The Ponnage Pool

. . . Sing
Some simple silly sang
O’ willows or o’ mimulus
A river’s banks alang
(Hugh MacDiarmid)

I mind o’ the Ponnage Pule,
The reid brae risin’,
Morphie Lade.
An’ the saumon that louped the dam,
A tree i’ Martin’s Den
Wi’ names carved on it;
But I ken na wha I am.

Ane o’ the names was mine,
An’ still I own it.
Naething it kens
O’ a’ that mak’s up me.
Less I ken o’ mysel’
Than the saumon wherefore
It rins up Esk frae the sea.

I am the deep o’ the pule,
The fish, the fisher,
The river in spate,
The brune of the far peat-moss,
The shingle bricht wi’ the flooer
O’ the yallow mim’lus,
The martin fleein’ across.

I mind o’ the Ponnage Pule
On a shinin’ mornin’,
The saumon fishers
Nettin’ the bonny brutes –
I’ the slithery dark o’ the boddom
O’ Charon’s Coble
Ae day I’ll faddom my doobts.

The first challenge that faces us with this poem is in the title. What is The Ponnage Pool? Or more specifically, what does ‘ponnage’ mean? Is it the name of a place? A geographical feature? Is it enough for us to leave the word alone, assume it’s a place name, like Craigo Woods, or Wauchopeside, which have featured as titles of other Scots poems? Certainly our reading of this poem will not be hampered by a lack of comprehension of the word, but it could be interesting to investigate a little and try to shed some light on it.

The poem begins with another poem, a quotation from Hugh MacDiarmid. We know that Cruickshank was a colleague of MacDiarmid, even helped him out of a few tricky situations, and she was a great admirer of his poetry. Using quotations like this has long been a way for poets to recognise a debt of gratitude or admiration for other poets. It’s also partly a clue to their underlying meaning. This would be good place to point out that silly in this case means innocent or humble rather than daft, or stupid; and that simple means plain and unadorned, not dim-witted. It might also be useful to be aware that part of Hugh MacDiarmid’s literary project, once he moved away from writing in Scots, was about calling for a poetry which was rooted in direct experience of the land. In a way it was about ‘getting back’ to Nature – as well as one’s own nature, i.e. that which is innately yours, a poetry with “the outer magic and the inner mystery imaginatively reconciled” (The Kind of Poetry I Want, 1961).

Cruickshank’s poem proper begins with a memory: “I mind o’ the Ponnage Pule”. We notice that the English pool of the title has been rendered into the Scots pule – the language locates the poem in Scotland, and perhaps locates the poet in her childhood when she would have spoken the language quite freely. The memory of the “ponnage pule” is listed along with “the reid brae risin’” and “Morphie Lade”. The final of these three places lets us know for certain that the poem is concerned with a specific place, near her home in Montrose, in Angus – very near, incidentally, to the Craigo Woods celebrated by Violet Jacob.

With the “saumon that louped the dam” in line 4, we begin to enter more symbolic territory. Salmon appear frequently in the literature of Scotland – dating as far back as St Mungo and the legend of the ‘fish that never swam’ in Glasgow’s city crest – and has its roots in Celtic mythology where the salmon represents knowledge. This salmon jumping the dam is also a real memory from the poet’s youth – but how is it important now? In the next line she recalls “a tree i’ Martin’s Den” – again, trees are powerful symbols of knowledge and wisdom and power. This tree has names carved on it, but the poet tells us in line 7 – “I ken na wha I am.”

This last line of the first verse really alerts us to the major theme of the poem: self-knowledge, identity. The poet uses the present tense ‘ken’ – she still doesn’t know who she is, even as a mature adult. The act of naming is one thing, but self-knowledge goes way beyond that. It is interesting to look at the sound patterning in the poem where we find that, as well as the end-rhymed lines 4 and 7, there are certain other sound relationships – most significantly ‘den’ (line 5) and ‘ken’ (line 7), reinforcing this notion that self-knowledge is something hidden from her, that it is something she had as a child, but has lost somewhere along the way to becoming an adult.

Indeed, we discover in the first line of the second verse that one of the names on that tree was hers but “naething it kens/ O’ a’ that mak’s up me”. In other words, it’s just a name – and names can tell us nothing of who we are. Interestingly, she asserts in line 9 that she still owns her name. Ownership of name and voice are a central theme in much writing in the latter part of the 20th century. It was a major concern of MacDiarmid and those who followed him to claim ownership of words (or names) in the form of the Scots language. Perhaps it also refers to the fact Cruickshank never married, and therefore never changed her (sur)name.

But, a name is only a name: true knowledge is to be and to do, humbly and simply – to paraphrase the MacDiarmid epigraph – in perfect balance and agreement with one’s environment. Like the salmon, perhaps, that “rins up Esk frae the sea.” And she tells us she knows less of herself, of her nature, than that wild creature. Why is that?

Verse three concerns itself with the multiple identities (or memories, perhaps) of the poet. In this case she identifies herself with “the deep o’ the pule/ the fish, the fisher/ the river in spate/ the . . . peat-moss/ the shingle . . ./ the martin . . .” – almost, it seems, the entirety of natural phenomena in her childhood environment. How can she be all these things at once? It is a curious extended metaphor and worth exploring.

The list begins with the (unfathomable?) depths of the pool, recalling the uncertainties of the previous verses, but the images begin to surface, literally: from fish to fisher. In the next line she is the “river in spate” – a flooding, fast-flowing rush. The rapid listing of phrases certainly echoes this and the reader is swept forward on a rush of words. There is a growing sense of hope here, of optimism – her identity emerging? From the water, she brings us onto land and “the broon o’ the far peat-moss”, but still there is a note of distance and muted colour. In the next two lines we have “the shingle” which is “bricht wi’ the flooer/ O’ the yallow mim’lus” – moving us from dull to bright colour. Furthermore, “mim’lus” recalls the Hugh MacDiarmid quotation at the beginning of the poem and his imperative: “sing/ a simple silly sang”. Is she reacting against this imperative, or writing in accordance with it? Her technique is far from humble or plain. In the final line of the third verse, the poet identifies herself with “the martin fleein’ across” the shingle. In the poem at least, she has transcended the darkness of the ‘pule’ and has taken to the air.

In the fourth and final verse, we return to the “ponnage pule” with a repetition of the first line of the poem. What has changed? What has the poet learned on this journey? What have we learned? The poet seems to be facing in a different direction. In verse one she is facing inland. Could that have been a reference to the inward direction of her own work? Looking inwardly at herself? Does it include the culturally introspective work of MacDiarmid and others? By verse 4, the direction she faces is outwards, towards the river where, “on a shinin’ mornin’” she sees “the saumon fishers/ nettin’ the bonny brutes”. In looking to the salmon, creature of knowledge and the innate wisdom of the wild, we are reminded of the knowledge she tells us she lacks. But the salmon fishers seem to be able to harness that knowledge easily – is theirs the wisdom of simply doing?

Finally, the pay-off line: “Ae day I’ll faddom my doobts”. The poet lets us know that the process of self-inquiry is on-going, but that she’ll achieve it “I’ the slithery dark o’ the boddom/ O’ Charon’s Coble.” A different place, altogether. Like “the Ponnage Pool” “Charon’s Coble” at first seems to refer to a specific location in the area of her childhood. Certainly, the use of the Scots word coble (a flat-bottomed river boat used in salmon fishing) may lead us to that conclusion. But Charon, in fact, was a figure in Greek mythology who ferried the dead souls over the rivers Acheron and Styx (respectively the rivers of woe and hate) into the underworld. A very different bridging place from the ponnage pool. She’ll never “faddom her doobts” except maybe in death – in other words, she’s stopped worrying about it. For now, it seems she is content with the identity she has found as a poet.