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What is the writer risking with this book?

A Review by Helen Allison

Jim Stewart, Voyage Out Press, 2018
Eating thistles
Deborah Moffatt, Smokestack Books, 2019
Niall Campbell, Bloodaxe, 2019
Samuel Tongue, Tapsalteerie Press, 2019
Why the Sky is Far Away
Mandy Haggith, Red Squirrel Press, 2019

One Summer, five extraordinary books of poetry. Jim Stewart’s THIS –Tay Poems, from The Voyage Out Press; Deborah Moffatt’s mythic collection, Eating Thistles, from Smokestack Books; Niall Campbell’s second collection from Bloodaxe, the hypnotic, Noctuary; Samuel Tongue’s sharp-toothed second pamphlet Stitch, from the always fascinating Tapsalteerie Press, and Mandy Haggith’s beautiful fourth collection, Why the Sky is Far Away, from Red Squirrel Press.

Whether the poet’s view is microscopic, close to home, or on the farthest reaches of the world, these collections, together and alone, offer an antidote to personal and political antipathy with their unflinching and empathic vision.

In the Foreword to THIS – Tay Poems, by the late Jim Stewart (no such thing as a dead poet), Kirsty Gunn describes his work as ‘living poems’, and how Stewart saw poetry as a slow, determined process. With startling illustrations by Kirstie Behrens, the collection is split into three sections; Field, Forest and Shore. The book is light dancing on the river, immersive and dazzling. His tone is never prescriptive, you have to lend yourself to see what Stewart sees.

…Blessings on all that’s wise
for itself alone...’ – BINDWEED

Stewart’s Tay is pure energy, and I was struck with the many references to dancing, with ‘ceilidhs’, ‘moves’, ‘arabesqued’, and ‘shimmied’, moving through the first section. (I suspect he lead death on a similar merry, no-holds-barred dance.) This section sees insects thrum, and plants are breathing gods, all sinewy strength. This is nature aware of itself, blood, breeding and muck on full display, birth and death wrestling each other.

 ‘This pregnant fly
squat with egg
…discharged herself to die somewhere.’ – FLY

‘their squealed jitters
pool in yolk,
in the hot work of embryos.’ – OYSTERCATCHERS

Stewart’s trees are maps, language pointing to ancient wisdom, ‘lost’, ‘co-ordinates’, ‘territory’, but also mysterious spirits, ‘torpor guards’ and ‘wraiths’. There is nothing passive here. This is more than witnessing nature, this is guts and bones, its dark dreams.

‘I threw a stone to hear its echo
on the tree trunks.

to craze the weed and draggle the plants;
and over the chaos, contemplate
the violence that was done upon this water.’ – SQUIRREL

Shore swept me up in beautiful poems like TWO DEAD MOLES, who are ‘surprised for all time’ (an apt description for Stewart himself.)

NIGHT GULLS, DUNDEE, swoop and glide with death never far away.

‘The night is theirs not mine. The vacant street
walked by all the generations dead’

Through the changing but immortal Tay, Stewart passes on to us his deep and reverence for all life.

Deborah Moffatt’s collection Eating Thistles, is a stone in history’s shoe. Reading these mythic, intense poems I recalled a poetry workshop with the wonderful Anne Macleod, who passed around a small stone sucked by a soldier in Gallipoli to keep his thirst at bay. There is a feeling of eavesdropping on important, world-changing conversations. She has a bug planted on Roman gods, a camera on Russia, St Kilda, and the Sudan.

‘They ask how did you do it,
not, how did it happen,
as if it were all your fault,
this accident of history.’ – The Accident

Her tone is insistent, powerful.  The language vibrant and rich, making her subject’s dark history even more poignant.

‘She saw the island as she wanted it to be,

in the violet-grey grasses of the bogs,…’. – The Moving Island

The St Kilda triad sequence is particularly haunting; Moffatt asking questions that have no answer, but insists that we keep looking. She has a gift at turning us around to face things, the personal political, the political always personal.

‘We had bartered tomorrow for today,
gambled, and lost,’ – Hostages

‘Survival brought a terrible clarity, real life

not a thing can be forgotten, or ignored.’ – Oblivion

One of the collection’s most moving poems is A Distant Island; a meditation on distance, both personal and geographical.
Her tone is often mournful and mysterious, as if the full implications of historical events are still rippling, far off into the future. Moffatt makes us eye-witnesses, and with knowledge comes responsibility.

Niall Campbell’s Noctuary is a lantern, with enchanting and emblem-rich poems held up to our eager faces. Here are signs, transformations, a new father’s open heart. Each poem a talisman against the dark. In fairy tales, words are powerful spells, and the reckoning of deeds and misdeeds go on forever. Campbell weaves us into his poems like briar roses. He leads us willingly into the night and beyond.

‘if the road seems long it’s because it is.’ – First Illness

His vulnerability as a new father and the tenderness of a new child is hypnotic, dream-like. This is the heart, he says and ‘no heart grown heavy, heavier, without opening.’ His tone gentle, honest, apologetic even, reminding me of a quote where having children is like having our heart walking around outside your body. That vulnerability, that utter care needed but never reached.

‘I’m sorry how it sounds,
but I wanted something different,
and so this is what I did.’ – Thinning Apples

Here is a father keeping the dark at bay for as long as possible.

‘but a new voice calls,
and a new hand guides,
and a new heart strikes
where the old heart stood.’ – Crusoe, One Year on the Island

Campbell inhabits a trustworthy and terrifying new place of ‘I don’t know, but I will learn’. I found myself re-reading poems endlessly in loops, with images stock-piling like ingredients for spells; ‘three cellos by three seats’, and ‘lemons falling from the applecart.’

Moth, is one of the collection’s most breath-taking poems.

‘…the womb’s warm evening:
windless, but with a thousand tailwinds rising;’

The collection is a call to arms to hold rather than hurt, but the vulnerability is not passive. It is a powerful force of good.

Samuel Tongue’s Stitch is a microscope, the examined world in all its beauty and terror. Louise Glück wrote about how we are like snipers when we only see things from one vantage point, whereas Tongue’s range is all encompassing. Here are breast-feeding women in hijabs, stray dogs, animals, fish, chemicals, and ‘calcified oceans.’

Mountain Hare, is a prose poem where Tongue calls time on racism and white privilege.

‘so, mountain hare, tell me why you bury your pink tongue in the snow and eat; why do you desire whiteness? is it because you need to fit in…’

His punches never miss their mark and his poems have a fascinating transparency. No hidden tricks, just clear-sighted exposure. ‘Make me an instrument of your peace’, is the first line in Device.  A description that could be used for every poem in the pamphlet.  

In The Dogs of Valparaiso, the difficult and the ugly rub shoulders with the holy.

‘sculpting our turgid bellies against the back
streets of this city. The pilgrims near
the churches bow in prayer…’

Like switching slides on a microscope’s plate, these poems urge us to look closer at the world. I read these poems over and over, turning their lenses until I felt I could see as widely and as humanely as Tongue himself.

Mandy Haggith’s much anticipated fourth collection, Why the Sky is Far Away, is a cave painting; a bear, a child’s handprint, the sea, colours burning through time. In her Acknowledgements she states ‘…poems don’t happen without love’ and the book is awash with it.
Here are tribal, creation stories, personal history and nature woven into a rich tapestry. She weighs truth as heavy, but not burdensome. The poems joyful, but with a depth that makes you listen closely.
I was lucky enough to have heard Cutting Peats, a poem for four voices, read aloud in an art gallery. Its meditative beauty giving me goosebumps.

Alphabet, is an A-Z of wonders.


Dandelion are, dunnocks are, Dad is.
I feel down. I don’t do. I doubt.
Duties are doubled.
But dandelions are, and daffodils definitely are too.’

Forty, is one of the most moving poems. The grief powerfully understated, with platitudes rejected as false comfort.

‘It’s not one of these things.

None of them at all.’

Haggith’s sequence poems are like dabs of paint you follow with your eye, always leading to the heart. Fences, has her question whether we are the caged rather than animals. Her touch is light but your view on the world has been softened.

A recent Twitter post asked reviewers to question, ‘what is the writer risking with this book?’
Stewart trusts he has enough time to show us slowness. Not to teach us, but for us to teach ourselves. He writes, ‘…there are no ghosts/..the only phantom is my fear’. Campbell casts a spell of utter vulnerability, to risk having your heart wedged open by a baby’s fist. Tongue risks clear-sightedness. Our warts and all world needing action not platitudes or apathy. Haggith unites us with humour, reverence and exuberance. She dares us to see how connected we all are. If we can feel that then it becomes impossible to turn away.

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