The Road North by Ken Cockburn & Alec Finlay

Published by Shearsman Books, 2014

A long poem in fourteen sections, describing journeys we made between May 2010 and May 2011 to destinations in Scotland paired with places in northern Japan visited by Basho and Sora in 1689. Available via the Shearsman website.

Review by Andy Brown:

Every so often I come across a book of poems that is irresistible for the absolute ‘rightness’ of its project; a book that has that unerring quality of integrity, craft and communication with the reader; a book that’s doing something slightly out of the ordinary, but wearing that difference in an unostentatious manner. This was that book for me. A delight.

Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn set off on a journey around Scotland, in the footsteps of the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694) and his companion Sora. In the late Seventeenth Century, Basho and Sora travelled through northern Honshu, the main Japanese island and, as a result of their travels, wrote a short book Oku-no-hosomichi, which is divided into ‘stations’ by location. Finlay and Cockburn repeated a version of the journey in Scotland, visiting 53 ‘stations’ and, at each one writing, sharing and libating a tea and a whiskey.

There’s a lovely sense of place and pilgrimage and ritual in all of this, and as such the book relates to a tradition of literary collaborations and journeys that includes Basho and Sora, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Auden and Isherwood, and others. It is also, of course, a part of that very long and honourable tradition of writing and walking. Finlay’s and Cockburn’s project has also been recorded (available for a free download through iTunes, and exists as part of the Scottish Poetry Library archive and the touring exhibition Walk On (2013-14).

The poems of the road north are mostly written in a spare, transparent style, that talks back to Basho and the Japanese tradition of haiku and tanka, but also evokes more modern voices – I kept thinking of Robert Creeley, Ric Caddell, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Thomas A. Clark and other poets in that late modernist vein. The vocabulary of Finlay and Cockburn’s poems is also, of course, rich in local dialect: fankle, crottle, lochan and other such words, as well as the poetry of place names: Glenkinchie, Tullibardine, Bruichladdich. Language shapes landscape, just as actions do.

Place is evoked through local people, their industry, local names, animals, birds and plants. A woman called Sonia is found planting apples in her orchard:

she’s added a millennial
scattering of natives
to the old commercials
small stunted malus
with nairy a petal to shed

Early Julyan
Lass o’Gowrie
The Blody Ploughman
White Paradise

The list of the old local varieties not only evokes a litany or prayer, but embodies, even re-materialises, the history of language and place. This historicising and populating of place continues in clear, simple and resonant images such as ‘the dark crotch of wood’ nestled in a landscape, or:

the green glen
is an upturned bell
Cast between Meall Tarsuinn
and Dun Mor,
with the great Stone its clapper

or lines like: ‘the heads and half moons / of copper coins / feeling silent hopes / in the wishing tree’, which records the custom of passers-by hammering coins into the bark of way-marking trees.

This tradition of landscape ‘leavings’ is reflected in the poets themselves leaving Tanzaku poem labels – derived from the Japanese for the strips of paper on which poems were written, and which has come to mean ‘poem’ – dotted around the landscape, in acts of place-specific writing:

I wind a few words
round the stalks
of plaited bog-grasses
to be found
and undone
whether from love

or disliking
or left for the sun
and rain
to seasonally fade them

What is refreshing here is how the tanzaku resist the more ‘appropriative’ aspects of much nature/landscape writing – they are the exact opposite of the national flag planted on the virgin beach, the mountain peak, the moon; they are a form of self-effacement, which is repeated in lines later in the book: ‘another day to finger poems / for the tide to read / and erase’, which replaces all the negative ego-clenching of literary personality with a refreshing humility.

I also very much admired the simplicity of a sequence of poems that ask questions in the form of ‘What is a…?’

a cup-&-ring marked rock is

a monolithic map
of we know not what

a megalithic board-game
whose rules are lost

a petrified ripple
(‘What is a cup-&-ring marked rock?‘)

Asking ‘What is the sea?’, the poets find  ‘if the sea knew what / it was it wouldn’t / keep coming back’ and, in ‘What is a hut?’, ‘a hut is four thin walls / nailed around a stove’. The form finds inventive, list-like responses in ‘What is a mountain?’: ‘a mountain is the crazy river’s reason’, ‘a mountain is identified by its thumbprint of contour lines’ and ‘a mountain is where even the scouring glaciers had to admit defeat’. These are inobtrusive yet strange and estranging ways of looking, achieving their effects unostentatiously yet with resonant surprises.

In all of these poems, the writers use language to think in, through, with andabout landscape, its features, its history and its inhabitants, often repopulating and rebuilding that history:

so close your eyes
and cover the wall-
tops with eaves
adding the bustle that flickers
round a big fire.

In poems like these, times and people, and places elide, reconnecting the reader with other times, other people and places, reminding that what connects us is our humanity, the stories that we tell, and that observing, and witnessing, and paying attention to where and how we live, to the world’s other inhabitants  – how we all dwell here, momentarily – is of great importance and nourishment.

There’s a great sense of unity in the writing of the poems, and one is most times unsure of which poet has written which poem, or to what degree the poems are collaborative. I like that blurring and effacement of the ego. It feels like a genuinely shared experience, and that rubs off on the reading experience too. There are a couple of poems which identify the author ‘Alec’s path to St Medan’s Cave…’ and ‘Ken’s path to St Medan’s cave…’, for example, or ‘Alec’s Epilogue’ and ‘Ken’s Epilogue’, but these poems come right at the end of the book;  a very wise place to put them – it means that, for the most part, the reader can focus on the poetry, rather than the poet. The book ends with that Epilogue of Ken’s, a wonderful summation of the ‘findings’ of the journey:

finding a hill
that’s fine in sunshine
or wrapped in mist

finding a chocolate
so good
you only eat a little

finding an answer
so wrong
you rewrite the question

finding a coat
that fits so well
you long for winter
finding a life
that fulfils you
and a death too

Did I say I really loved reading this book, for the clarity of its poetry, the directness and astuteness of its observations, the warmth of its findings? I’m going to keep taking The Road North. I thoroughly recommend that you do too.

Ken Cockburn

I was born in Kirkcaldy in 1960, and studied French and German at Aberdeen University, and Theatre Studies at University College Cardiff.

After working in theatre and gallery administration, I spent several years at the Scottish Poetry Library as Fieldworker, visiting schools and writers’ groups throughout Scotland, and latterly was also Assistant Director.

With Alec Finlay I established and ran pocketbooks, an award-winning series of books of poetry and visual art (1999-2002).

Since 2004 I have worked as a freelance writer, translator, editor and writing tutor. In 2006 I was the first writer-in-residence at the John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland, and I was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship for Literary Translation 2008.

I regularly collaborate with visual artists on book, exhibition and public art projects. Recent collaborations include working with sculptor Mary Bourne on works for the new flood wall in Inverness, and writing a poem-sequence “Into Ettrick” for the painter Andrew Mackenzie.

A Creative Scotland Vital Spark Award in 2010 enabled Alec Finlay and myself to undertake The Road North, a journey around Scotland guided by the 17th-century Japanese poet Basho, which led an extensive blog, an exhibition, and a jointly-composed long poem which has been published in book form, and is also available on iTunes.

In summer 2013 we began another touring project, Out of Books, based on Boswell and Johnson’s Highland tour of 1773, in particular the books they read, and refer to, as they travel.

As a translator from German I’ve worked on poems by classic authors such as Goethe, Fontane, and Celan, as well as by contemporary poets such as Arne Rautenberg, Thomas Rosenlöcher and Christine Marendon.