Remember the puzzle of May 2011?
I had two blog entries last May about attempts to track down the mysterious Jean Mackie, author of the privately printed A Little Piece of Earth.
In Another Lost Poet, there are three poems by Jean and the story of how Alan Hill first sent me a copy of the original publication. The following week there was More about the Mysterious Jean Mackie, in which contact was made with Jean’s son Charlie.
Since then, much has happened, and I feel I know a little bit about the background to these poems. I’ve read the classic memoir by Jean’s husband, John R. Allan, Farmer’s Boy (I cannot imagine how I had missed reading this all my life). And I savoured John R. Allan’s North-East Lowlands of Scotland, which Charlie Allan reckons is his father’s masterpiece. I loved the chapter about the ballads, which connected beautifully with my own interest in these ancient narratives. And more recently I had a splendid time reading Them That Live The Longest, by Charlie himself, which describes Jean’s son’s own childhood and fills in even more of the background.
While all this was going on, I was type-setting most of Jean’s poems in a pamphlet (rather longer than the usual ones), and Charlie was writing a biographical introduction. He also sent me copies of poems by Jean’s granddaughter, herself mentioned in one of the Jean’s poems. Alan Dixon was generating woodcuts for the cover and Charlie was going through his mother’s papers to check whether there were more poems buried in her past (she died in 1991).
There were no more poems. The set that appeared under the title A Little Piece of Earth were a late flowering. As a teacher, and lecturer in drama, and journalist, she rejoiced in the printed word and loved poetry all her life, but she hadn’t always written her own. These poems seem to have been a sudden outburst, a response to the alarming process of suddenly finding herself . . . old.
When I was going through the endless process of checking the pages, setting the poems, moving this and that a hair space or so, I kept reading the poems. As I did so, the pages kept blurring because of the tears in my eyes. These are not all perfect pieces of literature (a few are outstandingly good), but each contains beautifully turned fragments, or wry asides, or attributes that are wholly personal to their author. They are extremely moving. Three poems by Jean’s granddaughter, Susie Malcolm, are included as an insert.
One mystery remains. The quotation from which the collection took its title is in the original, and I have added it to the HappenStance publication. But I haven’t managed to source it. I don’t know whether it’s from a poem or perhaps a popular saying. It could even be something a member of the family was known to have said. But if anybody recognizes it, please let me know:
Some ants carry their young
And some go empty
And all to and fro a little piece of earth