Ravage: An Astonishment of Fire draws together MacGillivray's extensive research into the life and work of Norwegian-Shetlandic poet Kristján Norge, who vanished from Eilean a’ Bhàis in the Outer Hebrides in 1961. Comprising two previously unpublished manuscripts by Norge, Optik: A History of Ghost (1950) and Ravage (1961), this collection also includes rare original material, giving insight into Norge's troubled existence and mysterious disappearance.
Optik: A History of Ghost, the opening triadic poem, typifies Kristján Norge's early work and is a meditation on Greek optics, horary ghostliness and illumination by fire. Composed in 1950, Optik draws on letters twelve and thirteen of the correspondence between scientist-inventor Sir David Brewster and Sir Walter Scott on natural magic, to isolate the figure of 'John Christ' whom Norge positions as a visionary homunculus created from the saline ash of alchemical phantasmic experiments.
Ravage is the centrepiece of the collection, a numinous tract written in the months preceding Kristján Norge's disappearance in 1961, convinced he was a demon. Washed up in a storm, subsistence on Bàs had proved an increasing strain on Norge, who felt his self-exiled status intensively. In response to both this isolation and the unexpected revelation of his demoniacal status, Norge evolved a complex amnesiac system, aware that if only he could forget this singular aspect of himself, then release might follow. Inevitably cryptic, this Norgesian schema has been recovered from fragments concealed at ten sites on the Scottish island. Norge's impression of Eilean a’ Bhàis as an underworld threshold leant weight to his suspicion that the island was indeed attracting the Sluagh nam Marbh, or Host of the Dead, a Gaelic westerly wind of malign voices that allegedly imparted the knowledge of his demonhood to him.
Optik: A History of Ghost and Ravage are supplemented by additional archival materials which flesh out Norge's intellectual and personal concerns. Among these is a detailed schema of his amnesiac process, items of correspondence, maps, photographs and logbook entries. A work of fiction entitled The Wind of Voices, which is based on this mercurial period in Norge's life, concludes the collection.
MacGillivray is the Highland name of writer and artist Kirsten Norrie. She has published three other poetry books, The Last Wolf of Scotland (Pighog/Red Hen, 2013), The Nine of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless (Bloodaxe Books, 2016) and The Gaelic Garden of the Dead (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).
Reviews of The Gaelic Garden of the Dead:
'MacGillivray’s collection is the equivalent of an ambitious concept album (it’s a trilogy of three complementary but different narratives / atmospheres), and the musical comparison isn’t out of place here too, because the poetry itself sings, and sings memorably. From sonnets pieced together by the scraps of poems regurgitated by an executed Mary Queen of Scots to a sequence of poems that profoundly engages (in English) with Gaelic poetry and its mythology of trees and its elegiac and panegyric modes. This is the sort of ‘big’ poetry that demands the reader to surrender to the unique aesthetic of the poet. It’s poetry to be immersed in, not sampled and dipped in and out of.' – Richie McCaffery, The Bottle Imp (Best Scottish Books of 2019)
'MacGillivray’s poems come at us with one language wearing the pelt of another, and in the affray that follows it is hard to tell whether dead or living mouth carries the fiercer bite. Blood-boltered, thrawn and unco, her work is a Samhain of unexorcised historical memory, ventriloquised with the ‘cognition of bone’. Here the blasted landscapes of the pre-forgotten present give way to the richer patternings of the tree alphabet, all under the sovereignty of our highland Orpheus, the executed Mary Queen of Scots. Not since Sorley MacLean hymned the woods of Raasay have the ghosts of the Gaelic past bestrode the present more imperiously.' – David Wheatley
‘"Violent and formal" – the phrase is John Berryman’s – in a language both lupercal and arboreal, MacGillivray’s The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is magnificent. It is neither violent or formal for its own sake, but rebels against complacent, lyrical histories in voices compressed to a haunting and haunted diamond precision. What vivid strangeness, for instance, to hear again the unsung recusant poet, Mary Queen of Scots, in our secular millennium? The chromatic lines balance splendidly on the razor-edge between imaginary and real time, making her a high modernist in the tradition of her great voice-walkers and forebears Burns, Scott, and MacDiarmid. You are holding in your hands a spell of sibylline leaves.’ – Ishion Hutchinson
MacGillivray: The Gaelic Garden of the Dead
This film was shown in Imram’s online Irish Language Literature Festival 2020 and features MacGillivray reading from The Gaelic Garden of the Dead and singing Scottish Gaelic songs to musical backdrops composed and performed by Séan Mac Erlaine, with visuals by artist Margaret Lonergan. Produced by Liam Carson. Film editing by Liam Grant. Premièred on 11 December 2020. Posted by permission of Imram (www.imram.ie) with thanks to Liam Carson.
MacGillivray reads from The Nine of Diamonds
MacGillivray reads extracts The Nine of Diamonds in this MacGillivray/Anonymous Bosch video.
MacGillivray’s trailer film for The Nine of Diamonds
This short trailer video evokes the mood and background of The Nine of Diamonds (MacGillivray/Anonymous Bosch production).
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