BOOK REVIEW / Hard as granite, sweet as grass: Orkney to California: William Scammell on collections that range across cultural extremes

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The Independent Culture
LIKE Norman Nicholson, George Mackay Brown spent a good deal of his youth and early manhood battling against tuberculosis, and this enforced isolation, in the days before modern drugs, probably helped nurture his talent as a writer. So did his Orkney inheritance, with its 'huge deposits of narrative' - 'I felt rather like Aladdin in the enchanted cave' - and the encouragement of his fellow-Orcadian Edwin Muir, who first sent his poems to the Hogarth Press. Since then he has worked his strictly fabulous material as single-mindedly as a Synge or an I B Singer mined theirs. The poems in his best-known book, Fishermen With Ploughs (1971), sum up his devotion to a way of life that seems as remote to most of us as the longship or the shtetl.

Selected Poems 1954-1983 (John Murray pounds 12.95) is his own choice from among his many volumes. At their best they fully earn the adjectives ushering them to urban attention: pure, timeless, elemental; they are simple and refreshing as in 'Roads', imaginative as in 'The Hawk', slyly humorous as in 'The Coward' - about a fisherman who would rather brave a hurricane than 'Jean with a spoon' of 'the black stuff' that 'warts to consumption, cured all ills'.

Archaism is something of a problem, though, and the reader's belief doesn't always stay buoyant. There's an element of Never-Never Land or Olde Norsery in his work, reminiscent of the Gaelic pig-in-a-pokery stuff that Flann O'Brien loved putting to the sword. When this gets married to religiosity, as it does in 'Stations of the Cross', the resulting cold comfort is uncomfortably solemn. Better his under- and over-statements ('Sunset drives a butcher blade/In the day's throat'), and those tales 'hard as granite . . . sweet as grass' where the twentieth- century gets into his voice, than the sepulchral vatic that fits all places and all men. His best lines, though, ring as true as the passing bell.

Charles Bukowski inhabits another linguistic extreme, one in which American demotic and low-life inconsequentiality are de rigueur. His California, all drunks, dropouts and dubious wordniks, is as exotic in its way as Brown's primeval Orkney. For two or three pages The Last Night of the Earth Poems (Black Sparrow Press pounds 12.95) is a bracing 'kick in the ass', but the poetic bullshit thrown out of the front door comes racing in again at the back and things soon turn 'embarrassingly/ inept', pinballing about between macho gruffness - 'It works the gut a bit'; 'it churns the gut to powder' - and its sentimental underbelly. Four hundred pages of egotistical bathos is hard going, relieved now and then when Bukowski bothers to create something tangible, as in 'we ain't got no money, honey, but we got rain'. Useful as a mouthwash, though, when you've swallowed too much cultural pomp.

We Have the Melon (Carcanet pounds 6.95), Gregory Woods's 'handbook of desire', as Thom Gunn calls it, goes in for another sort of swallowing altogether. The publisher has cut some of the more 'scandalous' poems from a once bulky manuscript, which is a pity, but it remains omnivorously sexual and frankly hedonistic. This paean to the joys of gay sex must be the most delighted account of rough and smooth trade since The Swimming Pool Library. Woods restores all the meanings of gay, mental and physical, has a fine sense of place and an engaging wit: 'As for you/You undressed in a trice and turned on me/With your prick harrumphing like some tinpot/General affronted by human rights/Or muddy puttees'. 'First of May' and 'Over the Wall' make a welcome and skilful diversion from the free-verse triplets that dominate most of the book, which can sound a bit samey. But it's the poems' honesty that stays in the mind, anchoring their flamboyant sensuality in a real time and place, 'voracity overlap(ping) with veracity, true to life in all respects'.

Message (Menard Press pounds 9) was the only book in his native Portuguese which Fernando Pessoa published in his lifetime, a year before his death in 1935. This bilingual edition, translated by the late Jonathan Griffin, offers us a glimpse into the mystical nationalism of one of the least-known greats of the modern movement. The manner is hardly to present taste - 'God wills, the man dreams, and the work is born' - but that is all the more reason, perhaps, to attend to Pessoa's visionary text:

Here at the helm I am more than I am:

Am a People - your sea which it means to tame;

More than the thing, my soul's terror,

Who prowls in the dark of the world's end -

(Photograph omitted)