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This review is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

ORKNEY MATTERS George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray) £30.95

Voyages was the title of Mackay Brown's previous collection (reviewed in PNR 37) and the continuities from that to this are clear, insistent. This is a more substantial and more wide-ranging book, but the same preoccupations and images, the same motifs and sequence-structures shape the collection, just as they do The Masked Fisherman, the prose collection of stories and fables. Typically, the seasonal cycles of the Orkney islands and the villages, the calendars of their farming and fishing and their religious festivals, provide the organization for many of these poems, their movement and - as often as not - their cadences too. The framework of Mackay Brown's writing - its Orkney landscapes and history - as well as the favoured forms and textures of his poems, have been settled now for several years. The principal attraction in this volume is in the enriching, the re-working of that accumulative project.

The book pays its dues, and its due homages. Edwin Muir was the Warden of Newbattle Abbey when Mackay Brown went there as a student in 1951, and it was Muir who sent to the Hogarth Press the volume published as Loaves and Fishes (1959). A set of four poems for Edwin Muir in this new collection picks up something of the relentless symbolism and allegorizing in Muir, with even a scene of horses in a rather apocalyptic landscape, and one poem takes over a passage from Muir's An Autobiography. Yet - the homage paid - it's grist ...


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