Jen Hadfield on

Alistair Findlay's
Dancing With Big Eunice
Luath Press, 2010, £7.99

The Bald Truth, Boldly

When I encountered Alistair Findlay's Dancing With Big Eunice whilst selecting the Scottish Poetry Library's Best Scottish poems last year, I was highly sceptical that I would get on with a collection of poetry 'on social work and social workers'. Lines from Tom Leonard's poem 'situations theoretical and contemporary' came to mind: 'The passengers are excited./ Who will win the word processor? [...]/ Let the tour of the slums begin!' Writing about the marginalised, disadvantaged or excluded can be morally boggy ground.

Perhaps with this in mind, Findlay opens his book with an unusually long Introduction, defending his motivation to write it, which seems to have involved less decision than vocation. He was shocked by the 'white-knuckled rage' that erupted when he began to write the book after his retirement from thirty-five years of social work. Poems usually become milder and more moderated as the poet edits and tests them over time, but Findlay's anger at the evolution of the social work system has hardly lost momentum in the writing. This is sometimes a great strength and sometimes a weakness. A poem is a live tug-of-war between instinct, impulse and formal constraint (or between first getting down what's on the tip of your tongue, and then making it as clear and powerful as you can on the page) and works when those contrary forces are in balance. Findlay's rhythmic instincts only let him down when the formal scaffolding of the poem or its content aren't strong enough to contain the torrent of language, as is the case in 'Snapshot'.

At his best, Findlay harnesses his passion, and tempers it with structuring forms. These poems work, thrumming like small engines. 'Mrs McRobie', the poem I chose for the Scottish Poetry Library, is an impressive feat of containment and potent understatement. It's a quick-fire thing, crammed with voices; the spiky but regular shape formed by each line overspilling into the next, whilst internal rhymes and strong speech-rhythms hold the whole thing together: '''Whit kin ye dae, Mr Findlay?' [...] 'So they took Davie away, and she gret every single day/until they took him back.'

In 'An Early Social Work Training Film, Shot in 1973, starring Robert Mitchum', Findlay riffs on Edwin Morgan's 'Glasgow Sonnets', borrowing the first line from each of Morgan's sonnets to begin his own. The compact nature of the sonnet form, and necessity of fulfilling its expectations of rhythm and rhyme have a really interesting effect here: hustling the reader on, making clear how shallow and reductive is the relationship between Mitchum, fictional 'social worker extraordinaire', and his faceless client, an alcoholic with an ax.

And then down crumbling stairs Bob Mitchum goes,
the wife and weans following until Angus,
the director, calls 'Cut! Bob! Fabulous!
We caught their ghastly faces half-exposed.

For me, child of the era of political correctness, Findlay's inability to be mealy-mouthed is both admirable and shocking. I find it hard to accept his likening of social work managers to 'Nazi war-criminals' ('The Senior Social Worker'); his outrage is most effective when his language is plainer and cooler and his tone more satirical. In 'No Problemo', Findlay gets the balance right, and the effect is heart-breaking. He describes crouching with his arm around the shoulders of an 'eight year old/spit-ball' who has just been told he's not going to be allowed to go home 'while he questions/my parentage, my manhood/my professional credibility. '

If Findlay can get away with calling a child a 'spit-ball' it's because whilst this collection is unsentimental, his integrity and compassion warm it from within. These are barely fictionalised, human encounters. As he put it himself in an email to me: 'direct, strong (often 'confrontational') language/ emotions is the very stuff of social work practice [..]you would not earn the respect of the people we deal with unless you told the bald truth, boldly!'

Throughout this collection, Findlay refuses to let clients or colleagues be stereotyped: 'you can tell nothing from the outside [...] not my job to weep [...] (or) criticise' ('Outside'). And he is scathing about any hint of excessive zeal on the part of the social worker, or any portrayal of the 'client' as Other: 'the alligators/ staring at us, strange creatures, strange vocabularies [...] on we dragged them, heading for Jerusalem!' ('Social Workers on Tractors'.)

Whilst I was choosing my shortlist for Best Scottish poems, I realised I would have to find a way to justify my selection, to find a way to articulate what I think makes a poem work. Amongst the many poetry collections I read last year, Dancing With Big Eunice was the only one I read through in a single sitting and started to reread as soon as I'd finished it. If we need poets, we need those whose egos are set aside to write, who explore subjects we didn't expect to make good subject matter for poetry. We need poets who are compelled to write. They're rarer than you might think.

Jen Hadfield © 2011/12
This review previously appeared in The Shetland Times and the British Association of Social Workers
BASW News (2011)