I see an adder and, a yard away,
a butterfly being gorgeous. I switch the radio
from tortures in foreign prisons
to a sonata of Schubert (that foreigner).
I crawl from the swamp of nightmare into
a glittering rainfall, a swathing of sunlight.
Noticing you can do nothing about.
It's the balancing that shakes my mind.
What my friends don't notice
is the weight of joy in my right hand
and the weight of sadness in my left.
All they see is MacCaig being upright,
easy-oasy and jocose.
I had a difficulty in being friendly
to the Lord, who gave us these burdens,
so I returned him to other people
and totter without help
among his careless inventions.
John Fowles used the two pivotal lines from this poem as a motto for his essay 'The Nature of Nature'. MacCaig's poetry, with its beautiful and deceptively simple evocations of the Scottish landscape and wildlife, indeed makes for a natural ally in Fowles' argument for appreciation of nature.
But MacCaig's natural observations are never simply that - he is no naive nature poet but decidedly modern - and a central theme in his work is the act of observation itself. Many of his poems explore the problematic relationship of the conscious 'I' with the natural world surrounding it, where the 'I' might attempt to merely "notice" - impassionately, Zen-like - but inevitably consciousness intrudes - "balancing", analyzing, judging.
Another way of putting this would be that his poetry wrestles with the pathetic fallacy, which he both mocked and self-consciously employed ("being gorgeous"), but ultimately couldn't escape altogether because 'pure', objective observation doesn't exist. It always comes back to the observer, even if, as in one of his best-known poems ('A Man in My Position'), this is explicitly flagged as a problematic notion.
Hear my words carefully.
Some are spoken
not by me, but
by a man in my position.
In 'Equilibrist' (1980) observation is only the starting point for a more complex ethical balancing act, which the poet performs, crucially, without the traditional pole (to stay with the metaphor) of religion. MacCaig used to call himself a Zen Calvinist, half in jest and half, perhaps, as shorthand for the kind of crypto-atheist balancing he describes here. On the one hand rejecting a personal, emotional God in favor of meditation on an impersonal universe, while on the other still existing "among his careless inventions".
They only take up the first four lines, but already these inventions are of a bewildering variety - from adder to butterfly, from torture to sonata - and thus grouped together it's no wonder they should shake the narrator's mind.
One contrast is between the natural phenomena which exist immediately, here and now, and the human doings which arrive as sounds from far away in place and time. Should these be weighed equally, or should their distance and mediated presence somehow be taken into account? (A familiar question in our age of globalization, which forces us to constantly balance distressing facts from around the world against our immediate environment, safely behind our screens.)
Next, the radio offers the full spectrum from beastly to heavenly human activities, and again the question arises how, or if at all, such things can be weighed against each other. And then MacCaig describes their effect (or only the music's?) on him in natural terms - swamp, rainfall, sunlight - in a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy: imbuing human artifacts with natural objectivity.
And finally there is the contrast between the outer and inner equilibrist, balanced and tottering.
For more on MacCaig, the documentary 'Norman MacCaig: A Man in My Position' (1977) offers a great portrait of the poet, interviewing him both in Edinburgh and out rambling in Assynt, where you suspect he's had a wee dram.