Bloodaxe Books, 2006, ISBN 1 85224 713 4, 208pp, £10.95
ANDREW GREIG has received critical praise of late for his fiction (In Another Light was Scottish Book of the Year 2004) and non-fiction (Preferred Lies, the only book about golf I am ever likely to read). New & Selected Poems is a timely reminder that he is first and foremost a poet, and one who has made a significant contribution to mountaineering literature from his first major collection, Men on Ice (1977), right up to the present day.
The physical landscape that Men on Ice inhabits is inspired by climbing literature and the then-current 1975 Everest South West Face expedition, but the poem-cycle is about mountains in the same way that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about boats. Greig's real interest in the mountain environment is as a neo-romantic setting in which emotions are heightened and the body and mind put to the test. Climbing is a metaphor for the human condition:
that life was made of ice
that life was perpendicular
that the years become vertiginous
The main characters (Grimpeur, who symbolises the intellect; Axe-man, the physical; and Poet, the emotions) may be seen as facets of Dougal Haston (the work's dedicatee), or the author, or Everyhuman. They are joined by a fourth, Captain Zen, who acts as a bodhisattva figure, pointing the way to some sort of enlightenment and transcendence:
on in pain and hope and joy I go
until I love but do not linger on
each footstep in the snow.
Men on Ice was noticed not just in the rarified world of literary criticism, but also in the Clachaig and other haunts of the climbing fraternity - the legend is that it became a cult read, though what the average crag-rat made of this post-modern mélange of Beat poetry and metaphysics is a moot point. It obviously worked on a literal as well as a figurative level for some, as Greig was later invited to join Mal Duff's Mustagh Tower expedition on the strength of it: a life/art confusion akin to expecting Herman Melville to be handy with a harpoon.
Out of the shambolic but ultimately successful Mustagh trip came Summit Fever (1985), still by a distance the best-written expedition book of recent times. The Himalayan experience also inspired a number of the poems in the 1990 collection The Order of the Day. These more accessible lyric poems reflect on Greig's experiences both as a climber in the mountain environment, and a westerner in the third world:
and we believe
the true scale of things
is the entire mountain
hung mirrored in our shades...
In this poem, Back Again, the arrogance of the climbing tourist is mocked with gentle irony, whereas Interlude on Mustagh Tower recognises the power of the elements to determine success and failure, life and death:
Men on ice, going nowhere and laughing
at everything we cannot see but know
is there - among the cloud, on the Col,
a hand of some sort is tightening our screws.
Greig returned to the "long poem" form with 1994's Western Swing, a dazzling 100-page Ginsberg-meets-MacDiarmid mock quest epic, in which a tartan penknife stands in for the Holy Grail. A sort-of sequel to Men on Ice, it is the better work for being rooted in the poet's own recent travel experiences. The original characters return under different names, their spiritual guide now being a Heretical Buddha, so called because, for all that a Buddhist sensibility suffuses this work, Greig's worldview is unable to accept that religion's fundamental teaching on the need to extinguish desire:
Desire...gets things done,
gets the book writ, the bairns born,
tugs us up the big hill...
Indeed Greig's imagery is often more Presbyterian than Buddhist. In what is a quintessential image for all Scottish over-forties, he describes a winter journey to Glen Coe:
This salted road's a black tawse
whacked down on Rannoch Moor.
The Quest takes in Tibet, Nepal and North Africa, but the search through the third world is always for Scotland, "my sweet, ailing country". In the Atlas Mountains, a gun-toting Berber tells the Scottish tourists:
Ours too is a small country,
our football team also loses.
One day we shall win, Inshallah.
In the vatic way of poetry, these lines were written four years before Morocco gubbed Scotland three-nil in the World Cup, relegating us to the third world, at least in footballing terms.
This Life, This Life concludes with selections from the lyrical verse of Into You (2001), the collection published after Greig's near-fatal brain illness, and a handful of new poems. One of the best of these is his apologia, This Pilgrimage, a brutally honest (and funny) survey of a life lived, in which he celebrates:
Days you spent in your country's hills
From Bla Bheinn to Conival
In sun and wind and sleet and snow:
Ice and judgement, joy and mortal terror...
It's no accident that these are the same metaphysical concerns that informed Men on Ice thirty years earlier; but experience has perhaps taught Greig that Mal Duff was right enough: that body, mind and emotions can be tested and transcended by the hills in both a figurative and a literal sense.
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