Wordplay and energy
A Review by Ian Stephen
Edited by Calum Rodger, tapsalteerie, 2019
Em Strang, Shearsman Books, 2019
Lesley Glaister, Mariscat Press, 2019
Ross Wilson, Smokestack Books, 2018
Martin Malone, Shoestring Press, 2019
Let out the Djinn
Jane Aldous, Arachne Press, 2019
Gerard Rochford, Malfranteaux Concepts, 2016
A selection of new(ish) gatherings of poems reveals energy and commitment even before you turn one page. Tapsalteerie describe a new gathering of Scottish poets working 'outside the mainstream' as 'some of the most urgent and adventurous poetry of our time'. You have to believe in that possibility just to keep making the things and definitely to publish them when attention, far less reward, is likely to be scant.
For me, the poet in this collection who makes the words ring in an engaging way is Harry Josephine Giles. The first impression is in sound and maybe there's more modernism in the profitable clash of speaking styles than in the more somber pallet of previous Orcadians such as Edwin Muir. Yet there's something of the ballad there still – an elusive fable behind the ephemera of sensation. In 'Astrid sketches Orcadia' the airborne artist 'dights awey the natralism/fae her slaet, an stairts ower again/abstrack...' this results in 'black lines fer the starns, blue dubs/fer the tides, green aircs for the peedie skail/ o wheels an airms an bolas gaithered roond Central'.
Translations or versions are provided but these are just as full of wordplay and energy. You get the feeling that this Orcadian's collision course with the city is more positive than that of the Muir family's anxious clash with Glasgow, maybe a century before.
Em Strang enters the natural world, especially animal kingdoms. You get a fair telling of this book by its cover (Kate Walters). Horse and human merge in an ink and wash imagery that hints more of shamanism than surrealism. Shearsman's choice of a matt laminate, lean typography and a hint of vellum in the pages serve the effect of entering into an artist's book which is considered but in which the language has not lost urgency. This poet alternates between framed perceptions in 3 or 4 lines and more extended explorations of the nature of human loss. In all, there's an uncanny gift of making the move from the most understated but accurate observation and seeing what's not visible to most, more sure than Coinneach Odhair. The feathers of a dead crane fall from a table 'like milk for the cat.'
Or take this jump:
'Anything that's not tied down is gone,
even the sun.'
It could be the simple act of chopping firewood or it could be the chance find of roadkill but this poet sees and feels with equal intensity. Flora prompts equal scrutiny as fauna. In fact, they seem joined in blood. You might have thought you were on safer territory with the vermillion pompom of a peony. But you're not. That hangs
'like a bloody fist or a fresh heart.'
There is also variation in the techniques used to similar ends. 'Elegy' and 'Because the moon...' come close to incantation with employment of refrain and regular rhyme. Elsewhere rhyme or half-rhyme is often used but occurring as if by accident along with chiming of sound inside the line. These measures tend to accumulate to a form that is only very occasionally lulling. And that when it is the intention, maybe just before the pain of birthing or burial returns as it must. It's all too seldom that such a clear way of sensing meets technique which serves its purpose but with no need to flourish it or prolong its display. And all that has also met, in this case with illustration and design which combine to present it in a form which suits the poems so well.
Mariscat has a long-established use of a form which is between a pamphlet and a book. These are wire-stitched but certainly not spine-less in content. 'Nub' has the simplest graphic but the colours and typography on its cover gives it a quality look and feel. This promise is more than met by the content, presented in a sans-serif on a good weight of near-cream. Lesley Glaister has written a dozen novels, well regarded, but her poetry has the freshness of someone newly in love with the game. Her second collection with Mariscat has her persona merge with a tree rather than Em Strang's horse. The first section is simply an episodic love-letter to the 'vegetable hulk' of an ancient fig tree in Moreton Bay, NZ.
The object of admiration doesn't speak back much but there's still some tiffs. The lover is disturbed to find the young tree was an epiphyte, feeding off others, a bit like a cuckoo. A strangler too. Pummeling happens. The series, celebratory poems but offset with gin-dry wit, prepares you for a looser grouping with shifting settings but all probing. Just when you think it's all a bit cozy a child takes a fork to the underside of a table which carries four layers of protection on its upper skin. If there's one theme to the fore, I'd say it's family matters but the minimum of apparent artifice and maximum honesty are used to examine memories.
Ross Wilson's title, 'Line Drawing' comes from his revelation of the story behind a phrase you take for granted. His lines are often drawn in the conceptual space between men squaring-up to each other. That could be in a ring for amateur boxers or the line could be the surface of the earth – miners who work below the crust but cross fencewire to roll Easter eggs with their kids in the open day. Language can also draw the line – a ned on one side of a border is a chav on the other. His poems are muscular in their terse storytelling but more tender than macho.
Shoestring Press's good service to poetry includes bringing a selected poems of the Argyll postie and social historian, Angus Martin, back to the light and introducing more in this hemisphere to the work of Tasmanian, Pete Hay, another celebrant of the vernacular voice. Now the Nottingham press have published a substantial collection by Martin Malone, a lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberdeen and one who has made the move from England's NE to that of Scotland. A century since its ending, this poet assumes the voices of soldiers of World War One. He does not attempt an idiom unnatural to him but that of informed and educated commentators, participants or family.
The paintings of Wyndham Lewis and Paul Nash are cited but so is the artist Christian Boltanski (born 1944). The book has two parts, one a looser gathering and one a numbered series of prose poems. In all, directness and clarity are sought. Often a film-like feel is created by linguistic imagery – 'his last things' on a hanger or a tank compressing two walls of a trench, 'as you'd close two sides of a wound.' Narrative is again to the fore.
Narrative clarity also drives Jane Aldous. Then she lets herself go. An eel is ‘tricky as a spiv’. There’s much to admire in this poem but, for me, the Sargasso birth and death cycle as ‘mysterious stillness’ doesn’t quite sustain the spell.
Sadly, Gerard Rochford is no longer with us (he passed away last December, Ed.). ‘Cairn’, his group of poems for the Isle of Lewis, comes with a foreword from Robert Macfarlane to catch the tone:
‘These special, subtle poems are the work of a writer of rare versatility, who can move in a beat from the frailty of elegy to a robust address:
“I’d like a word with the maw of this river”’.
One poem celebrates the moment when the poem which Iain Crichton Smith regarded as his strongest work, ‘Deer on the High Hills’ was revealed in Aberdeen. Anyone who had the privilege of hearing that makar will nod. In contrast, here’s one of Gerard Rochford’s series of haiku for Lewis:
coloured the Calanais stones
scraped off by vandals’