondrous as ever. Even more
of a marvel, the way the brightness
in your eyes travels towards me
at the implausible speed of love.
Conn is, like his "Picture Framer", an artist who
… takes a sliver of beaten gold
specially prepared …
it floating – to land face-up
on precisely the right spot.
His quiet language, and simply-offered imagery startle, sweep us to the heart of the world he knows and fears for. Perhaps "Altarpiece" comes closest to defining his approach to poetry and life:
Bartolo's hierarchy of colour,
I set the harmony of nature:
best may be plainest.
Conn's is a light that should be shared, and shared again; stolen, if you like.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The