A flavour of peat: five books from Scottish poets.
In the Hanging Valley, by Yvonne Gray. Two Ravens Press, 80 pp., 8.99 [pounds sterling].
The Atlantic Forest, by George Gunn. Two Ravens Press, 64 pp., 8.99 [pounds sterling].
Nigh-No-Place, by Jen Hadfield. Bloodaxe Books, 64 pp., 7.95 [pounds sterling].
Full Volume, by Robert Crawford. Cape Poetry, 64 pp., 9 [pounds sterling].
Last year in these pages, I reviewed five books by poets from Wales. This year, my focus is on poets from Scotland. The poets of these two countries share a complicated, often tense stance in their political and cultural links with England. Many poets from both countries also use a combination of English and Welsh or Gaelic in their poems, reaching across language barriers instead of consigning themselves completely to English. One significant difference, however, is that many Americans are at least passingly aware of the literary tradition of Scotland, and even more know about current Scottish fiction, at least Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Contemporary poets from Scotland do show up now and then in American journals, but the vibrant and active poetic community is not widely enough discussed. The following discussion is one attempt to fill that gap.
Peter Davidson's The Palace of Oblivion is a tour de force; part journalism, part narrative, part lyric, these poems embrace history and legend as woven into contemporary British culture. Scotland is a significant presence, but not an overwhelming one, as Davidson's concerns with myth-making and chronicle move the poems from place to place. Divided into three sections, "The Palace of Oblivion," "The Spy's Letters," and "Aberdeenshire Elegies," the book is densely written; many poems are stretched into long lines, and the vocabulary and range of allusion is wide. The language is demanding and ornate, a quality rarely seen among current poets. Such density is a risky choice, but Davidson richly rewards the attention this book requires.
The first section is governed by the character Melancholia, and the voices that narrate the individual poems range from reportorial to mystic. One poem is entirely in Latin, though an English translation under the title "The Lamentation of the queer shepherds for the death of the Queen of Arcadia" appears in a "Translations" section at the back of the book. Another consists of three lines of English and a Latin paragraph (also translated). Sometimes, as in these opening lines from "VII: Returning at Evening," Davidson's poems are reminiscent of Eliot's with their wistful, world-weary ennui:
It is as though we return at evening after a journey lasting months or years (Approaching the gates of the park, mooring the boat at the water-stairs) To find few works ruined and few things terribly altered, But everything larger somehow and emptier: the distances further recessive, the groves more profound, The balustrades softened with lichen. Cut walks and espaliers Turned straitened avenues where low boughs brush the long grass of the rides.
Sometimes the language is so archaic and rhetorically complex that it seems lifted from Elizabethan drama. Anaphora, repetition, variations on an image, refrains, and lists lend a mesmerizing quality to the lines. When Davidson applies these rhetorical tools to historical events (sometimes very broadly described) and adds consonance and assonance, the effect is at once political and mystical, a dazzling combination. Here are the first three stanzas from "IV: Apotheosis":
The hangman's knife has forced the bud to bring the sanguine rose to birth. Roping effusion of blood, centurion's scarlet, swathed over armour of gold, Salmonic columns of jasper and lapis, emblems of constancy, emblems of strength and endurance. Lasting pillars sustain them, silver arcades stretch beyond them, Golden volutes uphold great works of touchstone and granite, Whereon their thrones are set in perennial splendour. Flames of marble, flames of Istrian stone, blaze at the mouths of the urns against the oriflamme of day Blaze of the noon on white travertine, pietra serena. Great banners crack open against azure, borne on Adriatic wind. At Antwerp the burin scores their glories into plates of hammered bronze Imposing the nimbus on their tortured brows: The press at Rouen utters forth their wonders of endurance Their seraphic contests of the block and the straw. Their deaths are painted on the wall of the chapel at Rome That all of faithful Europe may know this truth: Who died in blood and straw now are exalted ineffable; Their retinue the companies of stars of the heavens in harvest. Who died at Tyburn and Lancaster are Dukes now in the empyrean, And princes in splendour bestride the skies of the morning.
"The Palace of Oblivion" is largely about religious wars and imperial expansion in Europe during the seventeenth century, but a reader can easily extrapolate current global conditions from them. Some poems lurch forward suddenly in time, as in "V: A Choice of Emblems," which begins: "It is as though we were approaching the end of a fiction of espionage / Set in the last Edwardian years." It is especially appropriate, then, that "Lady Melancholia" presides over this section, even the lovely aside into the poem "II: The Paradise of Women." This poem, about several female writers, ends with their inevitable deaths and "The deploration of their mourners--/ Faded August, lingering sunlight all shaded." The dejection seems rooted not in Scotland, but in England, which "mourns offshore, / Foundered in mist and schism still" ("IV: Apotheosis").
"The Palace of Oblivion" makes up half of the book, and the other two sections are made up of more pointedly political poems. Part II is a sequence supposedly written by a spy, of the sort associated with Cold War film and detective novels. The story is elliptical, but the target is clearly England. The first "letter" begins "And how would you suggest that I should live in England in this year /--and how should anyone live in England now? / (We raised our eyes from the systematic gardens, the classical villas, our black encompassing water.) / As a spy. How else?" The cold, post-imperial environment of England pervades this short sequence, which culminates not in any cinematic climax of intrigue, but in a tired "Englishman's Catechism," followed by a series of "Portraits from the Thirties," about the speaker's father. "The Englishman's Catechism" sums up the tone of the whole section:
And what does the mirror show you? Pale self, tweed coat, half-light, stillicide. Where does the mirror hang? Contrejour, tall windows, between dark and waking. ... Your theology? Expiation, unfashionable things, passing things, caducity. The cost? Sorrow, loneliness, hurt in devotion, this dying island.
The final elegies focus most clearly on Scotland and are largely descriptive but, placed at the end of the book, their details are colored by the malaise of the first two sections. There are poems of praise here ("The Apotheosis of James Byres of Tonley") and of love ("The Winter Night"), but the overwhelming emotion is sadness. This melancholy seems to be part of both personal and cultural aging, as the speaker, living in wintry Scotland, looks to England only to find another sort of frozenness. This is a fitting conclusion to a stunning collection, easing the reader out of the complexities of history into the solitary vision of this complicated narrative voice.
Yvonne Gray has been working as both a poet and a musician in Orkney for almost two decades, and her poems are infused with references to her oboe playing and her observations of native flora and fauna. Gray is a poet of the particular and the quotidian, paying special attention to the local names for things, places, and activities. The poems get stronger as the book moves along, and by the end the work has built up an almost novelistic sense of location.
The section titles in this three-part book--"Weaving," "Threads," and "Weft"--come from textile production, a traditional craft in Gray's part of the world. This is a lovely trope. However, the titles fail to coalesce into a satisfying fabric of metaphor. Weaving appears only briefly in the poems themselves. (There is a poem dedicated to the textile artist Carol Dunbar called "Voices from a Tapestry.") Likewise, the poems sometimes mix metaphors, as in the concluding couplet from "Summer Terraces": "August comes and twiggy fingers / spurt hard green apples." The poems certainly could have used a more careful editing, but this is a quibble, really, against a collection that contains some very fine poems.
Gray is an understated, cautious poet, and this quality allows her to maintain an air of quiet understanding that allows meaning to accumulate through suggestion and juxtaposition. Here is the second half of the title poem:
... We paused hung between sky and lake, poised in the golden boat, circled by ice crusted peaks. Strakes creaked; timbers quivered and the boat surged on. On the farthest shore families gathered their harvest hanging hay to dry on lines strung along burnished slopes. Like a silver thorn, an airliner drew across the blue and passed into silence beyond the icefield's edge.
The natural or rural world is often intersected by the technological world, and human beings are usually able to negotiate between the two. Gray subtly uses sound devices to tie the lines together, as a musician might be expected to do.
Gray's is a nonjudgmental, accessible book whose project seems to be appreciation. That may sound like either a back-handed compliment or a sneer, but it's neither: the poet who takes on such a task sets herself obstacles--cliche, sentimentality, bathos--that many writers cannot overcome. And Gray usually does surmount these potential problems, partly because the place where she lives and about which she writes is climatically harsh and partly because she does not take the pastoral escape and focus exclusively on an idealized country landscape and populace. "On the Ridge: Spring 2003" begins with an unpromising description: "Sunlight glows on verdant slopes." By the end of the poem, however, the scene has panned to two bulls, and the language suddenly resonates with a larger violence: "In the high fields / the black bull and the white bull / have tramped their borders for hours. / / Head to head they stand / on the horizon now, breathing thunder / across the darkening sky." The poem "Autumn" also begins with a fairly shop-soiled image: "Fires die along the darkening hills--late dawn / dwindling to early dusk." This poem gains metaphoric traction more quickly; by the second stanza the focus has shifted to more immediate matters: "Out by the shore / a tractor stands, engine studdering. / Shapes shift against the sky--men loom / / among ragged birds that flit and cluster to peck the grain they have cast." By the end of the poem, the birds have been reduced to one emblematic, personified hen, who "mutters / as she stalks the furrows, her eye / / on the horizon--a sideways stare." The animals here, like the humans, seem unable to imagine vertically, and the use of the hen is exactly right to convey that hardscrabble hopelessness.
One of the best poems in the book, "Plastic Surgery Ward," stands out because its point of view is so different--impressionistic and unsure. The speaker is clearly a patient, though exactly why she is there is never told. She is sometimes in shock, sometimes drugged, and never in control of her situation. Here is part two of this nine-part poem in its entirety:
bit by bit I'm washed up till beached I find my self on this bleached white bed bandaged hands bound to the frame a blanket above me draped on a cage I lie tethered an animal in a cave I hear the soft wheeze and gurgle of some other beast out of sight
The internal rhymes and consonance of this poem add to the dreamlike horror that the narrator experiences, and when she discovers, upon leaving, that she is surprised over and over by her own strange face in the mirror, the poem has reached its best conclusion.
In the Hanging Valley shows that regional poetry can still be strong when poets take their immediate surroundings as starting places, not ends in their own right. Yvonne Gray is a promising writer, and this book, at its best, shows a poet moving toward a clear sense of how sound and trope can move small images out of themselves and into the larger world.
George Gunn works as the director of the Grey Coast Theatre Company in Caithness, and his dramatic skill is apparent in his writing. The poems in his latest collection, The Atlantic Forest, are largely soliloquies of lament at the violence and materialism of the contemporary world. The book is not broken into sections, and this makes it read quickly, though at eighty-four pages the collection is certainly not slight. A long sequence of political poems might seem too much, but when these poems are at their best, they join the lyrical and the declamatory seamlessly.
Most of Gunn's poems begin with images, often recognizably Scottish, and then move by association to more broadly philosophical or political concerns. Like Peter Davidson, Gunn positions himself uneasily as both participant in and marginal observer of the Western world. The second stanza of "A Prelude" uses the stage as a trope for the destruction of traditional Scottish culture:
From the sea comes the storm of flame & frost & snow So act out the gods as if Caithness were a stage to set the Orkneying Saga but things below are nervous the fabric's being unstitched crofts are being bought for Summer houses ruins change hands for forty grand fold sleep in boats & caravans the civic shirt is hanging by the bed the fishing fleet is decommissioned the glass factory in receivership the atomic station no longer lit by delight headlights beam across the starless night three Winters meet on Dunnet Head
Nor is there any relief from this decay in the elders and elder statesmen, here associated with Calvinism, because "The local elect sip their silent whiskey" instead of acting to preserve local trades.
The obvious hazard in this kind of poetry is tendentiousness, and the poems do sometimes become heavy-handed. This usually occurs when Gunn leaves imagery behind and uses more blatantly political and abstract diction, or when he shifts from metaphor to simile. "The Xmas Dawn" is one example of this problem. The poem, in three parts, begins with a haunting image: "The Xmas dawn is a thin blue / smiling child / with snow in her hair / & the smoke of night / in her sleepy eyes ..." So far, so good. The second part begins with another image, this time of a "silver wheel," but the poem then introduces a "dustcart" (garbage collection truck), that enters the scene "with the organised noise of the corporate machine." Now, if this were the only misstep, the poem could recover, but the third section contains this: "human organisation is like a tree / whose leaves if they fall upon the head / will stun with the iron of their false promises." By this time, the poem is so heavily freighted with its attitude toward "human organisation" (by what, precisely, the speaker is so disgusted is never quite clear) that the last few lines, which return to the poignant personification of the beginning, lose their impact.
There is no question that this poet is angry, and he is often at his best when his frustrations at contemporary materialism and war are embedded in personal observation or metaphor. "Occupying Powers" signals its tone with the title, and the poem begins with an embedded metaphor:
All morning for fifty years they have ripped the sky to thunder & still they come the screaming Yanks ghost for ghost & breath for breath the bleeding clouds are spoken for making safe the space for noise by accommodating yet another noise
Not every poem in the book focuses so directly on political matters; "The Solution" is about aging, and "Moth on the Window" is a lovely lyric on loneliness. "My Grandfather Ogun" memorializes a blacksmith, and its subtle tribute to working-class trade and hard physical labor is marred only by the image of "birds of liberty fly[ing] around his hammer." "Slippage," in the same vein, celebrates six fishermen by simply and movingly describing their preparations for the day's work. The poem enlarges its scope by extending, very subtly, the meanings inherent in conventional uses of the word "journey": "soon they will be adrift / preparing for their journey / which unbeknown to them / has already begun."
Most of the poems in The Atlantic Forest, however, are declamatory, and the tone of most of them is rage at what humanity has done to the planet and to itself. Gunn earns his right to this jeremiad by enriching the poems with information and allusion--to places, events, and literature--as well as the history and landscape of his native Scotland. This is not always an easy book to read, and sometimes the frustration of the speaker overtakes his imagery, but given the details of economic decline, occupation by armies and tourists, and environmental destruction against which Gunn declaims, he is voicing a much-needed warning.
The setting of many poems in Jen Hadfield's second collection, Nigh-No-Place, is Canada, where she has traveled extensively. The diction, however, keeps returning to Shetland, where the poet lives. (She includes a welcome glossary at the end.) This is a slim collection, with fewer than sixty pages of poems, and many of the poems themselves are quite short. The book is not slight, though, because the density of metaphor and allusion creates a world, often dreary but not without its joy and hope, that many longer books never achieve.
Hadfield makes frequent use of anaphora and rhyme, often beginning a poem with end rhyme which she abandons after a few lines in favor of slant or internal rhyme, and her list poems are incantatory. They often refuse to build up to a meaning; instead, the lists expand the meanings out, making of the visible and mortal a way to approach transcendence. The introductory title poem, using allegory as its trope, is a good example:
I will meet you at Pity Me Wood. I will meet you at Up-To-No-Good. I will meet you at Stank, Shank, and Stye. I will meet you at Blowfly. ... I will meet you at Bloody Vale. I will meet you at Hunger Hill. I will bring you to New Invention. I will bring you to Lucky Seven. I will bring you from Shivery Man. I will bring you to The Lion and Lamb. ... I will bring you to Grace, Alberta. I will bring you to Nigh-No-Place. I will meet you at Two O'Clock Creek. Will you go with me?
The grim details of landscape, in both Canada and Shetland, throw a dismal cast across many of the poems, but Hadfield never loses the gallows humor that leavens the potentially depressive atmosphere. Her repeated words and puns, as well as her use of the almost-epigram short poem, punctuate the more lyrically leisurely passages and poems. "Narnia No Moose," with its epigraph from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, signals the disappointment of the speaker at the absence of exotic wildlife in Canada, but the poem also expresses a poignant self-derision. This poet can at least smile at her own misery:
Alberta's a miserable monochrome-- a bootcamp of little brown birds, no moose, the grey, grey grass of home.
We might as well laugh, the poem suggests, because it's not going to get much better than this; even spring, in "The Mandolin of May," is less pretty and hopeful than sodden and overwhelming:
Big maples and at the end of the lane, the garden bursts open like a dropped melon. Mealy mash of appletrees, hacked wet chunk of mountain. I carry the chamber pot from casita to bathroom. My hems drag in the wet grass. Cottonseed roils and sinks slowly, cladding the roof and catching on the gutter like curds.
The weather leads the winding lines through meta-poetic meditation ("The same spoiled poem over and over; mushy round the / peach-pit of the poem before. The same commas maul it, like / fruitflies") into a description of a family, but the journey is essentially circular. Nothing really changes, and the poem ends on a perfectly twisted cliche:
Grandmere sets down her tumbler. Ice-cubes clank in rye and water. I thought I heard a bell, she says. I show the glass, shake it. I said it sounds like the bloody cows coming home.
Yes, it's essentially sad, but the poetry of Jen Hadfield is also funny without lapsing into mawkishness. Now and then she strays into a gimmicky form, such as in "Burra Moonwalk," which begins in neat rows but is soon scattered all over the page; for the most part, however, Nigh-No-Place, is a very strong collection, with its "blashey-wadder" weather and its sentient--though not sentimental--animals. It is a book that displays the complicated attitudes toward nation and history that many poets spend careers trying to achieve. Her "Self-portrait as a Fortune-telling Miracle Fish" may sum up the book's persona best:
... my daemon's a dogfish--I think-- a Starry Hound, a blunt and hungry hobo, scrounging, starveling, sleeping on the go.
Robert Crawford has been a presence in Scottish poetry for years, and his list of publications includes many volumes of poetry, criticism, and edited anthologies. The poems in his sixth collection, Full Volume, reflect this experience and success; these are the poems of a confident, mature poet who knows his audience. This book is also a slender volume without section breaks or even a glossary of Gaelic words, though a few of the poems, widely various in form, do have explanatory epigraphs. From brief epigram-like lyrics to more spacious adaptations of earlier verse, the poems in this book feature the landscape of Scotland as a corrective to the industrial, dehumanized world beyond.
If Crawford's work has one weakness, it is an accessibility that seems too conventional in its choice of metaphors. Particularly in the love poems, the language becomes somewhat precious at times, as in the short lyric "Yin and Yang":
In my body you scour the sgurr For its sun buried deep in the forest. In your body I search for the boat Let slip in the middle of the night.
When he is at his best, however, Crawford uses metaphor and metonymy to tease the details of the local place-names and historical figures into political or cultural importance. One abiding interest of the book is location as stance--an attentiveness to the background and landscape of a small place as a way of combating urban facelessness. This attention extends to love of family; Crawford's concentration on localized human action and emotion may account for the number of love poems in the book. His attention is also pulled by the poetry and history of Scotland, (as opposed to England), and when he combines these points of interest in a single poem, the result is startlingly rich. "Shetland Vows," deceptively simple on its surface, uses loyalty to place as a metonymic device to signal larger connections to the global environment and different cultures:
I swear by the unfallen broch of Mousa, I swear by fallen Snarravoe on Unst That it is possible to rise above them Over the rainbowed green nub of The Knab, And sense, way out at earth's circumference, Sceptical London, Laramie, Hong Kong Who doubt the arctic tern-packed broch of Mousa Or Snarravoe on Unst are as they are, But knowing such disbelief, go on believing In voes and fluff, in monuments and rain Below the wing's pale rind, and keep faith both With the soaked planet's whole revealed horizon And with home ground, the national smudge of Scotland That holds my wife, our daughter, and our son.
Crawford's complicated love for his native country is also apparent in the many adaptations of traditional Gaelic lyrics. "Honey" is both a celebration of region and a battle cry, ending "My father Finn MacCoul had in his war-band / Seven squadrons ready to fight any / Man or beast; when we unleashed the deerhounds / They leapt ahead, their baying pure wild honey." "Clan Donald's Call to Battle at Harlaw," directed at the "Clan of Conn," is a list of all the qualities they need to be ready to fight, to take "strength from the eye of the storm." These poems speak indirectly to the long-standing political and linguistic dominance of England, under which Scotland has long chafed. The translations based on poems by George Buchanan, who flourished in the 1580s, the period just before King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, seem designed, at least in part, to celebrate Scotland's difference and separateness from its neighbor to the south.
Crawford's commemoration of Scottish history, however, is not the only cultural project at work in Full Volume. Poems such as "Broadband," "Really," and "The Digital Library, St Andrews" decry the ubiquity of the internet, with its overload of instant information, and the endlessly busy chatrooms that encourage shallow human connections. These poems are both wry and wistful, and while they are topical, they are also incisive. Robert Crawford, overall, is a versatile, wide-ranging poet who has developed a steady, reliable voice that allows him to combine a large number of subjects and forms in a single volume without sacrificing the book's unified feel.
Poetry in Scotland is certainly flourishing alongside the fiction of celebrated writers like James Kelman and Duncan McLean. The poetry, however, like poetry in so many other small countries, is less well-known outside the region. Some literary editors, like Gerry Cambridge at The Dark Horse, are actively working to increase the cross-fertilization of Scots and American poetry. Let's hope that the mutual interest continues. Scotland, like Wales (not to mention Northern Ireland and even Cornwall) is an important political and aesthetic corrective to the idea that the best "British" poetry is usually English poetry. Excellent poetry is being produced throughout the British Isles, some of the finest coming "from the margins."
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|Title Annotation:||The Palace of Oblivion; In the Hanging Valley; The Atlantic Forest; Nigh-No-Place; Full Volume|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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