Monday 11 April 2022

Independent Bookshop feature No.15. Alexis Thompson of The Woodstock Bookshop: THE GAELIC GARDEN OF THE DEAD by MacGillivray


"This will haunt you, if allowed to do so ..."

Alexis Thompson is a writer and bookseller based in Oxford. He has led poetry walks in London on the Modernists for the International Times and New River Press, curated and read in London and Edinburgh and was writer-in-residence with The Parlour Collective. He recently completed an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford and has had fiction and poetry published in MONK and the New River Press. In 2020 he was the editor of Blackwell's Poetry #1. He is currently finishing a debut novel, titled A Pit of Clay.

As of 2022 he is manager of The Woodstock Bookshop, noted for its yearly poetry festival under its previous owner Rachel Phipps. The Woodstock Poetry Festival is set to return in November 2023 for the first time since 2019.

'I open with a mouth of burning coal', writes poet MacGillivray in this astonishing third collection. Here we have the Gaelic alphabet of trees which, for those of you who don't know, assigns all the letters of the Highland alphabet to specific trees and this gives Book I of The Gaelic Garden of the Dead its unique structure.

But The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is a trilogy; Books II and III deal with a sigil sequence and sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots, consecutively (a discussion of the sonnets was featured on BBC Radio 3 The Verb: listen here) and the whole collection unfolds in your hands like an arboreal haunting; a lament to the loss of an ancient language - particularly relevant now, as Scottish Gaelic is predicted to become extinct by 2031 - and the beleaguered fate of a great queen. Although this sounds far-stretching, in MacGillivray's hands, the interwoven historical with the poetic potency of the book is both striking and what a reader might seek out as tonic from the observational, minimalism of most mainstream contemporary poetry.

'Love’s eyes are colourless:/ a motive for moving through underworlds' asserts MacGillivray, summoning Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot and deeply embedded folkloric Scottish roots: there are psalms for lightning; salt, snow and sleep coronachs (the third part of a funeral lament); and references to old Gaelic customs: 'Walking to the heartland of the Gaelic alphabet/ where spirit multitudes sleep rough/ among the bales of slaughtered wheat,' I drank my lover’s blood', a reference to the Gaelic tradition of drinking a little of the blood of a loved one who has been killed in battle. Here we have not only an arboreal meditation on the nature of these trees (ranging from Ailm 'A' for pine, to Quert for 'Q' which is apple - here described under the 'School of the Moon': a traditional name for the teaching of cattle rustling, done at night.)

As with her other collections, the experience is not only of potent poetics but is educative, while never feeling didactic. In reading the book, one feels enhanced as if by secret or lost knowledge into this Gaelic otherworld. Book II, A Crisis of Dream, operates as a visual gateway of pattern-poem sigils between Book I and Book III.

The reader is then confronted by In My End is My Beginning, a line better known from Eliot’s Four Quartets, having been borrowed from Mary Stuart. Book III presents a 'descent' of thirty five sonnets - one for each step Mary descended on her way to execution, which are then 'chewed up' (here a nod to the cut-up technique of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) for the fifteen minutes Mary's mouth was said to have moved, after her decapitation. The result is deeply moving: the sonnets were composed in situ in many of the sites Mary lived in and at Fotheringhay, on the anniversary morning of her execution. Replete with rich imagery summoned from Mary's own poetry (we learn she was a part of Ronsard's poetic circle 'The Pleiades'), MacGillivray's response and elaboration to Mary’s death and writing evidently comes from a place of deep research and profound sympathy for Mary’s plight, not merely as a historical figure, but as a human being:

I dreamed of a sawdust chandelier
whose crystals were drops of driftwood dredged
from all the world’s shipwrecks: god’s figurehead,
and it swung, as I dreamt, ever closer to my fear,
softly releasing sweet incense into the clear,
black night air, as that great barge carries the dead,
but instead of my death, it passaged my dread
and the water it ploughed comprised of one tear.

This formal descent of sonnets is then wildly torn up: 'my bled out, love flushed, young, wild skeleton!' for the counterpart to The Descent; The Blade and in both sequences, Mary emerges as an impassioned poet which reflects something of her true personality.

This is an ambitious and electric collection - a far cry from the usual - and will haunt you, if allowed to do so.

For fans of Barry McSweeney, William Burroughs and Sorley Maclean.

The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is published by Bloodaxe Books.  

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