Murder Ballads, Narcocorridos, and Border Songs

On Writing "Debatable Land"
Maureen N. McLane

Debatable Land


The palest green immerings on the slopes

the snow’d made white near overspread

the snowdrops ungeared for fighting

yet strive they do to live in this suddenly

coldened place.

The silence of the knowes rising above

St Mary’s Loch is almost the silence

of nearby graves but the yow-trummle

pierces the mizzle we’ve decided

to plow though.


Other people’s disputes are not yours

till they are. Whose debatable land

did you walk on whose unmarked graves?

The village of free blacks buried below

Central Park.


The Hanging Tree an English elm anchoring

a corner of Washington Square Park

knows nothing of the disintegrated dead

who long fed its soon-to-be

commemorated roots.


Let’s unpeel the world

and bite that big fruit the earth

it took us too long to remember

well-being just being holy land just land

the hanging tree a tree the son

of man a man.


—Maureen N. McLane

opens in a new windowMaureen McLane, This Blue

“Debatable Land”: a term long associated with the wild outlaw-ridden zone between England and Scotland in the Middle Ages—also known as “the Borders,” the region much celebrated in Walter Scott’s ballad collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–3) and by other poet-balladeers, collectors, and editors like James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd,” and by Wordsworth himself, from the other side of the border, living ostentatiously in retirement in Cumbria.

Debatable land—by extension—is any contested zone or disputed territory. It took a long time for the border between England and Scotland to be fixed and pacified, to come under the surveillance of two increasingly strong states that were often at war. For centuries, this uncertainly policed and regulated zone harbored bandits and scofflaws; “border-raids”—and wholesale predation by “border-reivers”—offered much matter for ballad, lore, and legend. Impetuous aristocrats and feuding clans would make forays into enemy territory—as in the famous battle between “the Percy” and “the Douglas” (commemorated in “Chevy Chase”). It’s no accident that border ballads, outlaw ballads, murder ballads, and other songs of glamorous strife tend to erupt along such frontiers—whether in medieval and early modern Scotland and England (e.g. “The Battle of Otterburn,” “Chevy Chase,” “Sang of the Outlaw Murray”) or in the narcocorridos commemorating the drug smugglers and other insurgents operating along the border between Mexico and the US.

The Scottish Borders may not be so dramatically arresting a region as the Highlands, but it is a striking landscape long patterned by song and story, such that virtually every hill, knowe, loch, and river carries a tale. Or used to. Not for me, per se, but for Borderers of decades and centuries past. Nostalgia is boring; what’s not boring is walking in the Borders and seeing a lake suddenly emerge beyond the massive slope of a hill; the peculiarly intense greens of the low-lying mountains; the special silence that overtakes the land when a March snow falls on the hills and first flowers; the stone sheepfolds marking for miles the hands of men who made them. Passing by The Gordon Arms, a now-defunct pub in the Yarrow Valley, where Scott, Hogg, Burns, and even Wordsworth tippled. My poem “Debatable Land” (in This Blue) gestures to this region and these places, and is in part occasioned by them—the tradition of border ballads in Scotland; some specific sites I visited in the Scottish Borders, including the Tibbie Shiels Inn, welcoming travelers and stragglers since the eighteenth century; St Mary’s Loch, a stunning long thin lake which is the source of Yarrow Water.

Yet for all this talk here about Scotland, “Debatable Land” is as much or more about New York City, the deep and complex layers and imagined stratigraphies of the ground I walk every day—Central Park, Washington Square Park, with its famous “Hanging Tree” (or Hangman’s Elm), purportedly the oldest living known tree in Manhattan. It’s easy not to know about the village of free blacks (and some Irish) displaced by the development of Central Park, or how Washington Square Park covers an area once home to Native Americans, then to African Americans, later used as a burial ground, a potter’s field.

Histories have their songs and shapes and laments and silences; languages are shot through by other languages; men and women draw boundaries, slip over them, shoot through them, escape via them, die on and are put into disputed ground.

A poem isn’t a proposition, it’s a sounding, a singing, a saying, a stumbling, a moving in and of language—and in “Debatable Land” a few linguistic cruxes hold certain chords in the ear: the invented word “immerings,” with its relation to glimmerings and immergence (sinking, plunging, dipping anything), and the word “yow-trummle,” taken from Hugh MacDiarmid, the famously inventive and combative twentieth-century Scottish poet, who almost single-handedly revived literary Scots—or his version of it—for a brilliantly galvanic modern poetry (see his A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle). “Yow-trummle” appears in his beautiful lyric “The Watergaw,” which you can listen to here. According to MacDiarmid’s own Englishing of the poem and scholars’ glosses since, “yow-trummle” refers to “sheep-shearing season,” or to a cold snap after it. It aligns with “ewe-tremble,” and that is the image that stuck in my mind: the trembling sheep of the Borders, their trembling akin to the “chitterin’”—shivering—light elsewhere in “The Watergaw.”

Debatable lands more generally: wherever contested borders are found. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall: in Berlin, in Palestine, in Mexico. Is it that all we like sheep have gone astray? To and for whom is holy land holy? How does the holy as well as history itself become debatable, and poetry and song weaponized?  Mahmoud Darwish said of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “his poetry put a challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?”

All this exceeds the poem “Debatable Land”: a poem that is, I suppose, more a raising of the question, a provisional—and perhaps impossible—peeling back of trauma, a sounding of the edges of the way we overtly and covertly sound out our territories.

Maureen N. McLane’s previous essay on poetic craft and the anxiety and ecstasy of influence can be seen here.
Maureen N. McLane is the author of three collections of poetry, Same Life (FSG, 2008), World Enough (FSG, 2010) and This Blue (FSG, 2014). Her book My Poets (FSG, 2012), a hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.