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The Stone Age by Jen Hadfield

Picador Poetry (2021) £10.99

A Review by Anne MacLeod

Stone Circle, the opening poem in Jen Hadfield’s new volume is a concrete representation of delight..  8 ever-circling, ecstatic O’s.  That this is the one of the few poems in the collection not to end in a dash or exclamation mark gives you some idea of the energy fizzing off the pages in the free flow of language and playful punctuation that sometimes allows a new verse to open with a comma, or even a full stop.

The book is an ambitious combination of word and and word become visual art.  Whether the creative spacing, print size and paler tones in works such as (Lighthouse) and (You said what you said)  delight you, or cast you into  (Lunar Transmission),  ‘to be  honest with you–/ to be frank–/I have to admit’  they add a visual ambiguity to the text which is skilfully echoed in the diminishing print tone in the poem Drimmie, where fogged lines mirror dank weather and fading light.  ‘I wonder what Drimmie might mean . . ./a fleeting moment in the quality of dusk’.

Jen Hadfield has a distinctive voice, an exact talent with language.  And an occasional, disarming vulnerability. In Rockpool  a spare stream of two-line stanzas warns :  ‘This is no place//to show up/without a shell’.

In Hardanger Fiddle and Nyckelharpa she admits the need to ‘write a song,/ a wordless song for the/strings of the North –‘ and succeeds admirably. If many of  poems focus on standing stones, rocks and landscape, humans and their complicated lives are never far away, though less reliable. In Dolmen,  ‘humankind/are brief, soft// fireworks, prone/to go off at a moment’s/ notice’  and landscape imbued with human feeling – ‘Rage is a cold/cliff: longing a skerry.  Pleasure is kelp-hung arch, glittered / constantly by the licking of a wave.’ Gyo.  

Most of her poems sing of the northern landscape, but in Ben Wyvis, ‘the long, wide strath is// made simple with snow,/ each word minted’ and the lost lover to whom the poem is addressed leaves ‘the wound of your trail/thin floes of clear gore –‘.  In Snowline , she counsels ‘Hare, your sprinter’s legs are too long /for the valley’ advising the hare to dispense with rabbit manners and ‘Loup the border that can take/you home.’ Everything has its own voice for this poet, even an old scroll of birchbark.  In Neverspel    ‘all it does in bark back to the forest// all it can think about is the forest –‘

Jen Hadfield’s work is distinctive, energetic and musical. I commend it to you.

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