The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is three Books of the Dead bound as one. This trilogy comprises an alphabet of trees spoken as witness to a Highland hanging, ten pattern poetry dream diagrams and thirty-five death sonnets deconstructed to Mary Queen of Scots.
Saturated with the languages of arboreal myth, magic and folklore in Gaelic culture, the first book, The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is a forest quartet whose letters enunciate in the imagery of their own form and function, drawing on the traditional Scots-Irish Gaelic alphabet of trees. Among reflex-men and co-walkers are the corpse measuring woods of the aspen, the hanging tree of the pine and the poison death yew. As a meta-narrative for ecological preservation of trees and a comment on ancient language culture, the gaelic garden of the dead is a grove of observation: ‘Love’s eyes are colourless: a motive for moving through underworlds.’
A Crisis of Dream, the middle book, is a sequence of ten dream diagrams in an exploration of thematic maps, dream languages and the pattern poem. Excavating technical poetic terminology such as ‘the lyric’ as indicative of the lyre, ‘the couplet’ a troubadourian coupling of lovers and the knife fight rhythms of iambic pentameter, a crisis of dream evolved in counterpoint to Basil Bunting’s striking argument for the predominance of rhythm, instead asserting the glimpse and the witnessing of the stanza as a mysterious pause. Many of the dreams delineated in the second book informed the other parts of the trilogy itself.
In the End Is My Beginning: 35 Destroyed Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots is the third book, consisting of 35 Petrarchan sonnets for each of the steps Marie Stuart walked to execution. Thematically composed on the anniversary of her death at Fotheringhay, the sonnets were then chewed for the 15 minutes her lips were said to move after decapitation. Their delicate reconstruction in the final part of book three becomes a moving, sensical and non-sensical meditation on Mary’s demise: ‘Once, my heart had a skeleton.’
MacGillivray is the Highland name of writer and artist Kirsten Norrie. She has published two other poetry books, The Last Wolf of Scotland (Pighog/Red Hen, 2013) and The Nine of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless (Bloodaxe Books, 2016).
'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)
‘I am a big admirer of MacGillivray’s The Nine of Diamonds and feel that this new collection is equally, if not more, impressive. The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is three "Books of the Dead" bound as one. Includes 10 pattern poetry dream diagrams and 35 death sonnets deconstructed to Mary Queen of Scots.’ – Asif Khan, The Bookseller
‘MacGillivray’s is a signal voice and style in a poetry scene where many other voices simply prefer to harmonise and blend in. Her work is certainly difficult but like most modernist or even postmodern writers, the aesthetic goal and pleasure is to be found in the process of understanding and coming to terms with what is given to us by the poet and by the interests and connections this creates. Here, MacGillivray reaps a remarkable yield in The Gaelic Garden of the Dead.’ – Richie McCaffery, Poetry School
'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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