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 is present in every aspect of the poet's life.
He makes clear that, for him, her death is not an event that has its place in the near past and is 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, conscious of its
ugliness, and painfully conscious too of the immense absence of his loved one.
MacCaig was an atheist. As such, in the face of death, there were no easy comforts for him - no promises of life or resurrection beyond the grave. For him, death presented an awful finality.
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.