Published here with its Gaelic version, 'Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta', this is a sharp look at youth and age
The Edinburgh-born poet Meg Bateman is acclaimed for her work in Scottish Gaelic. Her latest volume, Transparencies, published this month by Polygon, marks a new departure, containing a number of poems in English only. Nonetheless, to double the pleasure of readers who have both languages at their command, I've chosen as this week's poem the bi-lingual "Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery"/ "Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta".
What the book-jacket refers to as the collection's "Gaelic aesthetic" can be sensed, even in the English poems, in the cadence of Bateman's line, and in the unassuming directness of her voice. The poems have the strength and simplicity of art made for a community rather than an elite, though they are far from artless.
The title, "Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery", sounds like the title of a painting. and the opening stanza appropriately forms a clear and focused picture.
While there's no physical description of the girl (and none seems needed), the grandmother is vividly sketched, "with her stick in one hand and her arm in yours". Those sharp monosyllables convey the almost military precision of organisation she needs to stay mobile and upright. Further details are added via a deft and cunning move into the girl's point of view ("You little imagine … ") The language is unforced and ordinary: "old as the hills", "wrinkled", "bent". "Old as the hills" is particularly well-worn, the first comparative reached for whenever we want to conjure unimaginable age. It probably sums up accurately what the girl herself thinks about her grandmother. But it achieves considerable poetic effectiveness through association. The old woman is labouring up a hill of steps. Her bent back can be visualised as a small hill. There are hills in the surrounding landscape, and they do indeed pre-date the city by millennia.
That the speaker has chosen to address the girl is declared early on by the use of the second-person possessive pronoun. She remains the addressee throughout the poem, except when, in a grammatical nuance unavailable to English, both women are signalled by "sibh", the plural form of "you" in Gaelic, at the end of stanza one.
The girl's sense of her own absolute separateness from her ancient grandmother has been established only to be gently challenged: "But you are contemporaries – " These lines, of course, also challenge the apartheid which has developed in many urban western societies between old and young. Other values, those of rural or more traditional cultures, underlie the first stanza's closing affirmation. Young and old are both connected and synchronised, "you walk this earth together".
The second stanza implies a new balance of power. Now it's the grandmother's turn to lead the granddaughter. She knows exactly where the sought-for picture hangs, "over in the corner". Again, crucial to the art and thought of this poem is the notion of balance. We were shown the old woman through the granddaughter's eyes. Now we're shown David Martin's "Self-Portrait" from the grandmother's perspective.
Her appraisal begins with the bare facts – the title of the painting, the artist's name and date. But she goes on to point out some finer aesthetic details. Her attentiveness is indicated by the reference to the "trace of foxglove in his cheeks". The foxglove's pink is sharper and blue-er than that of the rose, the flower usually associated with the human face. The grandmother must have stared searchingly at the portrait on other occasions, and thought about the exact skin-tone. The "shadowy eyes" suggest a mysterious, perhaps erotic, back-story to the portrait. Otherwise, the physical details, like those of the first stanza, are simple and conventional: "long fair lashes", "chiselled lips". They are accurate, and they emphasise the artist's youth and romantic good looks.
As before, it's the last two lines of the stanza that deliver the thrust. If there's a hint of deconstructed sonnet-form in the poem, it's most noticeable in the forceful way the two stanzas conclude, with lines six and sevan in each packing the punch, almost, of an Elizabethan couplet.
The idiomatic syntax heightens the assertiveness of tone; "and no better claim have you than she … " That the young girl has "no better claim" on the lips in the portrait might be read as the speaker's acknowledgment of the grandmother's desire, and her right to feel desire. Yet these are not actual lips, as the qualification, "caught between glazes", reminds us.
Artists in oils traditionally used glazes in building up subtlety and depth of colour. These glazes are perhaps compounded by the framer's glaze – the glass. The artist's likeness has been caught, and he appears lifelike, but he cannot escape into life.
The "claim" may be that of desire, but it may denote more simply the right of different viewers to their personal responses. Perhaps the girl imagines herself being kissed by the young man portrayed, whereas the old woman brings an equally valid act of memory to her response: she has been kissed in the past by lips like his.
By choosing an 18th-century painting, the poet has somehow telescoped the passage of time. The young artist "caught between glazes" died long ago. He is the oldest person in the trio, and perhaps, simultaneously, the youngest (at 23, he seems unlikely to be older than the granddaughter). The poem challenges short-sighted personal obsessions with time, and invites a more generous and imaginative definition of the "contemporary".
Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery
Girl helping your grandmother up the gallery steps
with her stick in one hand and her arm in yours,
to you she seems as old as the hills,
you little imagine your own hand wrinkled
or your back bent,
but you are contemporaries –
you walk this earth together.
She leads you to a painting over in the corner,
"Self-portrait of the Artist at Twenty-Three"
by David Martin (18th Century, Scottish),
shows you the trace of foxglove in his cheek,
the shadowy eyes and long fair lashes,
and no better claim have you than she
on the chiselled lips caught between glazes.
Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta
A nighean a dhìreas an staidhre le do sheanmhair,
a dàrna làmh na do làimh-sa, a bata san tèile,
saoilidh tu gu bheil i cho sean ris a' cheò,
gun smuain air do làmh fhèin a' fàs preasach
no do dhruim crotach…
ach tha sibh nur co-aoisich
's sibh a' siubhal an t-saoghail seo còmhla.
Treòraichidh i gu dealbh thall san oisean thu,
"Fèin-dhealbh a' pheantair aig fichead bliadhna 's a trì"
le Dàibhidh Màrtainn (Albannach, ochdamh linn deug),
seallaidh i dhut tuar nam ban-sìth na ghruaidh,
na sgàilean na shùilean, a ruisg fhada bhàna,
is cha dad nas treasa do chòir-sa seach a còir-se
air a bheul cumadail glacte fo gach lì.Carol