Mick Imlah was born in 1956 and brought up near Glasgow and in Kent. He was editor of the Poetry Review from 1983 to 1986, and had worked at the Times Literary Supplement since 1992. He edited The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (with Robert Crawford, 2000) and made selections of the poems of Tennyson and Edwin Muir for Faber and Faber. The Lost Leader is Mick Imlah’s first collection of poetry in 20 years. It won the 2008 Forward Prize and was shortlisted for the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. In the autumn of 2007, Mick Imlah was given a diagnosis of motor neurone disease (also known as ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease) and died on January 12, 2009. He is survived by his partner, Maren Meinhardt, and their two daughters.
Mick Imlah’s masterful The Lost Leader is populated by voices and revenants that point to or joke with or slip in bits of the ballads, songs, and legends of Scotland that his elder Edwin Muir said ‘no poet in Scotland now can take as his inspiration’.
Mick Imlah’s masterful The Lost Leader is populated by voices and revenants that point to or joke with or slip in bits of the ballads, songs, and legends of Scotland that his elder Edwin Muir said ‘no poet in Scotland now can take as his inspiration’. Muir’s observation or injunction invites Imlah to wonder who or what can guide him now. He answers with the beautifully idiosyncratic, local, learned, teeming poems in this startling collection – the work of twenty years. Fiercely unelegiac, the book keeps equal company with the dead and the living, in its combination of demotic, modern, and archaic speech, trading in stories of legend, prophesy, insult, sport, alcohol, love, and neglect. Haunted by forgotten figures, lost guides, the divided, leaderless, often feckless characters in Imlah’s poems have to make their own way, now that ‘the fire of belonging was out’. They find temporary forms of shelter, ‘a poor shift made/Between rain and wood’, a room in a boarding house, a telephone box, a literary reputation. The poet himself seems to have declared a homecoming, not to the island Iona but to a child who is given its name. But he still wants to answer ‘the mean/prophetics of a closed book’ for the restless, homeless spirits he has evoked. He ends his own book with the brilliant ‘Afterlives of the Poets’, which draws on the company of Tennyson [celebrated therefore forgotten] and James Thomson [obscure and forgotten], musing on what’s left to us of their lives and pages. He recovers the lost, leaving their books open for us. And, as his closes, he joins their company.
by Mick Imlah
My right hand is Nessie’s head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur? Forty
or fifty million years.
Can the dinosaur sing? No,
too old; but likes to be soothed
by others singing.
I open her thumb-
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
‘Take me to your leader!’
—to which you instantly,
I haven’t got any leader.
What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.
Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such,
that we can spend an age without
a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean
prophetics of a closed book.
Copyright © Mick Imlah, 2008