This poem is an elegy, a poem or song that is a lament for the dead, for a beloved person in MacCaig’s life. That person is probably MacCaig’s sister, Frances, who died in 1968 as this poem was published in 1971.
Memorial is a sad and beautiful poem about how the sense of loss of the poet’s dear one pervades every aspect of his life. Her death, he makes clear, is not for him an event that has its place in the near past, already a part of history. Instead the process of her dying stays with him constantly: the opening states,
Everywhere she dies and in the final stanza,
she can’t stop dying.
MacCaig’s poetry is often characterised by its lightness of touch, his playful use of language, particularly metaphor – but always to razor-sharp effect. Here, he retains razor-sharpness in his use of metaphor, but the playful, light touch is entirely absent. Instead he is immersed in the
intolerable distance of death, painfully conscious of its
"ugliness", and painfully conscious too of the all pervading absence of his dear one.
MacCaig was an atheist. As such, in the face of death, there were no easy comforts for him of promises of life or resurrection beyond the grave. For him death presented an awful finality. Still, the act of writing such a powerful, memorable and skilfully constructed poem was itself an act of literary art that in a sense raised the poet’s consciousness above the profound, melancholic state he experienced at this time.