‘So Many Summers’ by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) is a good example of how a poem can be formally constrained and seemingly transparent in its language, yet dense enough with meaning to open up whole avenues of reflection. What is it about the juxtaposition of those two images, of hind’s skeleton and decaying boat, that resonates so? And what is this malice that time adds? As I interpret these lines, it is the way that the living thing becomes indistinguishable from the artefact: that once life has departed from the animate it too is no more than a collection of molecules, subject to exactly the same laws of decay as anything else. But do the phrases ‘neat geometries’ and ‘already dead but still to die’ suggest something about the power of art to preserve for a while some stripped-down quintessence of a thing, before its final dissolution and oblivion? I am reminded here of Keith Douglas’s lines: ‘Remember me when I am dead/And simplify me when I am dead’. And what precisely is the tone and message of the last line: ‘So many summers, and I have lived them too’? Is this a wry recognition that his own time too is coming to an end? Or, read with an emphasis on the ‘lived’, is it a kind of defiant gratitude for his own survival, for having been allowed this enduring richness of experience?
For me, this is definitely one of those poems where you wish you had had the chance to discuss it with its creator, with the caveat, of course, that poets themselves do not always fully understand, or at least, cannot always articulate in other words, what it is that has been given them to say during the writing of the poem.
So Many Summers
Beside one loch, a hind’s neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.
I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.
Time adds one malice to another one –
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.