“some shakin’ metaphysics to die for”
As Homecoming Scotland 2014 approaches its close we enter The Home Straits, a programme of poetry and music on the theme of … home. This show, first of three, finished with the sweet tones and bitter air of Byron’s We’ll Go No More A-Roving that deserved louder applause (& participation) than our few and faint hearts allowed.
Home for Christmas is Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s idea. She is up front for the first half, reading her poems, alongside musician and Edinburgh friend John Sampson, but after the interval she sits out and Little Machine, is on stage. The band sing their settings of six of Duffy’s Christmas poems and then eight further poems, from the 16th Century ballad Western Wind to Liz Lochhead’s fervid My Way. Mood and style vary from piece to piece, from loose and cool J.J Cale to a Rocksteady lilt for Advent and there’s some shakin’ metaphysics to die for in Thomas Carew’s Mediocritie. The music making is very good – I like distinct guitar work – and the high regard for the poetry is evident in the diction.
However, it is sombre and plaintive to start with. “It’ll be over soon; home by Christmas” was the fond, forsaken hope. John Sampson’s trumpet opens with the Last Post, and then there’s Duffy’s own poem Last Post, where ‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would …. And all those thousands dead … Are queuing up for home … Freshly alive.’ Christmas Truce follows, when ‘beneath the yawn of history’ a miraculous peace broke out. The subsequent pairing of Wilfred Owen’s The Send-off with her response, An Unseen, is dreadfully poignant.
Just as sharp is the keen, deadpan, humour of three monologues from the celebrated The World’s Wife: Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, and (Duffy’s favourite) Faust; and then four later poems of percipient, careful intent: Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, The Counties, The Human Bee, and Liverpool. They are all in the public domain – and not just on The Guardian’s pages – so go find them, realise their quality and why Duffy wrote them.
Little Machine had been on Radio Scotland’s ‘Culture Studio’ with Janice Forsyth that same afternoon. The trio anticipated an evening of banter and wit. Well, not really. I enjoyed their music, admired John Sampson’s playing the two halves of the recorder at the same time (do not try this at home, he cautioned) and heard really good poems, tellingly read by the poet herself, but it proved a subdued occasion, with little ‘give’ from our side of the stage. That’s what happens when the Last Post sounds. It all goes still and not in a stille nacht, glad tidings, kind of way.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 December)
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