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Stewart Conn, Ghosts at Cockcrow, Bloodaxe Books

Stewart Conn is always a welcoming, companionable poet, his tone relaxed, thoughtful, the informed but still curious voice of a favourite teacher. His work is attuned to the fading of whole ways of life, especially in his native Ayrshire and in his beloved France.

Now a poet in his late sixties, mortality is an admitted closer presence: in this bittersweet collection there are many ghosts. Of these, the most striking, in “Ministrations”, are those of hospital care, the last “apparitions / who will rise ahead of us // bearing pills and beadpans, / holding our hands / in unfamiliar rooms”. When the focus is widened, as in the title sequence where the France of earlier collections is revisited, society itself seems to be on the brink of disappearance: he experiences a country where even the cockcrow, emblematic of France itself, is a phantom. Rural upheaval appears to have made it “irretrievable as our fugitive desires…”

Not all ghosts are sad ones, however. In a particularly charming sequence, “Roull of Corstophin”, Conn imagines a benevolent one. This is the Roull mentioned as one of the great and much-missed bards in William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makaris”, and whose poetry is entirely lost today. As Conn’s prologue puts it – “No way of telling if he was a plague victim / or survived to old age; extolled his / mistress in royal-rhyme stanzas or caught / nature in cantering couplets.” Instead Conn imagines “the capital’s earliest recorded poet” observing Dunbar flyting with his arch-rival Kennedy; sending kindly messages to his cousin and name-sake; admiring the music of the Royal Court; and, in a collection that observes married love with wryness and affection, offering a love poem for “what you are - / not just for what you were.”

In other poems Conn offers thought-provoking reflections on Kosovo, on paintings and on journeys, and a striking translation of Euripedes’s opening to Hecuba, closing that piece with “Mother, / how can you sleep? Think what lies ahead. / You will have no rest until you, too, are dead.” That tone of danger behind and ahead echoes back throughout this book, a collection which manages to be both touching and sombre.

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