Mary McGregor reviews Declarations of Love, poems of Jim Aitken, with drawings by Martin Gollan. Thos book is published by Culture Matters.
DECLARATIONS OF LOVE
Jim Aitken is truly a people’s poet. No allusions so obscure that you need volumes of classical texts to decipher. No pretensions of language so convoluted that you need a degree in linguistics to understand. No sneering sense of superiority that acts as a barrier to understanding. This collection of poetry is open and accessible, however it demands critical thought and most importantly, the capacity for love.
Jim’s ability to express what it means to be human and what it means to live under twenty first century capitalism is astounding. He makes us fulminate with anger at the inhumanity of a system so corrupt that it treats people as disposable commodities. At the same time however, he shows such tenderness that we believe that another way of being is possible.
His class analysis is excoriating and his determined struggle unwavering. At its core this is a collection about human relationships; intimately with friends and lovers, collectively in the class struggle and globally with geo-politics and nature
Jim says goodbye to a number of friends in this collection and seems to be acutely conscious of the autumn of our lives. Yet each life is remembered as well lived because they were loved. In Those Three Words, he captures the pain of grief; the price of love,
“They brought a life of partnership
comradeship, mutual values.
They journeyed through life together
until one of them had to leave”
The final act of love being to, “…honour him with tears”
In Twa Stars beautifully written in Scots, he links our existence and deaths to nature and the cosmos. It does not feel sentimental or mawkish but rather is unarguable and fitting,
“An they wur baith callin yer name
as the cauld grew caulder aw the time.
An they wur waitin fur ye in their glitter
tae join them shinin doon here.”
For Neil, Blossoms, A Lancashire Lad in Scotland and other poems in the collection are goodbyes; heartfelt and real. They never rail against the inevitability of death. There is a quiet acceptance of the laws of nature. He does however rail against premature death caused by injustice and greed.
A Candle for Stephen is about the death of a Big Issue Seller he knew. In it, Jim says goodbye to his friend and castigates the system which let him and so many others down,
“And I will miss you, most certainly miss you
as the candle begins to burn and flicker
and as the burning injustice
of homelessness continues to inflame me.”
This fire infuses and ignites in other poems in the collection too.
There is deep anger also burning in Drunkard and Homeless Man, Edinburgh. The destructive alienation of capitalism is personified in both. The Drunkard is, “like a smashed egg”. All the hope and potential lost. He is described without sentimentality as he has become dehumanised, “Like a dog sniffing scent”. Of course, Jim Aitken, going to his aid, judges not the man, but the brutality of a world that leads to a life of such despair,
“how much does it take
to have this system afflict you so?”
The effects of this system, “of an elite’s rapacious greed” is further developed in Homeless Man, Edinburgh. Here Jim contrasts the political rhetoric of our politicians with the man’s alienated reality. Imagining the reply if he asked the man whether he felt more optimistic since Britain left the EU, he writes,
“I feel sure he would have told me……..
to rather quietly go and fuck myself.”
The reply is a contemptuous rejection of those in power who fail to see the most marginalised in the UK today.
As an internationalist, Jim’s concerns are not limited by national borders. I was particularly moved by Voices of the Dispossessed and Diptych of Drones. Having recently returned from Palestine these poems spoke to me profoundly. “Resist to Exist” is defiantly painted across walls in the West Bank. These voices may be dispossessed of their land and their political and human rights but they retain their dignity and humanity through their continued resistance,
“This is how we live. This is how it is.
This is how we survive and resist
their inhumanity. “
The chilling horror in Diptych of Drones reveals the callous, clinical nature of drone attacks. In 1. Convenience Killing, we are reminded of Doctor Strangelove’s hysterical madness, oblivious of the consequences,
“They sit somewhere in Nevada,
yeehadists killing jihadists,
the new dialectic of rage
that fails to think of consequence.”
In 2. New Medal the consequences are explicit,
“But there are no medals for the funeral parties,
none for the burnt children – all are collateral damage.”
Jim’s politics are never hidden and neither is his determination to remain part of a global resistance against war and capitalism and environmental destruction.
In The C Word and Century of a Name, communism is a love that dare not speak its name. He does not downplay the horrors committed by “the sterile interpretation” of communism but suggests the need for political solutions that are truly communal,
“Now it needs not only to interpret today’s meltdown
but offer, with others, the solution implied by the name”
His nature poems embody the potential for growth and beauty and renewed life. They are inherently optimistic that another way is possible.
His republicanism is conveyed with humour in If Nicholas Witchel spoke Scots. He not only lays bare the dysfunctionality of the royal family but also exposes the myths perpetuated by the media of how benign and caring our royal ‘betters’ are.
He pulls no punches when he writes about global hypocrisy. Now Ukraine is in fact Jim Aitken’s declaration of love. A love that has given him strength and purpose throughout his life,
“I started marching during the Vietnam War”
Despite the decades of struggle that passion for peace and justice has not been diminished in him,
“I will march again for the end of war and for peace.
And for the humanity that binds us all, regardless
of our nation, our race or colour, our gender or faith,
for all people over all the earth to wage peace instead.”
Jim Aitken is a poet “for all people over all the earth”. This collection touches our hearts and, as always with Jim’s work, is a call to action.
The ability to express love in the face of the horrors we face is, in itself a revolutionary act and this is revolutionary poetry at its best.
Mary MacGregor speaks at Brooksbank 124 commemoration in Lochee, Dundee, 18.12.21