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Northern Alchemy - Christine De Luca

Patrician Press (2020)

A Review by Anne MacLeod


In her introduction to Northern Alchemy, Christine De Luca lists the three choices open to a poet born with an indigenous mother tongue:  a/ to write and publish only locally in that tongue;  b/ to publish a tiny amount of indigenous work, weaving (and hiding) it in collections shaped in English;  c/ to dilute the native voice in the interests of English clarity. De Luca could only contemplate the first of these.  Anything else, she says, would have felt like selling out.  She writes from the need ‘to express thought and feeling using the full-bodied dialect’ and proposes that ‘language is a dialect with a literature.’  She is grateful for the EU’s encouragement for minorities and minority languages, and for a recent trend for publishing ‘work with a feeling of liminality, periphery, of linguistic or cultural distinctiveness.’  She traces the Norn that has evolved into current Shetlandic to the Danish -Norwegian history of the islands; and to the Old Scots with which Norn inexorably mingled.

De Luca grew up in Shetland, but left the islands to study and  has long lived in Edinburgh.  She was appointed Edinburgh Makar from 2014-2017.  Both she and her work are celebrated across the world, anthologised and translated not only in Icelandic and Norwegian but also French and Italian.

In this retrospective and chronologically-ordered bilingual collection she offers her poems in proud Shetlandic matched with English versions she characterises as accurate translations framed for meaning and not poetic effect. She hopes that English speakers will ‘sound out the poems phonetically’ and that once spoken aloud, released into the air, the Shetlandic will feel ‘less unfamiliar.’  She is not afraid to challenge the reader.

Let me say from the outset that this work is a delight.

There are many ways in which you could approach the reading of it:   aloud or silently;  in  Shetlandic alone;  in Shetlandic followed by English; in English alone.  You could intermingle the texts, comparing and contrasting,  dipping in and out.  You could embark on a straight-through reading, from beginning to end.  But however you map your progress through Northern Alchemy, the music, the muscularity and poise of the language whether Shetlandic or English, the beauty and importance and life of each and every poem will linger.

The earliest poems tend to reflect the poet’s deep-rooted Shetland experience and heritage:  Gyaain ta da eela  (Going evening sea-fishing)  demonstrates perfectly the strength and beauty and exactitude of the Shetlandic voice.

‘Abön da tide, laek a sel, wir boat wid lie;
we hed ta tize her doon,
bulderin an traan owre da ebb
but nyiff i da sea.’

    In  Wast wi da Valkyries, the language pins us exactly to the voe then spins us into an uncertain future:

‘Dark burn ta voe, a rinkel
bi Nederdale, trist slow slockit
in a sea-baaled ayre…

                               ….but fur wis
travaillers o da western edge
hit’s a time to tak, ta pick owre
gaets wir taen, or no taen..’

De Luca’s poems pitch us into the Shetland landscape but range widely beyond it, addressing not only the natural world, but life, joy, sadness, love, and time – always framed in and enhanced by the words she came from. She looks for, and achieves,  a negotiated understanding, whether in the iconic cockle shell pattern so much Shetland knitting is famed for

‘                           … therteen loops taen in
dan löt oot slowly on a oppenwark o gengs:
waves at shadit ta inky-blueness wi da wind.’
Da cockle shall

or in remembering, after her death, a much-loved aunt explaining the exact meaning of the word Yarbent.

‘‘Weel, hit’s a boo o wadder fae da sooth aest,
laid on herd an dry, no laek ta shift,
maybe roond voar, or efter hairst.’

Der a yarbent settled apön me far you göd:
sic a peerie wird, but nirse. A’ll varg
i da face o him and keep i da mind’s eye
as you wir wint tae, da bigger picture.’

The bigger picture. Life.  
The poem as dance.
I have never seen it, but in the Faeroes there is a famous traditional dance performed to ballads chanted in the Faeroese language, which like Shetlandic derived from Old Norse. For centuries, this language was suppressed,  not written down, but the ballads for the dance kept it alive.

Christine De Luca is not the only poet currently publishing in Shetlandic, but the poems in Northern Alchemy  alone would set the heart dancing, keep any language vibrant.

And her English translations would do it for English too.


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