It all went quiet and a vision appeared
With a rose in her hair and a ring in her ear
And she says “Buenos Dias boys, this looks like the place”

Doors open. Lights sparkle, glasses clink, friends laugh, music plays, singers sing, dancers dance. Fear not, this Covid-safe celebration is all in the mind.  

Well, how else would Frida Kahlo arrive in the Tay Bridge Bar?

One day soonish I’m going to get on the train across the silvery Forth and Tay, to Dundee, swing a left at the V&A and head for the Tay Bridge Bar.  I’ve wanted to visit ever since I heard Michael Marra’s song and read about the picture of Frida Kahlo that hangs in the bar.  Sadly I didn’t make it during the few years that my young family lived in the city and we sat with our grandchildren in a café right across the street from the bar.  Twenty twenty one will be the year.

But let’s not wait. Songs and poems can cross many thresholds of time and place, confront demons outside and within, tap deep wells of sorrow and joy.  Chosen on a whim and with a little chance discovery thrown in for good measure, here is the Sceptical Scot poetry selection for Christmas and New Year, slightly updated for my own blog. I hope you enjoy it . 

Frida Kahlo’s visit to the Tay Bridge Bar

There’ll be no more lies, no more tears
No more listening through the fat man’s ears

Covid has closed the doors at least for now.  But, there’s death-defying joy in Michael Marra’s song, a lockdown escape to be played loud and long.  Here’s Frida Kahlo cutting an intoxicatingly exotic dash dancing to Perdido among the locals in the singer’s favourite bar.  

In real life, of course, mortality claimed Kahlo after a short but extraordinary life.  The Mexican painter, who was the third and fourth wife of the much older Diego Rivera (she married ‘the fat man’ twice), had died in 1954 the age of 47. But Marra brings her back to life sharpish. When she enters the pearly gates he has St Peter telling her:

Hitch a lift upon this falling star
Make your way down to the Tay Bridge Bar

A zestful humour fires the song [full lyrics here], apparently his favourite, but it begins and ends with a line throbbing with life. ‘We were all flooded with a scarlet light’.  Marra himself died of throat cancer at the age of 60 in 2012. But a print of his painting – a montage incorporating Kahlo into the local landscape – was gifted to the bar in 2013.

And his music lives on. Don’t miss The Bard is Well 2020 on Monday 28 December at 8pm. ‘All will be well’.

Threshold – Jackie Kay

Across the stars and the galaxy,
The night sky’s tiny keys, the hail clanjamfarie!

Very much alive, Scotland’s warm-hearted Makar, Jackie Kay, throws open the doors to embrace a world of differences in Threshold, a poem commissioned for the  state opening of the Scottish Parliament in July 2016.

Performed just weeks after the Brexit referendum, there is meaningful welcome ‘in any language you please to the world’s refugees’. There is also, for me, irony in the long litany of languages listed at the end of the poem – from Cantonese to Urdu. While once Scottish Parliament signage did indeed greet multicultural visitors in a multitude of tongues, last time I entered Holyrood there were only two: English and Gaelic. A bi-lingual parliament for a binary nation? 

Even so, the Makar persists, insists:  ‘One language is not enough, it takes more than one language to tell a story’ and she weaves through (if my counting is correct) 50 different ways of saying that, 52 including London and Glasgow vernaculars.  Celebrating ‘Scotland’s changing faces – look at me!’, she welcomes the ‘hail clanjamfarie’.

As did the remarkable Makar to Makar series this year during lockdown, when Jackie Kay digitally opened her living room each week to the wide world in conversation with a great clanjamfarie of poets, writers and singers. 

No ceremony. ‘Mak yersel at hame’, she says to Queen and MSPs at the end of Threshold, ‘C’mon ben the living room’. [Makar to Cracker screens on 17 December]

This is a Confessional Poem – Kathryn Maris

There are so many thank-you notes I never wrote
that sometimes I’m relieved by the deaths of would-be
recipients, so I can finally let go of the shame.

First my own confession. I discovered this deftly discomfiting poem by checking the Twitter feed of Bill Herbert, former Makar of Dundee, now Newcastle University professor of poetry and creative writing – who I remembered (speaking, as we were, of languages) has written  ‘Wir not a singul naishun and therr’s not a singul tongue’.

Screenshot of Bill Herbert's tweet, commending Kathryn Maris's splendid poem, This is a Confessional Poem

But then it becomes difficult. I have to tussle with the poem! Kathryn Maris’s work is challenging, unnerving and a handy reminder that poetry does not have to be ‘nice’ to touch a tender spot.  This confessional caught my eye because even, or especially, in lockdown I have felt conflicting emotions, moving relentlessly from sublime (compassion) to ridiculous (rage/ self pity). Likewise, Maris’s transgressions vary in scale, from ‘taking an overdose at a child’s 6th birthday party’ to wearing the ‘wrong clothes to a sacrament’ due to a ‘temporary failure of taste’.

And she’s a ‘terrible, terrible liar’.  A helpful analysis by editor/teacher Tom D’Evelyn  identifies this as the turning point in the poem. From here it morphs into the story of meeting the sweet girl at a poetry therapy class who tells her own tale (how she had ‘stabbed herself in the abdomen 7 times’) and tells it out of kindness ‘because guilt recognises guilt’.

Long Island born, London resident, Kathryn Maris wrote the poem (published in God Loves You anthology) in 2013. With a wryly wicked concluding twist it is made for 2020.

All will be well – Michael Marra

If you feel like dancing I’ll be by your side
With a big band, a fountain, an aerodrome and moonlight

Enough complexity. A ‘Covid-safe’ celebration at the end of a hellish year needs some cheer. So it’s back to Dundee where the Taybridge Bar is still currently closed but Michael Marra’s music is far from forgotten.  His daughter, musician, singer and choir director Alice Marra, announces that The Bard is Well and the sixth annual celebration of his music will go ahead ‘2020 style’ on YouTube on 28 December.

Teetering on the threshold, with some vaccine light winking seductively at the end of the tunnel, there can be few better songs to greet the coming year.

Marra’s songs, make fun, make protest, and make love. But this one is down to earth romance, the beguiling lyrics (‘If it’s songs of the rarest/I will pick those blooms) sung with such warmth, and gentle kindness it’s impossible not to believe All Will Be Well. While the music plays. 

I’ll shield and protect you
I’m here to defend you
If you feel like dancing I’ll be by your side

Featured image: Tay Bridge from Blackness Road Dundee by Tommy Perman (Surface Pressure).  

This poetry post was first published on Sceptical Scot where I am co-editor with David Gow.