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The Library



Kathleen Jamie

Have human beings ever known such a moment?


Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain is the first full-length work published by Scottish poet Garry MacKenzie. It appears in this handsome edition courtesy of The Irish Pages Press, which is a new presence in Scottish poetry publishing. The press is associated with the journal Irish Pages which for two decades has been an important and intelligent contributor to the cultural life of these islands.

When we say “these islands”, we think we know what we mean, but Irish Pages, as journal, press and arts festival, is alert to an alternative map reading. It seeks to link what Editor Chris Agee calls the “dissident peripheries”. Moving between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the journal is also concerned with wider Europe, the Balkans in particular, and North America. It considers ancient nations and languages, emerging ecologies and reconsidered identities.

We are alive at a time of sudden, necessary reappraisals, and changes of direction. History is far from over, the future struggles to find its shape. Change is happening, whether it be local, in the fracturing of the United Kingdom, or across the wide sweep of history, as revealed by the truths and hopes of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is happening on a planetary level, in the perils of climate change and species loss. Have human beings ever known such a moment?

When we may feel as though our species and our planet are cascading into a future unknown, and uncertainty is all about, it may seem odd to publish a book which is “a conversation” with a mountain, the very symbol of solidity. The mountain is Ben Dorain, which rises near Bridge of Orchy. It appears as a Fuji-esque cone from some angles. The conversation is also with a praise poem composed 250 years ago, by Duncan Bàn MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s poem is a musical paean to this one particular Scottish mountain and its deer. The original poem is in Gaelic, a language no longer spoken on that mountainside. (There, in that one fact, you have your political and power shifts, your economic and cultural push and shove.) But what Garry MacKenzie has done, in this wonderful book, is to revivify that poem. He has created a new “inhabited music” which springs MacIntyre’s work into the present day. It’s not a translation, nor a modernised version, though there is that also. He has opened MacIntyre’s mountain poem like a geode, to use a geological term, and he has created an environmentally-aware, science-informed poetic counterpoint in English, which he presents dancing along with MacIntyre’s re-expressed eighteenth-century vision. Like the deer they so admire, the two poets’ lines leap back and forth across the page, across times, across languages, across species and poetic forms. It is a new work which alerts us to the tradition, which is to say, to the consciousness of the past. It calls this consciousness into the present, so that its wisdom might strengthen us for the environmental challenges to come.

Who knows what future? Our times would have been unimaginable to Duncan Bàn MacIntyre. When he composed his poem, we were already on the way to species loss, to environmental degradation. His Ben Dorain deer may have known Scotland’s last wolves, which are variously said to have been extirpated in the seventeenth century, or the eighteenth or maybe even the nineteenth. (MacIntyre was himself a gamekeeper.) But who knows if they might not one day be returned? Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that huge tracts of Scottish land, mountain ranges and moorland, their populations cleared, land held in a few private (wealthy) hands, might be taken into community ownership, and managed for nature? Who knows what the “dissident peripheries” will think of next?

But this is not primarily a political work. This is a work of love: of landscape and animals and poetry. Despite the shifting grounds which surround it, Ben Dorain the mountain remains true and centred, its marvellous creatures marvellously observed.

This is the Introduction to Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain, by Garry MacKenzie, published by The Irish Pages Press/Cló An Mhíl Bhuí in January 2021.

Kathleen Jamie was born in the West of Scotland in 1962. She is the author of ten collections of poems, most recently The Tree House (Picador, 2004: winner of the Forward Prize and Scottish Book of the Year), Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead: Poems 1980-94 (Bloodaxe Books, 2002: shortlisted for the 2003 International Griffin Prize), The Overhaul (Picador, 2012: shortlisted for the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize, winner of the 2012 Costa Poetry Award), and The Bonniest Companie (Picador, 2015). Her non-fiction work includes Among Muslims (Sort of Books, 2002), Findings (Sort of Books, 2007), Sightlines (Sort of Books, 2012: joint winner with Robert McFarlane of the 2013 Dolman Travel Award, winner of 2014 John Burroughs Award and the 2014 Orion Book Award) and Surfacing (Sort of Books, 2019). In 2017, she received the Ness Award from the Royal Geographical Society for “outstanding creative writing at the confluence of travel, nature and culture.” She is the Scottish Editor of Irish Pages, and lives with her family in Fife.

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