Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’s debut collection of poetry (Deò) is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least that this distinctively contemporary work is written in the ancient language of Scottish Gaelic (usefully, with English translations). Gaelic is a deeply poetic language, lending itself to dramatic emotional expressions, but it is also limited and – indeed – limiting. Mac an Tuairneir’s achievement is not simply in providing a first compilation of Gaelic gay poetry, but in successfully expressing homosexual concepts in a language that simply lacks the vocabulary to easily convey themes surrounding same-sex love. As he correctly asserts, “homosexuality resides outside the paradigm for ‘Gaelic man’…no socio-linguistic research has yet been completed on how gay people…articulate their sexuality in Gaelic.”
It seems something of a personal mission of Mac an Tuairneir’s to use his poetic talents in experimental and pioneering ways. He succeeds in both, but also in remaining true to the conventions of Gaelic culture while simultaneously challenging its limitations and, at times, its sterility. For while Mac an Tuairneir rails, justifiably, against the cold and inhospitable nature of a cultural past that has created so much human pain via discriminatory practice, there can be no escaping his love for the language and his desire to breathe into it new life.
Indeed, explaining why he writes is important to the poet. In Sluagh-ghairm (Battle-cry) he turns on writers who are silent, whose “words of God [are fitted] to the whim of some synod of the past”, and boldly declares that “Cha dhaibhshan a tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh” – it’s not for them I’m writing. Instead, he writes for the “timbering, gentle lad, stuck between one closet with the clothing and another closet with the crap.” His approach is unapologetic and overtly anti-authoritarian: “Chan iarr mi maitheas le geilt, chan iarr mi moladh urrach-mora” (I won’t plead forgiveness with guilt, I won’t court the establishment’s praise) encapsulates his determination to be his own man, unrepentantly aware of his identity while acknowledging the role the “establishment” has played in reducing others’ humanity. First and foremost, Mac an Tuairneir writes to liberate.
Mac an Tuairneir has been on a journey, and he takes us with him. In some respects this is typical of Gaelic storytelling traditions: there is little novel in Gaelic poetic retellings of physical and emotional journeys. Where Mac an Tuairneir differs is in his deliberate avoidance of the sentimental and in his extraordinary openness. This certainly enhances his work and allows a deeper understanding of his mind, culture and experience, but it is surprising for a first collection. Mac an Tuairneir’s journey winds through many dark places – there are regrets, but never bitterness – and also to heights of apparently unparalleled ecstasy. Inevitably, he touches on themes of identity, friendship, freedom, loss and love. The journey is often painful and difficult, and occasionally embarrassingly intimate.
The sexual themes are powerful, but are indelibly linked to the journey which the poet is taking. The most overtly homosexual poem, Rùisgte (Unsheathed), speaks of the gritty realism of the Edinburgh gay scene and the poet’s apparent loneliness, while Deireadh (Finality) deals delicately with the loss of a loved one. For Mac an Tuairneir love is often exhilarating, sometimes disappointing, at times unrequited and commonly a source of anguish. But it is inseparable from who he is as a person, and as a poet.
It is not simply through his relationships that Mac an Tuairneir expresses his homosexuality. For example, he seethes against the institutional injustices he sees as emanating from the church: in Baisteadh (Baptism) he refers to “Air aghaidh tuath na h-eaglaise Cuthbert, luasgaichidh
Doras an diabhail, fhosgailte, is Eilthirichidh fuath mar smùid.”(At the north face of St Cuthbert’s, swings open the Devil’s door and hatred seeps out like steam.) He also explores the complex co-relation between identity and relationships with places, his uneasy and bittersweet associations with Aberdeen and Glasgow (explored in Dorchadas and Eilthireachd bho Ghlaschu) standing in contrast to his experiences on Skye (Nam aonar am measg do chairdean – Alone amongst your friends).
While Mac an Tuairneir’s poetry has an obviously modern flavour, and also draws from Classical culture (Helios), it is undeniably Gaelic in character. While the translations succeed in retaining the principal messages, an appreciation of the original Gaelic is advantageous – even the title, Deò, has six separate meanings (breath, air, vital spark, ray of light, vision, place where a stream falls into the sea). This is significant, and Deò represents a major move forward for a language – and culture – that has had an awkward relationship with sexuality and gender in its recent history.
However, non-Gaelic speakers can also appreciate the vibrancy and power of Mac an Tuairneir’s courageously personal poetry. In Am Bàrd (The Poet), he writes of his mentor, Martin MacIntyre: “Thus e mo làmh na làimh-san…B’e sin an gealladh gum bithinn air mo stiùreadh tro choille m’fhaclan gu abhainn mo bhrìgh.” (He took my hand in his…this was the promise, that I would be led through the wood of my words to the river of my meaning.) In so many senses the meaning is of greater value than the words through which they are communicated, and the meaning of this talented, radical and confident gay poet merits as wide an audience as possible.
Deò by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir is published by Grace Note Publications. It is also available through Amazon.