The Lost Leader is Mick Imlah’s first collection in 20 years, following Birthmarks in 1988, and it is well worth the wait. It takes in everyone from Saint Columba to John Knox, with appearances from William Wallace, medieval alchemist Michael Scot, Bonnie Prince Charlie and rugby hero Gordon Brown. But this is no dewy-eyed tribute to national glories past.
Like Browning’s poem ‘The Lost Leader’, which lamented the political conservatism of the aging Wordsworth, Imlah’s verse is in no mood for po-faced reverence. Wallace, for example, is drawn and quartered in four lines:
This done, the moon went overhead;
The bell of Mary Magdalen
Struck one; and smartly off he sped
In several directions.
The fleshy heart of Robert the Bruce, taken on the Crusades as a holy relic, delivers this heroic couplet on the battlefield: ‘Get tae hell, ya Saracen git! / Mohammit gangs tae bed wi’ a dummy tit!’ One thing Imlah’s leaders have not lost is their sense of humour.
His verse takes issue with Edwin Muir, but his new selection of Muir’s poems extends the olive branch. His introduction includes not only the sweep of Muir’s career and critical reception, but provides a poet’s insight into the methods of a fellow artist. He describes ‘how his imagination will snag, stop, then press on again in some version of the same direction’. Muir was born in Deerness, Orkney, in 1887, but economic necessity forced his family to migrate to the industrial inferno of early 20th- century Glasgow. Muir’s work was shaped by his own ‘personal myth’, which involves a ‘Fall’ from his Edenic early boyhood. His verse exhibits the ‘timeless, placeless and impersonal formulae of a dream’, as in ‘The Myth’:
My childhood all a myth
Enacted is a distant isle;
Time with his hourglass and his scythe
Stood dreaming on the dial.