Jane Routh reviews Testimonies by Hamish Whyte (HappenStance Press, 2022)
We can rarely depend on a book’s cover blurb for an accurate invitation to its contents – but with this new book from Hamish Whyte, I can’t improve on the blurb for a succinct explainer:
“[…] the historic records of the Scottish criminal courts speak to a living, listening writer. He sifts original phrases in a careful sieve – things that people under pressure long ago pleaded, blurted, concocted, explained. He adds shape and form. […] What do we hear? Ourselves no less. Because even over the centuries, human beings do not – it quickly becomes clear – change so very much.”
Whyte has worked his way through four centuries of court records (though two thirds of these poems are based on nineteenth century material), collecting stories of the accused. His Testimonies offers us a crime-a-poem arranged (as well as titled) chronologically, so we have murders, thefts and debts, quarrels and ‘domestics’ repeating over time – underlining that sense of repeating human behaviour.
The book opens with a murder not all that efficiently executed
The book opens with a murder not all that efficiently executed: in ‘Dumfries 1623’, “Thomas Gowdie, merchant in Dumfries, / was accused of killing Herbert McKie […] by giving him a great and deadly strike / with his foot in his secret parts”. Gowdie denied it, claiming he’d never quarrelled with McKie, who “lay in his bed in great dolour / and pain and after twenty days he died / of the said hurts and wounds.” In ‘Langside, near Glasgow, 1687’ Margaret Purdon was luckier after two neighbours “gave her many sharp and bloody strokes on several / parts of her body, dang her to the ground, punching her / with feet and hands and other offensive weapons”. Margaret survived thanks to other neighbours and “the providence of God”. Another Margaret had had her skull smashed to pieces in ‘Fife, 1852’ after refusing credit in her shop to two brothers. ‘Girvan, Ayrshire, 1854’ describes Alexander Cunninghame as “a strong, resolute-looking scoundrel” who borrowed a shot gun to kill his wife, but it also gives us one of those little particulars that open up a moment for us:
At the trial he muttered to his counsel,
‘If they hang me, whit’ll they dae wi ma claes?’clothes
Women and children have especially hard times, like Jean Montgomery in ‘Paisley 1770’ who stole linen “from a bleaching field” and
[…] was led, stripped to the waist,
through the streets by the public executioner
who flogged her at intervals
before taking her to jail.
Seventy years later, “A climbing boy / scarcely eight years old” was sent up and down 38 chimneys without any rest, clearing rubbish from the chimneys with a chisel, by a master who claimed “an affection / for the boy”, until
wet and excoriated,
he died in the thirty-eighth
(from ‘Glasgow, 1840’)
This poem’s short lines build a long, thin chimney-shape down the page, an effective contrast among the many poems which are short single-stanza blocks of text. ‘Edinburgh, 1828’ uses airy, longer-lined couplets to guide us slowly around a crime scene, taking in all the details like “old shoes and implements for shoemaking” and “a pot // full of boiled potatoes” until
At the foot of the bed, between it and the wall,
was a heap of straw under which
… well you’ll be able to guess what, if I tell you a note at the end of the book adds that this description is extracted from Burke’s and Hare’s trial for selling murdered bodies for dissection.
The blurb directs our attention to the content of these poems, and in his too-brief foreword, Whyte does the same: “These are lost stories and voices found again and speaking to us down the ages.” My own feeling is that historical materials are never as straightforward as that, but are mediated by their original recording and also by each subsequent re-telling. And we could see Whyte’s poems as another step in that mediation – condensed, focussing on the individual, reducing antique language. So I would have liked to hear much more about the process of making the book (though of course that’s the book I’m interested in, not one that Whyte would want to write).
I don’t hear their voices (so often voices of the illiterate) as speaking to us directly and in sentences no less, but filtered – as today – through the language and processes and recordings of a legal system. What was written is a version of what was said, transcribed by a clerk in ritual terms – though writing an account of the trial at ‘Auldean, Nairn, 1662’ must have been the scribe’s most … challenging? work as he recorded, at Isobel Gowdie’s trial for witchcraft, her account of “carnal copulation” with the Devil:
[…] He was a very large black
rough man. His member is exceeding great
and long; no man’s member is so long
and big as his.
(Whyte packs 30 lines running on at speed from what the clerk managed to set down about women’s “exceeding great desire / of it with him, as much as he can with them”.)
His ‘Foreword’ begins by acknowledging admiration for Charles Reznikoff’s work in Testimony: the United States (1885 – 1915), which he says “inspired me to do something similar for Scotland”. (This isn’t work I knew, and am glad to be introduced to it.) While their sources may be similar, Whyte takes a different approach to them, each court appearance attended to in its own poem and its own terms.
My own feeling is that historical materials … are mediated by their original recording and also by each subsequent re-telling. And we could see Whyte’s poems as another step in that mediation
I assumed he had patiently worked through the original hand-written documents: the inside cover is printed with a copy of a script from 1685. I can make out a few words such as “to make payment” and “offensive weapons”. Eventually you get your eye in for the handwriting and can make out more when you look and look again. But as Whyte includes a bibliography with nineteenth century printed reports from that earlier period, I realise he probably used those.
And of all those hundreds of pages of old records he leafed through, I can’t help but wonder how on earth he selected the 41 cases for this book? What was it about them that made him want to build them into poems – a representative sample? the quirk of a name? a judge’s clever sarcasm? intuitive delight? My own delight at the indignant woman in ‘Glasgow, 1895’ who “laid a complaint” against a boatman who “had occasion to obey a call of nature” from his boat 20 yards offshore with his back to her, for “wilfully, indecently and in a shameless manner / exposing his person to her” makes me think some things may simply intuitively stand out for inclusion. The final poem too, as recent as ‘Glasgow, c.1965’, socks it to us: “I waited till my wife got off the bus / then I hit him. I thought he deserved it.”
Jane Routh has published four poetry collections and a prose book, Falling into Place (about rural north Lancashire) with Smith|Doorstop. Circumnavigation (2002) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, Teach Yourself Mapmaking (2006) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and she has won the Cardiff International and the Strokestown International Poetry Competitions. Jane Routh’s latest book is Listening to the Night (2018) and a new pamphlet, After, is available from Wayleave Press (2021).