Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

All The Prayers In The House

By Miriam Nash (Bloodaxe Books, Hexham)

A Review by Ian Stephen

Miriam Nash, born in Inverness, had an upbringing which included living for a time on Erraid, that near-island of quarrymen's cottages and Northern Lighthouse Board jetties, in from the tideway from jagged Torran rocks. Her career as a poet includes an MFA in New York as well as winning an Eric Gregory Award and coming runner-up in the Edwin Morgan prize for young poets with Scottish links. Her connection with the Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers and one wayward writer continued with her residence in Grez sur Loing as recipient of an RLS Award.
It is Robert Louis who comes first to mind in this crafted but dynamic work which ranges tirelessly through several poetic forms and at times breaks free of any obvious one to risk a more naked expression.  In fact, she risks an imagined literary dialogue with Louis, the cove himself. But then the reader is taken straight from that entertainment to a ballad-like maritime poem which is sinister and sensitive at the same time: 'The seabed is full of fathers.' It is no surprise to meet the Selkie legend later but the language is fresh.
It is clear that both education and performance are central to the working practice of this poet. 'Ladies of Valhalla' is explicit in its reference to her 'time' working at a County Jail in New York. But a poem which must work well, out loud, also entertains, on the page as in the intonation of names of colours of nail-varnish:'...Today I'm feeling pale/and duck egg blue.'
But for me it is the poems of disrupted family life which are most haunting. This poet can be wry and dry but she also let's go to a surreal tendency, well-caught in the choice of cover image in this Bloodaxe publication. A title like 'The Father's Ceesarean' warns you but does not diminish the power of the imagery;

'and all his body is a voice that calls and calls until they lift

each of his children out of him, not babies, but small,
bundled in hats and scarves. The street is full of foxes' yells.'

Miriam Nash may have virtuoso tendencies but she already knows when to hold back display of skill. The poem 'Her Place' seems, to me, simple, personal, humane but intense as a Bergman film:

'No headstone marks her place,
only a mess of wild Swedish strawberries,'

    From all the forms and guises, a voice emerges.