by Ivana Miloš
Have we missed out if we have not seen the work of Margaret Tait, poet and gracious film maker? Perhaps not if we have known silence, solace and questioning, an immediacy springing from the body into and with the world. And then again, the answer is nevertheless yes. The bright beacon of light shed on movement that unfolds in her work is a mystery and a mastery, the searchlight of an independent soul. Throughout her life, Margaret Tait remained on the verges and fringes of all things commercial or institutional when it came to her films (of thirty-two, twenty-nine were self-produced), and therefore on the edges of the perception of others.
She was born in Orkney, an island in the north of Scotland, in 1918, she studied and became a doctor in Edinburgh, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya, and returned to Orkney only to then travel to Italy and study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome in 1950, from where she, after living in several other regions of Scotland, eventually moved back to her island in the 1960s. She died there in 1999. A short note on a life, inevitably deficient. Let us try again: Margaret Tait made films and wrote poems, but also, in her own words, made it her “life’s work” to make “film poems.” Margaret Tait traced the contours of the visible with a keen attention, opening the invisible within it and throwing away the key, all keys, always. (No locks. / No bolts, bars nor keys.) Her curiosity was insatiable and infinite, devoted to the complex minutiae of the seemingly evident. (Flame / Is a thing I / Always wonder about. / It seems to be made of colour only. / I don’t know what else it is made of.) In filming, her acuity was buoyed by the swell of the tangible and luminous, transforming everyday, common objects into springs of the unknowable that wash over us with their intrinsic magic. (There’s a whole country at the foot of the stone / If you care to look.)
But let us look at the films the way a film poem unfurls: Where I Am Is Here (1964) repeats itself with consideration, echoing and reverberating into a complex of imagery and sound that weaves its own structure out of multiple, cadenced threads. Bare tree branches overlapping with the noise of traffic launch the film. Then there are bricks and their builder, chimneys and their smoke, a house of cards, Christmas lights and the undulating sea, children playing on the ice, glimpsed through branches, a pen at the ready, suspended over a sheet of paper, a small bird walking on ice, all accompanied by a tune that is a poem of Tait’s set to music, sung and played at times in consonance with the images. Among them, a few notes, lines of rhythmic poetry unspellable: a man leaning on a fireplace softly closes his eyes and slowly opens them again. The lone gesture contains multitudes, it wordlessly speaks about the person and lets them speak – Tait has a way of getting close to people with her camera, of showing them in a revelatory surge of the smallest motion of their hands or eyes. The unknownness of people is equally mysterious as that of things, and they all give way to the mystery of the film maker’s camera (see the marvellous A Portrait of Ga, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait). In Tait’s work, showing a person carries with it the same release showing a landscape does – neither is represented in their role, but disclosed in their existence – often together. In A Portrait of Ga, the camera lingers on the voilet-red heather and Ga’s coat in what seem to be exactly the same colours before moving onto her face. This is where she fits, this is the place that made the human.
Another line form Where I Am Is Here: a myriad swans interlace the water, followed by forgotten fishing nets and a lone Wellington boot lying on the seabed – this is where humanity meets nature, a moving, quiet moment that is more of a sign, a single hieroglyph of a thousand words. Tait’s films show what has been established throughout centuries, the traces of co-existence written into the landscape people live on and from; the past is a felt presence in the stirring announcement of the present, the here and now. In 1974, in the film Colour Poems, Tait films another boot, a pair of them standing alone in a barn, the right one gently shaking in the wind. A declaration not only of absence, but of a thoroughly lived-in environment, of people’s homes and the use they make of the land. In Orquil Burn (1955), Tait films the path of an Orkney stream, following it from the place where it runs into the sea to its source – a journey intimately accompanied by her occasional voice-over, her knowledge of the landscape and its people that becomes unmapped and novel through this precious, delicate mapping of every step of its way. (This is the burn that used to flow over the fields as it / happened to go. / They changed its course, but the flowers still grow – / Mimulus and meadowsweet) People and streams, birds and smoke, they all have their pursuits, as a pulse of intention beats somewhere in the background.
Their presence is what makes this possible, and Aerial (1974) shakes with the clarity of sheer presence. A four-minute film as ennobling as a poem can be, its vision is not exuberant, but fulsome. Whistling leads to a bell of leaves, droplets golden a branch, earth is dug up in golden labour. An island made of leaves and petals is as fleeting as was the life of the now dead bird framed in dusky light. Margaret Tait is interstice: tumultuous calm, weaving together clouds, earth, the people working it, the sheep feeding on its grass, the joy of a splash of water on a summer’s day of childhood, and the melancholy of a departure from the house one has grown up in. The tint of infinity in a blade of grass or a snowstorm covering the streets – it is its own, its one and only, its dearly ever-wished-for and never-even-imagined, or, as Tait wrote: “It is what it is, of course.”
There is a wedge of darkness to this quest, gathering the sinister in the irremediable, unavoidable, unreproachable – nature is itself, is it not incredible? And that a film maker is a poet, a writer, an independent, is that not just as incredible? Elective affinities may connect Tait’s work to some aspects of Marie Menken, Robert Beavers (particularly Work Done and Pitcher of Colored Light), Rose Lowder and Nathaniel Dorsky, all film makers of the in-between, explorers of film as an elsewhere in the here. Working for can be a working against only when the kinship between elements rings true, if someone sets out to reveal and thread the filaments (It’s too small a thing to accept the ready-made frame. / We builders must keep making our own cities) Images can never be pale if they know their place, if they have caressed a face as carefully as they have a poppy, if, in Tait’s phrasing, “the blood-image and the through-image are perfectly united.” Here we all are, nature and its people, people and their nature, animals and lychen, children’s sailboats made of iris leaves and the coalman listening to the water run (And then that word has to go too, being inadequate, / And only my eyes are left / For saying it all.)