In this review, Jon Petre explores the poetics of lost language, pilgrimage and magnetic soundscape in Rowan Evans’ The Last Verses of Beccán (Guillemot Press 2019), where fragments of Gaelic meet ‘the glinting eschaton’.
> Rowan Evans’ The Last Verses of Beccán, on the outside, looks to me a lot like the guidebooks to Pompeii and Paestum that the Italian Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione published in the 1970s. There is no literal or figurative link between these books. Yet, like any decent Italian guidebook from the 1970s, The Last Verses of Beccán attempts to illustrate a cultural moment that has vanished or nearly vanished: open these pages and we shall journey into a landscape shaped by memory.
> Rùm is one of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. Most of Rùm’s inhabitants were cleared in the 1860s, and nowadays the island is a fief of the Scottish Natural Heritage. Back in the 6th century Rùm was unimaginably more remote and it was the hermitage of Beccán, a much-mythologised Saint who voyaged there in a wicker boat for a life of prayerful solitude. Beccán was also a poet, and what survives of his poetry is a testament to the resilience of the Gaelic language and the toughness of Hebrides people. Taking Beccán’s pilgrimage as a cue, Rowan Evans sends the reader on their own journey to Rùm, setting us adrift in the coracle beside Beccán to cross a sea of language and history.
> The Last Verses exists in two forms. It is both a guidebook-grey physical text, available from Guillemot Press, and a nine-minute ten-second performance that you can listen to here. I read The Last Verses before I listened to Rowan performing the text, so the first striking thing about the poem were the fragments of Gaelic scattered across the page. A language I can’t understand, the bits of pieces of Gaelic suggest the eggshell-shape of the Hebrides themselves:
Are these syllables, suffixes, full words, or something else? They are survivors, and when spoken they take on the shape of a chanted litany. BS Johnson used a similar layout in House Mother Normal (1973) to imitate memory loss (though the language there was Welsh, not Gaelic). Here memory loss is cultural, a victim of English’s tendency to colonise and then erase languages the world over. Yet communicating online has given us entirely new ways to express ourselves, in how we type and send memes and use emojis and voice recordings. The Last Verses is similarly double-sided, at once memorialising the lost language of Beccán’s time and bringing it to life in a living, breathing performance that can be shared over Messenger.
> Evans is good at evoking the fundamental strangeness of Rùm’s landscape for a modern reader. Here, ‘in violent excess of Christendom’, where auk bones and sheer cliffs are home to little more than ‘black cormorants’ and ‘diacritic’ wheatears, you start to feel that maybe it’s Beccán with his extreme medieval philosophy who stands the best chance of understanding the island’s strange rhythms. I think the word for this is unseelie – meaning unhappy or misfortunate in Scots, but as the root of the modern word “unseemly” it’s like a more magical form of uncanniness. The Last Verses has a very real sense of moving into a world where the rules of narrative and perspective are not governed by conventional logic.
> Like Beccán, Evans is in dialogue with the non-human landscape, seeking in verse and sound recording to unravel something fundamental but elusive about places which are not our own. The Last Verses is
in the ear of the mountains
> Rùm whispers back through Evans’ recording, where the delicate sound of waves washing on sand and the occasional gull’s cry often drown out the speaker’s words. The landscape can speak for itself, it seems, if we suss out the right way of listening to it. The character Beccán can be difficult to follow, but because The Last Verses is a text so interested in listening to the landscape and figuring out how to articulate the non-human this doesn’t feel like a bad thing. A common problem in eco-poetics is that reflective poetry often invites interiority, which can leave a reader deaf to the very real problems of the exterior climate. Poetry is, of course, a verbal medium, and Evans’ soundscape puts the environment front and centre. The poem asks us to focus on Rùm as a magnetic place that draws poets in, rather than the poets that seek it out.
> Evans has great fun playing with the tropes of Northern and Medieval poetry, using kennings like ‘whale shrine’ (the sea) and ‘waste’s wall of sound’ (an empty cave, I think) and cutting between these and original imagery from Beccán’s poetry ‘cechaing tríchait’ (long-haired sea). As an ignorant monoglot I appreciate poetry that teaches me more about the breadth of expression in other languages, and so I was grateful for Evan’s Gaelic glossary at the end of the text.
> The Last Verses dwells on cross-cultural exchange, mixing together language from the different peoples who have colonised Rùm (and Britain): there’s Gaelic, English, Scots, Latin. Caesura and indention mark out different languages or speakers in the text and Roman phrases are in bold. But in performance, without typographical markers, the borders dissolve. Gone are speakers from different times and cultures; Latin is no longer edified in bold; the etchings from Bagh Na h-Uamha are revived as living language. The barriers between people are shown to have always been permeable.
> With the mashup of Gaelic, Latin, and English that made up early Britain, Evans draws heavily on the legacy of David Jones – there’s strong overtones of Jones’ The Anathemata, although The Last Verses is much more fun. We’d do well to remember that our culture and our history has always been about cross-cultural communication, and that listening to the landscape is the only way that we’ll ever understand the Anthropocene era as the ‘lodestone / of the glinting eschaton’.
> The Last Verses of Beccán is open; you can engage with this poetry however you prefer, by listening or reading, and each encounter reveals news overtones and perspectives on Rùm. Human beings have been sensitive to the natural world for centuries before plastic bags and atom bombs, and it is imbas – the Gaelic word for “poetic knowledge” – like this that can help us reconsider how we relate to the environment. This a poem that rewards re-visiting. I want to go to Rùm now, see the cormorants and Bag Na h-Uamha myself. Even the best guidebook can only gesture at the landscape and show you were to start if you want to look and listen for yourself.
You can buy a copy of The Last Verses of Beccán here.
Text: Jon Petre
Picture of Rùm: CC Ian Mitchell (c/o Wikipedia)