Christian McEwen’s essay, “Alastair Reid: Traveling Light,” was selected as the recipient of the 2016 Bechtel Prize. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the Bechtel Prize to the author of an exemplary essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination. This year’s Bechtel winner is a lovely portrait of poet and translator Alastair Reid.
by Christian McEwen
I asked for riches. You gave me scavenging rights on a far beach.
—Keri Hulme, Te Kaihau: The Windeater
His voice was low and grainy, thoughtful, with a lot of breath in it. It was as if he explored each word, caressed it, before he went on to the next. He listened carefully too. Once I asked him to let me know if he should find himself in my neck of the woods. “Woods don’t have necks,” he said, with a tiny flicker of distaste. He wasn’t being pompous, just precise. Such things mattered. Another time, I said something about trying to learn how to blow my own trumpet (hosting a website, etc.). Alastair paused. “In your case,” he said, “I think it would be a piccolo.”
I met him first when he had just turned fifty, and I was barely out of my teens. Scotland is a small, convivial country, alert to cousins and connections, and he was good friends both with my painter-uncle Rory and with his sister, my aunt Kisty. Though my journal tells me I was wary of his fleshy face and big, white hands, his legs wizened in grey-brown tartan, I recognized him even then as “eloquent and generous.” He presented me with a big golden-yellow paperback, The New Yorker Books of Poems, which I still possess. “What is your relationship to Scotland?” he asked, a characteristically knotty question, and one I had no idea how to answer.
Our paths crossed many times after that, with increasing frequency and pleasure. I read his 1978 collection, Weathering, and several of his other books as well: the poems, the New Yorker essays, the translations of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. Inevitably that reading infused and deepened our encounters, so that he became for me one of those who matter both on and off the page: a friend and mentor, a kind of literary father. In the last years of his life, when I was living in Vermont and western Massachusetts and he was based (at least intermittently) in New York City, we would meet each spring and fall, and sometimes in the summertime as well, for what I came to think of as “the Alastair hour”—a luscious stretch of rich, far-reaching conversation. The subjects were always the same: friends and family; poetry, politics; Scotland, the United States. Tacking in and out, like a bright strand of scarlet silk, was the reiterated question asked by every immigrant: Do you think you will go back? He asked it of me, and I asked it of him. The answers varied. For more than twenty years he had owned a stony house in Spain, and later a ginger plantation in the Dominican Republic. Now he wondered about buying a place in Galloway, spending seven months there each year, and the rest of the time in South America. He wondered about renting a house near Edinburgh.
Instead, he flew to Scotland every spring or early summer and spent most of the winter in a tiny, third-floor walk-up just off Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The place belonged to his partner, Leslie Clark (later to become his second wife). It was shipshape and trim, like the captain’s quarters in a private yacht, its white walls edged with clear sky blue. There was a small bathroom, a galley kitchen, a big bed tucked in one corner behind a tall bookcase. Ornaments were few: a handful of postcards and family photographs, a bicycle, a painted wooden parrot, a watercolor of grasses by my uncle Rory. There were perhaps two chairs.
When I visited, Alastair would sit on one side of a narrow table, which also served as his desk, and I would sit across from him, on a cushioned window-seat. He’d make tea or coffee, toast or muffins; once breakfast with scrambled eggs and mushrooms and sausage; once a green pea soup with bread and cheese, a few slices of pear. Now and then, I’d bring some little present: a pot of hyacinths, a ripe pomegranate, a stone or two from his childhood beach in Galloway. It was difficult to know what best to give. Alastair didn’t have much interest in possessions. Pinned to his wall was a New Yorker cartoon of a monk opening an empty box. “Nothing!” he exclaims. “Just what I always wanted.” What Alastair did want, and for the most part marvelously achieved, was “to own his own time” Wherever he lived, and whatever he was doing, the one constant was the small island of his desk.
Alastair was born in 1926 in the little town of Whithorn, in what is known as the Machars, a gentle, low-lying peninsula in southwest Scotland. His father was a country minister, his mother a doctor, and he remembered his childhood as rooted and kindly, “for we were bound by the rhythms of the soil, always outdoors, helping at neighboring farms, haunting small harbors, looking after animals, or romping in the oat and barley fields that lay between our house and the sea.”
When his father read from the pulpit of “a land overflowing with milk and honey,” Alastair was overcome by the beauty of the image, never doubting that it was drawn directly from their own home ground, for one of his chores was to fetch from the local creamery a jug of milk still warm from the evening milking. “When we eventually left Galloway for the flintier east, a glass closed over that time, that landscape. We had left the garden behind, and how it glowed, over our shoulders, how it shines!”
Once, on a long sea voyage, he applied himself methodically to the act of retrieval, focusing each night on specific names and places; taking long, imaginary walks and scrutinizing different points along the way. Soon he realized that his childhood was not as lost as he’d imagined: all that was needed to recover it was “the dimension of amazement.” The ground underfoot and the sky overhead, “the small, but then enormous” landscapes of his past, were all there waiting to be found, a tremendous source of pleasure, and a literary treasure trove as well.
The depth of that willingness to “be amazed” (to pause and look around, simply to pay attention) is apparent in almost everything he wrote. Words like “dazzling,” “dizzying,” “astonishment,” and “wonderment” recur in his work, not with the blurred grasp of the addict or the heightened emphasis of the British upper classes, but with a joyous lucidity: the sense that light and laughter are what matter most, that a profound hilarity is at the cosmic core. “Much of writing,” he once wrote, “is simply finding ways of recreating astonishment in words.”
When the Second World War started, Alastair was in his teens. He spent a year in the Royal Navy, which taught him, he said, “to live portably,” a quality he prized. In 1946, he became a student at St. Andrew’s, where he studied Classics. Immediately after graduation, he came for the first time to the United States, and four years after that, set off for Spain. “I felt there an immediate affinity,” he wrote, “a sharpened sense of the present, an opening up.” He became friends with the poet Robert Graves, and settled in Deià for a while, tutoring Graves’ children and translating Suetonius on the side. Meanwhile, he began to teach himself Spanish. “There is nothing like immersion in an unknown—new places, new landscapes, new preoccupations, new loves, a new language—to sharpen the edge of attention.”
In 1958, Alastair left Deià to settle in Madrid. In the years that followed, he traveled to the Basque country, to Andalusia, to Gibraltar and Morocco and Portugal—“looking and listening a lot”— and wrote the first of many pieces for the New Yorker. He was associated with the magazine for more than half a century, writing stories, essays, reviews, and what he called “chronicles,” as well as numerous poems and translations. Graves’ example helped him to cut loose, to see that, after all, it might be possible to make a living as a writer.
He told me once that he had never been diverted by the power of money—he always did exactly what he chose to do, regardless. When he was living in New York in the early 50s, he had been offered $9,000 a year to teach at Sarah Lawrence. To the young man fresh from wartime Britain, it seemed a vast sum, and Alastair had to stop himself from saying, “Oh, I could get by on quite a lot less than that!” He set great store by the Spanish word escueto, “one who travels freely, unencumbered,” which, oddly enough, derives from the Latin Scotus, meaning Scot. Traveling light. If he had had a family crest, he wrote, it would read omnia mea meum porto (all that is mine, I carry with me); though it would, of course, get left behind.
Alastair was always very Scottish in his looks: a tall, rangy man with a high-boned face, a narrow swatch of hair, and piercing blue-grey eyes. His mouth was wide, his eyebrows arched, his ears as large and elegant as a pair of shells. He was Scots, too, in his concern with landscape and memory, the tidal draw towards the distant past, the fascination with the aching minutiae of childhood. But he spent more than two-thirds of his long life outside Scotland, and from early on learnt to savor that fact and to take great pleasure in the role of foreigner—sharply distinguished in his mind from “tourist,” “exile,” or “expatriate.” A foreigner for him was somebody who had no other home: “no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him.” It was, for Alastair, something to be exulted in.
He wrote about this in a short piece called “Notes on Being a Foreigner.” I read it eagerly, tried it on for size. Like him, I had grown up in the Scottish Border country, enchanted by the beauties of that early landscape. Like him, I had left home early: taking off for Thailand at the age of seventeen, going up to Cambridge to study philosophy and theology, leaving for a while to travel round the States on a Greyhound bus. For me too, America had been an amazing liberation. At twenty-three, I won a Fulbright to Berkeley and completed an MA there, before moving to New York in 1982.
But where Alastair delighted in his foreignness, hand outstretched in welcome to the next new friend, I myself felt far more edgy and uncertain. He had mastered the art of traveling light, while I was still “traveling heavy,” freighted with the dark weight of the past. I walked the streets of the Lower East Side listening to Scottish music on my headphones, ate toast with marmite or marmalade, or cheese and Branston pickle. At night, I dreamed of the big pink house where I’d grown up. I was a child again, and at the same time an interloper, stealing potpourri from the brass bowl at the foot of the stairs, peering through the window at the huge and empty rooms.
Alastair, meanwhile, seemed unencumbered by nostalgia. He said once that Spanish had given him not just a new language, but a new personality, quite different from his English-speaking one. He had an amused, humorous take on things, whereas I seemed, at least to myself, altogether more earnest, timid, and anxious. Living in New York, even in a grimy sublet, took every smidgeon of energy and enterprise I possessed. When I wrote my first article for the Nation (a review of Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell), I spent most of my paycheck on a brand new iron. I was trying to dig down deep, to make a home. But I was always short of cash. I felt as if the roof could be torn off at any time, and all my small domestic workings thrown open to a bald, indifferent sky.
Alastair, by contrast, always seemed to have enough, not just to cover rent and utilities, but to pay for trips to Scotland and Latin America, and to raise his children (he had two sons and brought up the younger one himself from the age of four). How did he manage it? The New Yorker, of course, was part of the answer. Soon after I arrived in the city, he showed me a short piece in “The Talk of the Town.” “You just have to write one of these every month,” he told me, “and you’ve made your rent.”
He was trying to be encouraging, to show me how to cope. For himself, money was still not of great importance. As a boy in Whithorn, he had lived almost entirely outside the cash economy. He would run down to the shops for eggs or bacon, ask at the baker’s for a cottage loaf—and no money would change hands. On Sundays, he would be given a coin or two for the church collection.
“You don’t have money, do you?” he asked his father once.
His father didn’t answer him directly. Instead, he led the boy into his study, opened a book, and brought out a crisp pound note that had been pressed between the pages. He handed the note to Alastair, allowed him to examine it, and to make a drawing of it, both front and back. Then it was returned to the book. That, his father told him, was 240 pennies.
Alastair was duly awed, not so much by the sum itself as by his father’s gentleness and clarity. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s….” True riches lay elsewhere, in what he once called “the no-wheres of friendship which supersede language, time, place.”
Between 1950 and 1983, Alastair had more than forty permanent addresses. Each new homeland yielded new friends and literary connections, new interests, new delights. “I am done with the metaphor of roots,” he wrote. “I prefer that of a web, a web of people and places, threads of curiosity, wires of impulse, a network of the people who have cropped up in our lives, and will always crop up—‘the webbed scheme,’ as Borges calls it.”
His own web stretched from the Black Isle in Scotland (where he was good friends with the novelist Neil Gunn), to New York City (where he first met JD Salinger), to Central and South America, and back across the wide Atlantic to London and Madrid. He didn’t care to name-drop, but the occasional anecdote would emerge from time to time, keenly observed, affectionate, and wry. “[Alastair] talked of Karl Miller well, without rancor or subtle imposed judgments,” I had noted in my journal back in 1977.
Each friendship had its own specific pleasures and integrity. When Alastair lived in Deià, he and Graves liked to go for walks together. As they sauntered along, one or the other of them would come up with the makings of a poem, which they’d toss back and forth between them: questioning it, rewriting it, inventing parodies. When he visited Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, they went to the local botanical gardens and spent the day there, looking at the birds and flowering plants. They came up with different words and phrases, imagining how Richard Wilbur might treat what they were looking at, or Howard Moss. They were like children, Alastair said later, wandering in the garden, seeing what they could see.
On that same trip, in 1964, he visited Pablo Neruda at his home in Chile. The two men ate and drank and laughed together, talked a lot, and searched for agates on the beach. It was Neruda who named Alastair Patapela, since in those days he always went barefoot. Forty years later, I remember his large, blue-grey feet protruding from under the edge of his frayed trouser cuffs on West 4th Street.
On one such visit, I asked about the writer William Maxwell, whom Alastair had known at the New Yorker. “A gentle man,” he said, describing the way Maxwell had lived with his wife, Emmy, “in his own world.” He spoke, too, of his friendship with various members of my family. On one occasion, he and my aunt Kisty were lunching together and had an especially fiery and intemperate exchange. What did they talk about? British politics? Scottish history? Alastair didn’t say. But afterwards, the couple at the next table stopped by to introduce themselves. “We just wanted to tell you that we’ve never eavesdropped on a more interesting conversation!”
Alastair had a similar, if less impassioned, friendship with my painter-uncle Rory. “He was certainly the most graceful human being I’ve ever known,” he told me. “And grace not only in a physical sense, but in his great care and concern in talking to people. He listened with maximum care to people, and he took them in deeply. He was disposed to be interested in everybody. And I always thought that was the most admirable thing.”
The same, of course, was true of Alastair himself. He was a peerless listener. But by the first decade of the new millennium, when he was in his seventies and early eighties, many of his closest friends were already dead. At times, he seemed surprised that he himself was still alive. “I thought the clock would stop at eighty-four,” he told me. “But somehow it keeps ticking.”
When I visited him in the fall of 2013, he came to the door in an old, blue-grey cashmere sweater with big holes in each elbow, his feet large and bruised-looking. By then he was suffering from COPD—Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease— and his breath rasped and soughed with each inhalation. He was still working on translations, and he never ceased to read. But often he didn’t descend the stairs for eight days at a time. He’d been going through old photographs, he told me, listening to tapes. Sometimes, when he heard the voices of his friends, he found himself in tears.
He wrote explicitly about this, noting how the death of friends jolts one into “a ferocity of remembering,” and then starts up a conversation in the memory, if only to hear the dead voice once again. Borges said once that when writers die they become books. But for Alastair, their voices were what mattered. He described Borges’ voice as “mischievous, elusive…soft, ironic,” and Neruda’s as “mellowly resonant…close to languid.” Long after they died, Alastair went on listening to them both. “I hear them often in my head,” he wrote, “always with awe, and with enduring affection.”
Alastair died in New York in September 2014. He was eighty-eight years old. Afterwards, I searched for him in his books, in poems like “My Father, Dying,” and “Whithorn Manse,” and “To a Child at the Piano,” and in the marvelous catalogues of his children’s book, Ounce, Dice, Trice. I looked back over my old journals and found him there.
Alastair said of himself, slipped in at the end like a tiny knife, that he goes out much less now, exercises at home. “I’m quietly preparing for death.”
“Honey child,” he began, and I knew I was dismissed. “I love you lots,” I said, hugging him. “I love you lots too,” he said. “Keep a silver tongue in your head.”
But it was not until I went to a memorial in New York, a year after his death, and acquired a three-CD set he had recorded with his friend Pura López-Colomé, that I heard that grainy voice again for real. Such joy! to hear him read Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript” aloud, or Neruda’s “The Great Tablecloth,” to catch that brusque intake of breath, that smothered cough.
Alastair said once that for him, the beginning of poetry was “the dazzling realization of all that seemed to be magically compressed in the word ‘weather’.” When I look back at the time we spent together, one day in particular stands out as emblematic. The two of us were in the car together, driving through Galloway with our friend Stephanie, when a stumpy little rainbow appeared above the low hills to our right. It grew as we watched until it was arching over us, and we were driving through it: an enormous woven trellis made of shimmering blues and greens and violets, translucent red. Alastair and I were both thoroughly exhilarated, swinging our small cameras round from side to side, as Stephanie drove on, beaming, towards Edinburgh.
Poetry, friendship, astonishment, and beauty. Escueto. Traveling light.
Christian McEwen is the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, also available in an audio format. Her most recent book is Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews. McEwen has edited four anthologies, including The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing. She is currently developing her play, Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money; and gathering material for a new book, On Listening. McEwen has been a fellow at the Yaddo and MacDowell art colonies. In 2011, she received a grant in playwriting from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.