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Quines: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland - Gerda Stevenson

Luath Press - Second edition (2020)

A Review by Becs Boyd

Powerful writing, like Gerda Stevenson’s Quines, not only creates a life beyond the page but alters the cast of light, modifying the sight, smell and taste of the present. Released in its second edition as lockdown loomed in early 2020 with the addition of five new poems, the collection charts a hidden history of over 70 extraordinary deceased women of Scotland (including a football team), from a 5000-year-old reconstructed girl’s head in a Shetland museum to this century’s remarkable quines.

Stevenson frames the collection as, ‘not to highlight injustices…but rather to celebrate achievements’. Yet these intimate, deeply human voices turn tapsalteerie the traditional paean of ‘derring do’. At one level the collection is surely a welcome and inspiring celebration of the extraordinary and too often undervalued contributions of women to the public spheres of science, political and social activism, leadership, medicine, law, engineering, the arts. One is left moved by frustration and admiration at skirmishes with the patriarchal dragon and impressed by the life-giving breath of Stevenson’s poetry. As Hilary Mantel notes, ‘as soon as we die we enter into fiction…only through art can you live [history] again’. But the true visceral impact lies in the way these individual ‘voices’ form a quiet collective, demanding a reimagining of the very edifices and structures of power today.  

‘Voice’ forms the substrate for themes of identity and empowerment. Stevenson addresses the potential snag of maintaining each poem’s distinct voice by removing herself from all but two. Instead she grants narrative voice to the subject or to a close person or object - a daughter, a Maggie’s Centre, a sari, a ship, Death, even a constellation.  Eighteen of the 62 poems are in Scots, with the remainder in English with the occasional Gaelic idiom. In the mouths of women like Jane Haining, Isabella McDuff, martyr Margaret Wilson and ‘Hauf-hingit Maggie’, the music of Scots is a resonant expression of both personality and heritage. Yet Stevenson maintains a broad notion of Scots identity. In the words of Countess McDuff:

A skimmer o licht on the waves ablow.
Scotland tae the North, England tae the Sooth.
The samin mune abuin us aa, that hus nae care
fur stane or nation, croon or king.

The English of remaining two thirds reflects the collection’s inclusivity, from Scots-born women, like Mary Slessor and Mary Somerville, who made their mark abroad, to those, like freed slave Eliza Junor and WWI doctor Elsie Inglis, who were of Scots heritage or made Scotland home. Had Stevenson had Gaelic, one senses that Sgàthath, Màiri Mhòr nan Òran or Màiri Anndra would have made expressive use of it.

Silence, as the unspoken as well as the quelled, becomes its own ‘voice’.  While patriarchal silencing seems omnipresent - in the form of the marriage bar (‘another good woman consigned to the grave of wedlock’p.84), male violence (‘clure the hure’p.55) or societal presumption (‘a person is defacto male’p.94) - there is also empowerment in the space between words. Lady Nairne, Helen MacFarlane and Margaret Wilson choose the voice of silence (thae words wunna pass her stane-cauld lips, fur aa their soun wull gie her life’p.51). Stevenson posits ‘voice’ not as empty noise but as intent - ‘no false emotion, no romantic froth’(p.60). As Mary Slessor insists, ‘My God wudnae demand I obey ony man’s decree that wisnae true tae common sense’(p.74). While Stevenson’s writing demonstrates the power of language to reveal the hidden, these women remind a social media generation that they are essentially about action, not talk.  

Part of the ‘truth’ of these voices seems to be the inextricable connection between the extraordinary and the deeply ordinary. Achievement is worn lightly. In ‘Helen Crawfurd’s Memoirs in Seven Chapters’, the redoubtable suffragette, Red Clydesider and peace campaigner, now old, recalls her greatest moments on the international stage but now it’s, ‘Tea-time. Must get to the Co-op before it shuts’(p.88).  Humour excavates the human, as when Mary Slessor chides St Paul on his imprecations to wifely submission, ‘Na, na, Paul laddie! This will no do!’(p.74). Elizabeth Meehan and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition deactivate sectarian hatred by simply dancing in its face.  How, these voices demand, does one measure achievement in the public sphere against the ‘ordinary’ experiences of everyday womanhood – childbirth, miscarriage, love, loss, violence, self-sacrifice, ageing – that permeate each human story? This is the insight movingly embodied by Mary Queen of Scots, forced to abdicate the day after miscarrying twins: ‘dinna waste yer tears on gien up a bittie gowd an glister, haud ma airm if it helps, but dinna, dinna greet fur this.’(p.46) To be extraordinary, the poems suggest, is not a matter of status, statues or plaudits, but of a quality of spirit that knows the transformative power of the ordinary, transcending outward trappings.

For today’s trauchled world of fake news, narcissism and persistent inequalities (notably fewer than a third of Luath Press authors are not white male), Stevenson’s Quines sounds a clear note of both hope and warning. These are unique female voices ostensibly separated both from the reader and each other by such inconveniences as death, time, politics, religion, ethnicity and class. Yet their congregated presence assumes a mysterious autonomy, a female chorus, that speaks from the pages to challenge as well as to inspire.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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