A Song to Keep: A Kinship of Poems and Drawings 
By Olivia Findlay and Domenica de Ferranti.
Scotland Street Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 112 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Ashlee Cowles.

One of the most prominent and compelling themes in literature, including poetry, is the longing for home. From the epics of Homer to the “pilgrim soul” of W.B. Yeats, poets have long grappled with our desire for home, as well as the pain that results when we are alienated from it. In A Song to Keep, poet Olivia Findlay joins this long tradition as she explores what it means to have been born in Cape Town, South Africa, during apartheid, and to now live in the Scottish Highlands. As a poet with ancestors from places as varied as Ireland, Mozambique, and India, Findlay’s collection asks the question of where ‘home’ even is when one has such a sprawling family history. It is a query that is surely relevant to more and more of us in our increasingly nomadic age, one in which the reality that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” becomes ever more pronounced. And yet, the longing for some true home persists.

Poetry is an ideal medium for wrestling with such tensions and all the paradoxes that arise from them. In A Song to Keep, Findlay’s sometimes sparse but always immersive words create particular images that invite the reader into the experience of not always belonging. Presumably these come from the poet’s rich life in a variety of locations, and yet they manage to stir memories and yearnings that are on some level universal. Findlay’s poems are accompanied by original drawings by London-based artist Domenica de Ferranti. These charcoal sketches of trees, birds, and aging faces bring to mind not only the elements of nature that human beings have encountered for centuries, but also the pervasive emotions and desires of the heart that cut across cultures and landscapes. Nostalgia. Sorrow. Hope. Echoes of the family songs and sagas passed down from generation to generation. In the poem “Interlude,” Findlay writes:

Lives are forged

from stories kept

and belief sought

in all that is left

to be said 

in the quiet rooms

Perhaps that is the question A Song to Keep ultimately asks: “Who will keep our stories alive, no matter where we go?” Perhaps that is a question even more poignant than “Where is home?” especially for those who are either dispossessed of a homeland or simply feel rootless in a thousand small ways as they struggle to navigate this dizzyingly complex world. 

At the very beginning of Findlay’s collection, the introduction states that “[t]his book honours her grandmother, whose song she keeps.” There is something so essentially human about such a dedication. For it belongs to a tradition that has likely existed for as long as Homo sapiens have walked the earth—the passing on of stories, the keeping of songs, no matter where the pilgrim’s path takes us or how the boundary lines of home are drawn.

Ashlee Cowles is a former Russell Kirk Center Wilbur Fellow and the author of the novels Beneath Wandering Stars, The Poppy and the Rose, and, as A. D. Rhine, the forthcoming historical epic Horses of Fire (Penguin Random House, 2023).

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