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In search of diamond clarity

A Review by Mandy Haggith

Ian Crockatt, The Song Weigher, Arc Publications, 2017
A C Clarke, A Troubling Woman, Oversteps Books, 2017
Morelle Smith, Shaping the Water Path, Diehard, 2017
Sally Evans, A Burrell Tapestry, Diehard, 2017
Anne Shivas, Whit Grace, Word Poetry, 2017
Briar Wood, Rawahi, Anahera Press, 2017
Martin Stepek and John Guzlowski, Waiting for Guzlowski, Fleming Publications, 2017.

What can a poem do that prose can’t? It’s an intriguing question and last season’s crop of new poetry books demonstrates some possible answers.

The old Nordic bards, or ‘skalds’, knew fine well that one thing they could do with poetry was to make music with words, in order to help legends and tales of valour to be held in memory. Ian Crockatt has translated the complete poems of tenth century Viking and skald, Egill Skallagrimsson, and, most impressively, yielded them up in The Song Weigher with a transfixing display of sound patterning and word play. If this is how the poems sounded a millennium ago, no wonder they haven’t been forgotten.

I’ll harness the sea-horse
- harbour mead-dwarves word-hoard –
with a tight rein, entertain
ears tuned to skald-speak. Hear!

Reading this rhythmical (and thoroughly blood-thirsty!) poetry, your ears are guaranteed to ‘tune to skald-speak’. The poems of Egill cover a huge range of topics – from battle-boasts to praise-poems, from love-lines to satire – and use many different forms. These are all helpfully explained in an appendix, along with a fascinating glossary of the ‘kennings’ (metaphorical phrases), which so enrich the poems. The title itself is one of these: a kenning for the poet himself. It comes from an elegy for his drowned son and deceased parents, in which he says: ‘the song-weigher’s/ sorrow bound’:

    A wave cut
        this cruel breach,
    broke my father’s
        family’s ranks;
    careless seas
        cancelled my sons,
    left this gaping
        wave-gouged gap.

You can hear the sea rocking the poet’s boat throughout this book. It certainly floated mine.

Another fascinating use of poetry to cast a light into the depths of history is achieved by A C Clarke in her mesmerising collection, A Troubling Woman, which relates the life and death of a fourteenth century mystic called Margery Kempe. The poems alternate between four different points of view: Margery herself, a trusting priest called Robert Spryngolde who is her confessor, a much less sympathetic cleric who acts as a scribe for her story, and finally a modern woman called ‘A’ who is on her own spiritual journey from codified religion to atheism. The distance between the worlds and beliefs of these four poetic voices gives us space to reflect on questions thrown up by the life-story of Margery and by the quotations from historical texts used as epigraphs throughout the book. What is faith? Is love a spiritual force? How can we see beyond our culturally-defined limits? Who should be trusted as authoritative? These are deep philosophical and psychological questions, as relevant today as in the fourteenth century, and raised with subtlety and grace by A C Clarke’s finely-worked poetry: ‘Sometimes a brain flash lights up the shadowed room / in which our choices stumble.’

As well as being thoroughly holy, Margery is delightfully sensual, allowing plenty of scope for vivid, even erotic, writing. Here is Margery on dress.

    How much I loved

    the slub of wool thick-woven, the slink of silk,
    brocades stiff with gilt thread. Look at me
    cried the slashes in my cloak, the lining

    peeping through like the scarlet mouth
    of a wound…

It’s impossible to overpraise this multi-voiced, insightful and readable book. If only all history books were so compelling.

Another history-poetry book, also telling the life story of a woman misunderstood in her time, is Sally Evans’ collection about Marion Burrell and her family, who were responsible for the collection of art housed in Pollock Park in Glasgow. A Burrell Tapestry begins with a helpful introduction and outline of the story which is then told through a sequence of poems. The book is in two halves. The first works in chronological order from 1775, when Marion’s ancestor George Burrell sets out from Northumberland, to 1993, when a new lifeboat is launched in Govan harbour, paid for by Marion. In between, a family fortune is made from shipping and mostly spent by Marion’s father William Burrell, who clearly loved beautiful things, particularly tapestries, more than the people who shared his life.

    “Burrell” itself may mean “red cloth”
    and gorgeous crimsons, gold and blacks,
    fiery titans, blues and silver,
    flaming russets, browns and green,
    blood-reds, greys and cream –
    of all the items I’ve acquired
    my first preference is the tapestries.

The second part of the collection is a long poem sequence, ‘A Marion Burrell Sampler’, which embroiders the life of William’s daughter through a thwarted marriage, estrangement from family and reinvention of a self. Marion Burrell was clearly more than just the beautiful thing her father wished her to be, and she comes to life in these poems. It’s an intriguing story, deftly told.

One of the wonderful things about poems is that they don’t need length for impact. This is perfectly shown by Waiting for Guzlowski, jointly authored by Martin Stepek, a Polish-Scots poet, and John Guzlowski, who is Polish-American. They share an interest in Buddhist thought and both have harrowing family histories of survival against the odds in concentration camps during the horrors of war in Poland in the last century. They have explored this shared heritage through a trans-Atlantic exchange of short poems on Twitter. The social media platform requires each message, or tweet, to be limited in size, which lends itself to the highly compressed form of haiku or tanka. This collection is the collaborative result of that exchange. Sometimes it has the tone of a stylised debate between Buddhist monks, exploring zen paradoxes and aphorisms:

    G (Guzlowski): Monk Ikkyu stands alone before the forest
    It’s dark but that doesn’t frighten him
    Everything is dark at night
    and it’s always night

    S (Stepek): Monk Ikkyu sits still in the forest
    It’s light but that doesn’t faze him
    Everything is made of light
    always light

At other times it reaches deep into the terrifying heart of the holocaust.

    G: The bodies
    in the ovens
    of Auschwitz
    are still burning

    S: The hearts
    of the bodies burned

in Auschwitz

    are still beating
    The ovens ashen-faced
    in shame

A role that poetry can play much better than prose is to revel in the expansive possibilities of language, playing with old or obscure words or phrases and thereby keeping them in currency. In our globalised world, it can also act as a linguistic exchange, and two new collections bring to bear North American and Antipodean perspectives, blending their lexicons with words from Scottish languages. Whit Grace, by Anne Shivas, weaves (well-glossed) Doric into musings from Israel and the USA, including translations into the east coast dialect of poets as diverse as Galway Kinnell and Yehuda Amichai. She plays cheerfully with words and forms, finding language everywhere:

    the field a slate of runes
written on the run –
            deer, snowshoe rabbit
    coyote, fox,
        parallel tracks –
    of faa and faar we are.

Briar Wood, from New Zealand, has found the language that interests her further west in Britain, and blends Gaelic and Cornish with Maori in Rawahi, sadly with no glossary. Perhaps the poet’s intention is that we should simply let ourselves be washed by the music of the words, of which there is plenty:

    On the border between
    birch and larch –
    lifecraft light
    A sag of wood
    in each cremation stack.

    So the lifeboat floats
    on wordflows
    skittering skiff scud

    scooting skathweyth
    skewed into the tide
    riding and gliding…

There’s less wordplay in Morelle Smith’s book, Shaping the Water Path, but plenty of reflections on land and time, and wonderings from wanderings. The final section, called ‘Liminal’, is a stand-alone piece with which to face the edge of the world, pondering the big questions that poetry is best at:

    Is it what we feel the most, that’s the measure of reality?
    Or is it how opaque or clear
    the inner vision and the senses are,    
    their diamond clarity?

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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