My Uncle Alastair, my father’s elder brother, was a poet, and rather a good one at that. Alastair R Thompson (not to be confused with my brother Alasdair “Ally” N R Thompson -whose charcoal portrait of Alastair is inset on the right) was born in 1920 and died in 1974. He met Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig, the latter of which read his work and praised it. Alastair compiled a small book of about 50 of his poems towards the end of his life, called “Persons and Places”, a copy of which I have read avidly since I was a very young a child, and which had a formative and inspirational effect on me. Alastair was a conscientous objector during World War Two, a decision he later regretted when the full extent of Hitler’s crimes against humanity came to light. It’s easy to forget in this day and age, that the stance of pacifism would have taken as much resolve, if not more, than signing up at the time, such was the extent of societal disapproval of such views. Alastair was assigned a job as a forestry worker in and around Strathyre for the duration of the war, an experience which he recorded in several excellent short stories later published in The Scots Magazine. This experience also led him to settle in nearby Callander after the war, where he became a secondary school teacher, and eventually Lord Provost. To this day, many of his ex-pupils speak of the positive influence Alastair had on their early life and I sincerely hope some of them chance to stumble upon this article.
Alastair’s poetry shows a distinctly Scottish sensibility, a macabre fascination with mortality, a very Calvinist guilt, and a love of the dreamlike and melancholy. To me his work is more powerful than many of his more famous contemporaries. Despite their frequent aura of sadness and fear, more than anything else it is a feeling of enormous strength that I always find in these poems. I intend to post further selections of his poems here this year (some from his book and some from his larger body of unpublished work), but for the moment here are six top favourites of mine. Some of them have an almost Haiku-like quality of stripped-down perfection:
LOOKING AT A TOWN
I take this town into my hand
and crunch it, saying,
Blood, like bright sunlight,
licks my knuckles,
locks my palm.
A town still stands,
but not the one
that I have used.
My dead town’s better;
my fingers at its throat
make it always mine.
A skull’s a small track
for a hound to hunt in;
but no scent can be lost there,
the victims’s sweat
a long, undrying trail.
Heaven’s hounds run softly
with a sad slobbering love
of what they hunt. The small prey,
blinded by tears,
can only run and run.
If that warm beast once
turned, quivering, to its fear,
the hound might cease to follow,
the hunted one might find
the snarl a smile.
EVENING POEM (1974)
The rain has ended and my trees hang still,
I cannot hear the silence from the hill,
I’ve written poems to push away the night
And I half-fear, half-long for, light.
AS OF NOW
My title is a task I set me, quite
beyond achievement for there is no now
and so no statement possible of how
I got me to this moment in time’s flight.
Imprisoned in each cell of what I am
the neutrons, protons lead their frightful dance,
towards no purpose, the figures born of chance,
no promise, at the dance’s end, of calm.
And yet I must obey the chair I’m in
and sit; type at the table (for it’s there);
take orders from my trees that say “Observe”;
accept that only saying No is sin.
and only fools ask why or when or where.
I am not here to master time, but serve.
AN AERIAL PHOTOGRAPH (1965)
Frozen in April sunshine
the town smirked to the camera.
Under these roofs
the midget citizens were trapped
in false and foolish poses.
A mouth was open on a word,
a hand had half-sawn through the air;
a pain’s preserved
a joke’s not finished.
I’m down there.
I lounge or turn a page
or lick a stamp
for a forgotten letter
under that roof
in the top right hand corner.
Down there, tiny me
With my magnifying glass
I can just hear
a tiny scream.
TO AND FRO IN THE WORLD (1972)
An orange tree
makes a blue sky
frost hardens the mountain
into smoky purple.
The night river
winks and moans
under the red bridge.
In pubs, the young ones
talk of football,
The first hard stars