A Bard’s Life by Sheena Blackhall
Rymour Press (2021) £9.99
A Review by Alistair Lawrie
Alan Spence refers to Sheena Blackhall’s “A Bard’s Life” in his preface as “a kind of autobiography”. The book is certainly surprising, “no ordinary telling” as Spence puts it. Biographical information consists of three pages of timeline at the end, surprisingly detailed explanation of the photographs and drawings and regular wee notes throughout, setting pieces of writing in the context of her life. Yet minimal as this is, the book is remarkably frank and revealing about her life.
This “autobiography” bears witness throughout to the struggle Sheena Blackhall’s working life has been to ensure that her writing is true to her North East roots while remaining experimental in style and challenging in its subject matter.
The story “The Smiling Horse Of Troy” is central to this, exploring as it does the difficulty faced by a Doric speaker confronted by a world where English is the dominant tongue. It’s a fine satirical portrayal of a self-important head teacher interviewing a boy to see if he’s fit to join her prestigious school and his inevitable, tongue-tied and angry failure as she loses patience with his apparent inability to identify toy farm animals, eventually exclaiming within his earshot:
“Of course he’s failed … Didn’t even know what a horse was. A horse for God’s sake.”
On her table the boy sees:
“a coo, a grumphie, dyeukies, chukkens, yowes, a tyke, a kittlen an a cuddy.”
His relatives farm as did Sheena Blackhall’s. A note makes clear this was her own experience. Which is the point. Everything here presents key moments in her life through the writing they informed.
It’s a Bard’s life, charting that interplay. Even the photographs play a part. All biographies feature family photographs but these resonate with the quintessential importance family has, or had, for folk in the North East. That sense of ancestry permeates the early poems. The volume starts with “Homage To The Ancestors”, making clear the profundity of her commitment to family and the area itself:
“Grandmother's ghost is weaving a wooden cradle
So she may nurse my bones.”
A photograph is listed as:
“Coull Kirkyard. My family’s graveyard since 1623. Morven and lots of relatives buried here, as I will be.”
Her identification with the area is complete:
“My vertebrae are the pebbles of Glen Cairn, Glen Muick”.
Her commitment to Doric will have contributed to a sense of isolation that is a strong motif throughout the book. A poem recollecting a childhood party ends:
“Sitting way out on a limb, at six, sixteen or sixty, …
On the outside, looking in.”
Her hospitalisation during the 1964 Typhoid epidemic merely provides background to a contemplation of the nature of isolation. She notes witches were once burned nearby:
“nonconformists, the eccentric, those who were a little odd, the outsiders who didn’t fit.”
There’s no doubt which camp Blackhall is in.
Appropriately for a bard most of the work here is poetry. Although always illustrative of her life, it’s a rich, representative selection, displaying mastery of a variety of poetic forms, from traditional ballad to free verse. I was particularly struck by the vigour and vitality of her imagery. Spring is “the sweet in the wid-wasp’s byke/Wild-cat, wi its teeth bared fite!”; peats are“Sun biggit histories”; there’s a “creepy-crawly tractor.” Metaphor abounds and at its best her use of simile demonstrates Alice Oswald’s observation that the technique allows “both worlds to exist at the same time”:
“Always, I heard the river, murmuring
Like granny when she muttered in her sleep”.
Where she uses rhyme it’s often in an idiosyncratic, intermittent way, but always to effect. For example, a poem entirely in free verse concludes with an elegant rhyming couplet. There’s a sonnet with a couple of lines that rhyme with nothing. And yet it works. A striking example is the poem “The Mountain Hare” which rhymes AAAB throughout each of its six stanzas, certainly making it sound song-like but, more importantly, dramatically embodying the difference between a sterile married life and her inner desire for freedom:
“When day was done and the small things said,
The dishes dried and the paper read,
I would lie in the house like a thing half dead,
Till I danced like a mountain hare.”
She can switch from one regular pattern to anotherl within the one poem. At its best it’s extremely effective, as in “Jean Buchan Ward Cornhill” in which Blackhall fearfully observes a disturbed young woman who occasionally lapses into “the styte o Bedlam”. It opens rhyming ABACDC then, after four unrhymed lines, a different pattern emerges:
“The ghaisties o her thochts hung on a barren loom
Like eildritch tentacles … like tenants dispossessed
Evicted frae a room; naewye for them tae flit.
A guillotine had drapped inbye her heid
Aroon her dottled deems began tae knit.
Her wandrin wirds led tae a mirey bog
Far nane daur follow. Nane cud enter it.”
The poem finishes after two highly alliterative unrhymed lines with a series of three rhyming couplets. It’s a very tight piece of writing, demonstrating a control of form, expression and imagery that is highly skilful in the way its edgy, occasionally jangled rhythms embody her own fear of losing control, “feart” that the young woman’s “widden dreams” might:
“Herry my ain mind keep. An gar it fa.”
Blackhall is relentlessly blunt in her description of the woman’s madness and even more so of her own “cruel” reaction to it.
Indeed Blackhall is uncompromisingly honest throughout, whether it’s the witheringly bleak portrayal of arriving at married quarters in Durham in 1973, the moving reflection on shaven hair at Auschwitz or her bittersweet memories lamenting the death of her son:
“Even my tit was useless.
They said I had hungry milk.”
Whether in English or Doric her work is rooted in a precise, down to earth expression:
“twa oors o the sma oors clock”
that effectively embodies that honesty and that, either way, resounds with the living tones of her native tongue, satisfactorily reflecting her life and writing. Of course not everything here is of the highest order but enough is to raise a difficult question.
In her closing biographical notes each (much deserved) accolade is firmly clutched and waved triumphantly. In reading them one feels strongly that there should have been more, that much more of her work should be available. Over 150 poetry publications. Try finding them in print. Even Alan Spence’s excellent collection of her poems from only seven years ago seems to be out of print. As she says:
“Fit price d’ye set
On a kintra’s leid an lore?”
It’s a challenge those of us who value i wye we spik need to address.↑