Unconnected thoughts near Finlay

Seeing again the colophon of Gael Turnbull and Michael Shayer’s Migrant Press, the publishers of Finlay’s The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960):



* mimeographed and distributed

— it’s the least self-important self-description imaginable, telling us what they do rather than what they are.  Maybe it didn’t quite feel like publishing.  So many of these presses functioned as part of an international exchange network — magazines like Migrant which didn’t really do subscriptions, you just sent a postcard and were added to the list, though donations were welcome and, if you were a writer, you probably sent your own books and magazines in return.  It was still just about possible to run a little magazine of this kind entirely by snail mail in the 1990s, when Robin Purves and I edited Object Permanence.  I still have a notebook full of postage calculations, what I could afford to post out this week and what would have to wait.


Postage costs, especially international postage, have increased so much that it would be very hard to make a magazine the same way now, without funding.  People find ways to do it, of course: publications can be made very small and light, bigger publications can now be printed on demand in the buyer’s own country, and increasingly, whole print runs cross the Atlantic in poets’ luggage for local distribution.  More and more work finds its way on the internet, but so much of that work eventually disappears, in a way that print publications rarely do.  I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone still had copies of The Commuter Skim, an email-only journal edited by Keston Sutherland in the late 1990s.  I used to have them on my hard drive, and maybe Keston still does, but the only place they show up on the web is as printed copies in the papers of John M. Bennett at Ohio State University.  Maybe he printed them off to skim on the commute.  Hard copy really is truth.


I love the small evidences of friendship and common interest that are everywhere in the library at Stonypath.  I’ve sent a couple of friends photographs of their dedications in books given to Finlay, one of them made nearly fifty years ago.  Every time, I wonder if it’s the right thing to do: I think I’d crawl into bed and cry if someone did that to me.  My favourite thing in the library so far is this book by Diter Rot, sent to Finlay in the hope that he would swap it for issues of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse:


Note the POSH for POTH, the S a fortuitous mirror-image of Finlay’s beloved proof-reading symbol for transposing letters:


It’s a radically strange book, with minimal text, lettering and linear graphics often working together through the thickness of the page (so you can only see the complete image by holding a page up to the light).  I’m now wondering if Rot(h)’s 1968 artwork P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the artist as a Vogelfutterbüste [birdseed bust]) might be a subtle tribute to Finlay.


It’s always interesting to see how someone interacts with the books they have owned.  I used to sign the flyleaf of every book I bought, but stopped doing that circa 1993, when I first got into the small press books and pamphlets which are now crowding me out of the flat.  I signed a few of those, then started to feel I was defacing something I shouldn’t, and I never did it again.  I rarely used to make notes in the margins of my books, but when I was working on my Mallarmé translations, that turned out to be the easiest way to keep track of my reading.  I only seem to do this when my reading comes to feel like research — and now I find I’m marking passages in pencil in the margins of my books by and about Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Edwin Morgan was a lifelong keeper of scrapbooks, and many of the books in the Edwin Morgan Library in the Mitchell have something of the scrapbook about them.  He would often swell their pages with newspaper cuttings relating to their content, and would sometimes add small, mordant comments or question marks in the margins, or correct the typos by hand.  The flyleaf of his copy of Hugh MacDiarmid’s pamphlet The Ugly Birds Without Wings has a sheet pasted on.  It’s cut from an auction catalogue, illustrating part of MacDiarmid’s manuscript of the pamphlet.  Morgan doesn’t comment, but the page shows that MacDiarmid originally included an aside about his having been best man at Finlay’s first wedding, and about Finlay having been a guest in his house.  That personal touch might have undercut the rhetoric, and it was crossed out, but Morgan puts it back in place, and so do I.


And to tantalise: the only copy I’ve ever seen of W.S. Graham’s first book, Cage Without Grievance, in the library at Stonypath, with the pencil draft of a poem, heavily crossed-out in ink, on the front paste-down:



(Fuzzy photo, sorry).  I’m usually good at reading erased text, but all I can get here is

I am what tears tears down and _____

yet this and all sorrow is

where the ocean blinks through your ___


No less than this

I am what bells

Toll and tell and hold against my

I am what tears tear down

And yet my ______ begins

To speak through this and all

Whoever almost-wrote that (probably the young Finlay, channelling the young Graham), really, really didn’t want to see it again, or for me to see it, or you, and I know I should respect that, and leave it covered, but it’s hard not to return to this one book every time, to take another blurred photo under the library’s multiple dim lights and their inescapable shadows, to make one more descent under ink, the only kind of archaeological dig I will ever take part in.