George Mackay Brown: An Appreciation

by Mike Dillon

A virtuoso with words, the prolific Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist George Mackay Brown remains too little known in literary circles. “I have never seen his poetry sufficiently praised,” no less than Seamus Heaney opined. Heaney repeatedly extolled Brown’s work, claiming “since the beginning of his career he has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English.”

Shadowed by tuberculosis most of his life and in his later years by cancer, Brown died in 1996 at age seventy-four. In 2021, to mark the centenary of his birth, Scottish publisher Polygon issued Carve the Runes: Selected Poems and Simple Fire: Collected Short Stories. The same year, Polygon also published a new edition of Brown’s classic 1969 treatise, An Orkney Tapestry.

A Roman Catholic convert, the intensely private, granite-jawed author with an impish smile was given to spells of depression. Especially in the early stages of his career, he took refuge in drink; ill health placed the lifelong bachelor on the government dole. Biographical speculation on Brown’s relationships with women is wrapped in a cloud of unknowing.

“I think the only perfect poem or piece of music is pure silence,” Brown said in a 1987 interview in Ron Ferguson’s George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift, one of the few book-length critical works on the author. “The silence which follows a beautiful piece of music or poem is richer and more perfect—something towards which the music or poem aspires, but never quite achieves.”

Numerous honorary degrees and awards came his way, including the Order of the British Empire. When his 1994 novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Brown fretted over the attendant publicity and gave no public readings. The final poem in the last book Brown published in his lifetime, Following a Lark, captures his stance:

A Work for Poets

To have carved on the days of our vanity
A sun
A star
A cornstalk

Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read

That not far from the stone
A well
Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets —
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

The Orkney archipelago, with its roots in fishing and farming and Viking inheritance, lies off the north coast of Scotland. Brown grew up in the seaside town of Stromness on the biggest island, Orkney, otherwise named Mainland. Most of his life was spent there, except for stints in Edinburgh, where he studied under fellow Orcadian poet Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey College. Once in the big city, Brown became part of the circle of hard-drinking poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs—Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, and Iain Crichton Smith among them.

Brown did for the Orkneys what William Faulkner did for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County: he conjured a literary universe, often set in the past, from the daily life of ordinary people. The Orkneys bear a hard, elemental beauty from which this bard shaped a sacramental dimension, as in “The Death of Peter Esson: Tailor, Town Librarian, Free Kirk Elder,” an exquisite sonnet that begins:

Peter at some immortal cloth, it seemed,
Fashioned and stitched, for long had he sat
Heraldic on his bench. We never dreamed
It was his shroud he was busy at.

A Calendar of Love, Brown’s first book of short stories published in 1967, prompted a review in The Observer to note the author “really does possess the magician’s touch. . . . to lighten up the most humdrum detail of an ordinary life and transform it into something unforgettable.”

Brown’s first novel Greenvoe appeared in 1972 and won the Scottish Arts Council Prize. In this bittersweet comedy, an Orcadian island finds itself in the shadow of a sinister, mysterious military-industrial project called Operation Black Star, which leaves the precious patterns of island life suddenly vulnerable: “Afternoon was always the quietest time in the village. The fishermen were still at sea. The crofters had not yet unyoked. There was little sound in Greenvoe on a summer afternoon but the murmur of multiplication tables through the tall school window, and the drone of bluebottles among Mr. Joseph Evie’s confectionary, and the lapping of water against the pier.”

A year later came Brown’s most ambitious novel, Magnus, the story of a saint and martyr that stands at the center of the author’s entire output. As told in the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus Erlendson vied with his cousin for the Earldom of Orkney. After years of civil war, the two met on the island of Egilsay for a peace conference, and to end the conflict, Magnus went willingly to his execution, a blood sacrifice echoing Christ’s. Brown’s telling adds a dash of magic realism when the 12th-century story of Magnus fast-forwards to the modern era and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. The time-shift reminds us that the old patterns come around again and again wearing new clothes (or uniforms).

Magnus features a striking meditation on Christ’s martyrdom: “That was the one and only central sacrifice of history. I am the bread of life. All previous rituals had been a foreshadowing of this; all subsequent rituals a re-enactment. The fires at the centre of the earth, the sun above, all divine essences and ecstasies, come to this silence at last — a circle of bread and a cup of wine on an altar.”

Brown’s posthumous Collected Poems appeared in 2005. A year later came Maggie Fergusson’s essential biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life. Along with Polygon’s centenary titles, these books offer readers access to a singular literary figure, one who railed from his remote outpost against Western culture’s post-World War II torrent towards standardization. There are critics who consider him a Luddite, but better to say Brown staked out his ground as bold counterpoint to the white noise that would snatch us away from the numinous. Brown set out to re-enchant the world, and at his best, he did. Let’s give him the final word:

Death, critics say, is a theme that nags through my work: the end, the darkness, the silence. So it must be with every serious artist, but still I think art strikes out in the end for life, quickening, joy. The good things that we enjoy under the sun have no meaning unless they are surrounded by the mysterious fecund sleep.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Three New Publishers' Self-Retrospectives

The Esopus Reader
A Collection of Writing from Esopus, 2003–2018
Edited by Tod Lippy

Esopus Books ($32)

A Something Else Reader
Edited by Dick Higgins

Primary Information ($29.95)

Opus 300
The Poet’s Press Anthology 1971-2021
Edited by Brett Rutherford

The Poet’s Press ($19.95)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Though I collect books about many subjects to a desultory degree, the only genre in which I try to collect every important example is one whose definition is probably of my own invention: publishers’ self-retrospectives. Quite simply, from their past publications, the publisher of books or a magazine selects a purportedly choice anthology (by definition, a collection of flowers). My critical assumption is that, better than individual issues, such books portray what publishers think they have achieved and thus how they wish to be remembered. Sometimes such a book appears as the publisher continues working, though quite often the retrospective appears as the publication is shutting down.

Esopus was a remarkable magazine of aesthetic culture that Tod Lippy, a filmmaker and curator, edited and published semiannually from 2003 to 2018 in Lower Manhattan. Its most immediately striking quality was its physicality—a glorious nine by twelve inches in size, the magazine was printed full-color, on thick paper, and often with pullouts or sections smaller than the magazine itself. Because Lippy’s literacy was broad, on successive pages were subjects that weren’t normally found together, and as the chapters were individually designed, the mere turn of the page promised a higher reading experience. 

Given the quality of individual issues, The Esopus Reader disappoints, reprinting only choice longer texts in uniform blocks of continuous type within a more conventional size and format. The main disappointment is not that the articles aren’t good, but that this Reader doesn’t represent what was unique and best about Esopus.

In its short life from 1963 to 1974, Something Else Press was the most important publisher of avant-garde texts in the world. To those of us becoming literate about avant-garde writing in the 1960s, it became a kind of graduate school, telling us not only what wasn’t taught in institutions of higher education, but also which books and artists we should know and what ideas to respect. Founded and financed by Dick Higgins (1938-1998), a polymathic writer who was also a brilliant book designer, Something Else produced pamphlets, perfect-bound books in various sizes, book-art, anthologies, and ephemera that was indeed, as Higgins claimed, “something else.”

The current publisher of A Something Else Reader, Primary Information, claims that Higgins prepared in 1972 a typescript that was only recently discovered, more than two decades after his death. While this claim surprised me, as I knew Higgins fairly well at the time, I can’t now imagine anyone other than him doing this retrospective as well. Indeed, so good are his selections from his publications that Higgins demonstrates that he, unlike some other bookmakers, must have read his output carefully.

One theme of this new book is that many texts that were highly original then are still highly original now. A second is that avant-garde writing has not one strand but many. Rather than resetting the selections to produce a visually uniform appearance, this Reader reprints pages as they originally looked (including a text of mine, entirely numerical, consuming barely a third of an otherwise blank page). The book concludes with an “Analytical Checklist,” a model of its kind, by Hugh Fox, himself an intrepid small press writer, that originally appeared in The Little Magazine Review

Sooner than reprint whole examples in a short review, let me note that among the literary artists reprinted here are Jackson Mac Low, Eugen Gomringer, Robert Filliou, Wolf Vostell, Dieter Roth, Richard Melzer, Kitasono Katue, Allan Kaprow, Brion Gysin, Alison Knowles, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Claes Oldenburg, Gertrude Stein, and Higgins himself. If you know little or none of the literary art of these names, consider starting your education here. In any university course about avant-garde literature, this Reader could become a foundational text.

The theme of Brett Rutherford’s Opus 300: The Poet’s Press Anthology 1971-2021 is persistence over neglect. Rutherford’s press started small and never got much bigger as he moved away from his roots in Pittsburgh and hopped between cities, taking administration jobs and in his spare time publishing single-author collections and themed anthologies that would not have otherwise happened.

As with his 299 earlier publications, Rutherford has been generous—here with 146 writers, 363 poems, two excerpts from plays, and five prose works. Thoughtful are his headnotes for contributors both familiar and unfamiliar. He mostly published his contemporaries, but the most surprising inclusions are obscure British authors: Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849), William Allingham (1824-1899), Henry Kendall (1839-1882), and William Bell Scott (1812-1890), among others.

In the back of Opus 300 are Rutherford’s “Publishing Chronology,” his annotated bibliography, and an index of the hundreds of authors he published. As a small publisher’s self-retrospective, Opus 300 should stand as an instructive model.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023