Climber's Calendar, from Time's Traverse,
Poems 1991-2001, by Gordon Jarvie
CC: Harpercroft, 2001, 24pp, ISBN 0 953353 01 X, £2.50
TT: Harpercroft, 2002, 120pp, ISBN 0 953353 02 8, £8.95
How did it come to be that rhyme and meter
(at least, iambic) fell to such disdain?
Is the free verse bird's song audibly sweeter,
or is the search for matched vowels just a pain?
Wordsworth is, I think, to blame for two
contradictory reasons: One, his Daff-
-odils, which teaches generations new
that iambs can be ineffably naff;
Two: he defined a poem as "emotion
recalled in tranquillity"- Siren call
for those who hold the notion
that a poem's Form is nothing, and Content all.
Call me old-fashioned, past it and out-of-time:
I do, however, like my verse to rhyme.
HAVING GOT THAT off my chest, I confess that Gordon Jarvie's Climber's Calendar (contained in his wider collection Time's Traverse) is well worth a read, despite the distinct lack of rhymes. It's a slim volume, comprising 16 short poems, each of which recollects the emotion of a moment or a day on the hill. Readers may well be reminded of Norman MacCaig's mountain poetry: and though Jarvie's poetic diction tends to be rather more spare, it can nonetheless be effective in its simplicity:
We lie on hard ground
under a map of stars
sensing the inky outline of high hills.
That "inky outline" not only sounds right: it smells right, hinting as it does at the heavy scent of night. Jarvie is also adept at creating an almost photographic image in the reader's mind, a technique he has perhaps developed (sorry) from Edwin Morgan's Instamatic poetry:
We linger long enough up there
to watch our eyebrows
turn bushy white and comical
Sometimes, however, the Pierian spring runs a bit too dry for my liking. The opening lines of the above poem, for example:
Possibly 'the rounded hill
of the shoulder, arm or hand',
pronounced myowl girday.
This may well be informative, but it sure ain't poetry: the language of The Munro Almanac rather than Gradus ad Parnassum. Jarvie, has, I believe, erred here and elsewhere in inserting prosaic English renderings of hill names into the verse: better to allow the reader, if so inclined, to look them up, rather than to break the flow with trainspotterish translations. Otherwise, his rhythm tends to be assured, even elegant:
Leggy white hares play and lope
on a midday, sunny, snowy slope
between Meall Gorm and Creag Leacach...
(East of Glenshee)
The light-hearted dactyl and iambs of the first two lines contrast nicely with the monolithically spondaic mountains. And it rhymes!
THE IMPLICIT THEME of many of the poems is the dying of the light, and the poet's attempts to hang on to images of the all-too-quickly passing day. This theme is explored more explicitly in the best poem of the collection, Looking West, the title of which refers to both the setting, Ben More, and to the mythological destination of the dead:
I dream we are two Viking jarls
today, with simple action plans
and strategies - along the lines
of take life by the throat...
The poet's bold and defiant manifesto is however subtly undermined by that verb dream, indicating that he knows that real life is more complicated. And while we share the couple's elation at the glorious views from the top of "the blest islands of the west", we also share a pang of awareness that life and its pleasures are fleeting:
The summit is among the high points
of two lives. Mind how you go,
you two. Evade descent.
Their youth now behind them, they face a downhill journey to the inevitable "parting handclasp":
...Beyond this pinnacle
a setting sun declines
into the anecdotage of Valhalla.
Earlier, I compared Jarvie's collection to Instamatic poetry: and if some of the poems are mere holiday snaps, in the elegiac Looking West he has produced a portrait of real depth, and one which repays repeated viewing.
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