james mcgonigal
Poet  •  Critic

Turning Over in a Strange Bed

Edinburgh: Mariscat Press (2017).

The subtitle Poems / Translations maybe raises the question of whether these are poems or translations, or possibly and/or translations. The opening poems were indeed ‘written for translation into an abandoned language’. The language was Gaelic, and their tone came partly from reading the ‘translatorese’ on the right-hand pages of anthologies of Scottish and Irish Gaelic poetry, not quite like any Scots or English that I knew. How might brand new poems written in that borderline language look and sound? Poet Rody Gorman, who was then working on Skye, chose to translate the poems back into the Irish Gaelic I hoped they might have come from. My father’s grandparents were economic migrants from Donegal to industrial Lanarkshire.

Other poems take up further meanings of ‘translation’, some of which hint at why any language comes to be abandoned. The word can mean to remove to another place; to remove to heaven; to express in another artistic medium; to interpret; to transform or to make new from old. For example, the poem ‘space chaplain’ is derived from the Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins; and the poems from ‘The Desert Mothers’ originated in incidents recorded by Mildred Cable and Francesca French in The Gobi Desert (1942). Working as medical missionaries in China from 1901 until 1939, they were permitted to preach to the nomads of the Gobi Desert, and the book records their hard travels there in objective but often luminous detail. So these mysterious translations from different places and ages are part of the picture. But the collection ends with a return to the glens of Aberdeenshire, where my mother’s ancestors worked, before being ‘translated’ south.

1. Turning Over in a Strange Bed

2. The Upsidedown Room

3. The Avoidance of Relationships

4. From The Desert Mothers: Shod

5. Village

6. Guide

7. Space Chaplain

8. Shirt

9. The Lost Glen

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