A Smashing Undertaking

Lewis MacKinnon/Lodaidh MacFhionghain

Giant and Other Gaelic Poems/Famhair agus Dàin Ghàidhlig eile.  Cape Breton University Press

Reviewed by Lindsay Milligan [Winter 2009]

As is noted in its introduction, MacKinnon’s/MacFhionghain’s publication marks a tremendous accomplishment for Gaelic in Canada.  A vibrant part of Nova Scotian culture.  Gaelic has been elided from contemporary publishing in Canada and as such this collection of poetry, entitled Giant/Famhair, is remarkable as a symbol of Canada’s renewed interest in Gaelic.

It would, however, be a mistake to reduce this collection to its symbolic importance for its place in and contribution to Canadian literature.  The poems that compile this collection are presented in Gaelic with English translation on the facing pages.  Many of the poems can be read as parables for the changing use of Gaelic in Nova Scotia.  Indeed, like the giant of its title, language itself seems to tower over this collection, influencing the way in which each poem is read and encouraging a multiplicity of meanings.  The poems are set out in five sections with certain preoccupations (heroes and social class) and images (wood and sweat) creating a structural quality.  But even where it is not in the foreground, Gaelic and the challenges MacKinnon must face as a Gaelic author (not to mention CEO of for the Office of Gaelic Affairs in Nova Scotia) are never far from the surface (as in “Aftermath/An Iarbhail”).

Often breaking with newer orthographic conventions to help capture the flavour of Nova Scotian Gaelic, many of these poems are musical and sonorous in the Gaelic, and retain much of their integrity in English translation.  What cannot be captured in these translations, however, are the playful ways in which MacKinnon engages with Gaelic, exploiting its rhythms, sounds, and even grammatical constructions.  These are skillfully shaped to create poems with structural coherence (as in the “The Churning/Am Maistreachadh”).  By necessity, many of the English translations diverge from the Gaelic original in terms of line and end stops, and sometimes forego narrative clarity in favour of retaining the integrity of mood.

Over this is an impressive first collection by MacKinnon, who is already well known as a Gaelic singer and songwriter.  Whether in English or Gaelic, Giant is a delight, but perhaps it is best read as it is presented: in dual languages.  It will be interesting to see how MacKinnon’s poetry matures and whether the issue of language itself, which is so resonant in this first collection, remains as salient an interest in future work.