Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

Or, as Kathleen Jamie beautifully puts it in her introduction to the book:

Like the deer they so admire, the two poets’ lines leap back and forth across the page, across times, across languages, across species and poetic forms.

It’s a very creative way to approach ‘translation’. And this book is so much more than just MacKenzie translating or ‘modernizing’ MacIntyre’s 18th century poem. It IS a conversation. In a way, it also dramatizes, on the page, what happens in our minds when we read an old poem: we bring our own modern knowledge and modern worldview into it. Often, that’s exactly what MacKenzie’s poem (which is on the righthand side of the pages) does too: it adds in new knowledge or comments on what MacIntyre wrote. For instance, in Section 2: Movement, we have MacIntyre’s poem calling the mountain a ‘republic of deer’ and then MacKenzie’s words bringing (somewhat tragic) historical to context to that, directly afterwards, quoting a British zoologist who states that ‘As a result of clearance and enclosure, Scottish red deer (historically used to woodlands of birch (…)) have been progressively confined to open moorland.’

Sometimes the new poem comments a bit on MacIntyre himself who MacKenzie calls (delightfully) a man who was ‘swept off his feet by the world.’ Sometimes MacKenzie’s new poem does a bit of fleshing out (and that’s sort of a pun here!) by expanding on the mating rituals of the red deer with sensual and precise imagery. Where MacIntyre writes that the deer are a ‘carnival of desire’ in the original poem, MacKenzie elaborates further on their ritual of the ‘rut’ which I’d never read about but sounds like a lively deer orgy which takes place every year. You can tell that MacKenzie’s knowledge of the deer, like MacIntyre’s, is vast. He’s in awe of them but it’s not sentimental. He writes about the stag who ‘rakes the ground/one antler at a time’ in anticipation of the rut and ‘pisses in the wallow pool; he fills his lungs/with its buttery citric musk’.

It’s a book that is concerned with the environment and not just the specific environment of the Scottish mountain but also, I think, how we each relate to our environment(s) globally. And surely I don’t need to tell you that this is something that we should all be thinking about at the moment! Now more than ever.

Overall, the book that this most reminded me of that I’ve blogged about for Madiera Mondays was actually Mistress by my friend Chet’la Sebree. Although that subject matter was very different (that one focuses on race and black female sexuality in early America versus now), it has a similar ‘conversational’ quality to it, and similarly interweaves past and present in creative ways.

A sample page from the book – so you can see the two poems side by side. And where they sometimes dissolve into each other – like at the bottom of the right hand page!

I really enjoyed this book and if you’re curious to learn more, you can always watch Garry MacKenzie reading aloud from it at the Stay-at-Home festival which I worked for earlier this spring. (That was how I found out about the book!). But if it sounds like your cup of tea then I’d recommend just grabbing a copy of it, because seeing the layout of the words on the page, all the words scampering to and fro, really adds another level to it. I’d recommend it for lovers of Scotland, of Scottish history, of poetry (especially poetry about the natural world), and people who simply want, like MacIntyre, to be swept off their feet by the world.

Thanks to The Irish Pages Press, and particularly to their editor Chris Agee, for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

You can order a copy of Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain here.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

PS Today’s Featured Image is called ‘In the Highlands’ by William Leighton Leitch, accessed via Wikimedia

2 thoughts on “Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

  1. Content Catnip says:

    This book sounds very special indeed thanks so much for sharing this Carly. I also do the sticky note thing until there is no more space left hehe, there is a fear of forgetting something important that goes along with it 🤗💚

    Liked by 1 person

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