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Toonie Void by Kevin Cormack

Abersee Press (2021) £5.00

A Review by Alison Miller

Duncan McLean at Abersee Press, the small publishing company he set up a few years ago to publish new work from Orkney, has outdone himself this time. Kevin Cormack’s poetry in Toonie Void, written in Orcadian, is such a departure from anything published before in the Orkney tongue that it takes us into new territory, barely recognisable as the Orkney of literary tradition.

No lucent countryside here, no fluent lines of goldgreen fields, no fishermen with ploughs, no selkies, no silver line at the sea’s horizon, no celebration of the healing powers of nature, of island life. This is landscape of a different order. The settings are housing schemes, the murky edges of the toon,
wastelands, construction sites, derelict buildings, ‘dark industrial pipes an circuitry’, left-behind WW2 concrete, ‘roosty barbed wire’.

    Doon twaard the concrete
    ower lumpy owld fields,
    tough gress an rabbit holes,
    anunder grimleens’
    tullimentan song-threeds,
    we wakk…

Nor will you find here Viking saints or heroes, country girls, following the harvest sunwise, stoical fishing widows making do, communities drawn together by a common belief in the rural, the island idyll. Kevin Cormack’s characters all struggle to connect, to find shared ground to stand on, to look each other in the eye without flinching. They come from ‘a long line of piss-takkers’, men who find it ‘seffer tae drink alone noo’, ‘visitors [with] sidey-slant smiles’, ‘the wabbit, the gyte’, the bullies.  

In ‘A Face in the Dirt’ there is a ‘we’ and an ‘I’ and a ‘you’;  a ‘former bully’ named and shamed:

    We fund a face while diggan, a face an nutheen else,
    green-nilded an buried in the black dirt.
The ‘I’ sends the face to the ‘you’, ‘Bully whisperer. Occasional exorcist. Postman’. But sharing the triumph of the demise of the bully is elusive:

    The lights wur aal oot bae the time I gott tae yirs,
    fullo the bad vibes. I gave up leanan
    oan the buzzer…

The human attributes that permeate this collection are anxiety, alienation, mistrust, clumsiness, crossed wires. There are twins and doppelgängers, stowaweys, ‘cult-like smiles’, a dead man on a mobility scooter. Somewhere in the hinterland, embers of an abandoned religion still smoulder.

In ‘The Flinch’, efforts to reach out to another misfire:

    Keep yir hands tae yirsael,
    ramstam ringleaders o noise an chaos.

Kevin Cormack turns on its head the Alasdair Gray insight:

    “…nobody imagines living here… if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the     inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

For ‘a city’ substitute ‘an island’. In ‘Noah, or The Ferawey’, on a visit to Jim Baikie, local cartoonist, creator of super-hero comic strips, that iconic landscape of Orkney is put in its place:

    …the hills o Hoy –
    so less real, since no imagined.

Instead, Judge Dredd “…steps oot o the waal, growlan: / ‘Draw Me Like This, Punk!’” And smashes George Mackay Brown’s ‘huddle of blue shoulders’ off the drawing board.

Nature provides no consolation. ‘Gertie an Albert’, swept ‘oot the … road’ found themselves ‘oan the edge / o a vast country darkness, an the deadly ambush.’

When ‘finches, tits, robins an sparrows’ appear in ‘Gaerdeen Bunker’, it is only because their ‘chirpan, bleepan, bubblan noises’ describe the sounds of ‘the operational centre’:

The pitfalls of visiting – even an admired artist – are caught perfectly:

    ‘I blank/blink, double blank – the terrible
    soporifferissniss o ither focks’ hooses –‘  

So what is it that makes this nightmare vision of life in Orkney not only fascinating but also weirdly compelling? There is to begin with, Kevin Cormack’s voice, conversational and intimate; his unique use of language, mixing the vocabulary of high-tech modern living with chewy old Orkney words and pronunciations. There is the sophisticated music of it which marks him out as a poet with an unerring grasp of rhythm and sound. He paints a bleak view of an imagined Orkney – the ragged edges, the ugly, the dangerous, the surreal and bizarre, the darkly humorous – and reveals the weird beauty in it.

OK, so there is no invitation to warm your feet at the Orkney peat fire, take your turn with a story all present will recognise, sing your party piece, consolidate the collective sense of community. But still, we do find ourselves ‘in the shared speech bubble o Orcadian’ and that promises new possibilities, a language not dying, but evolving. So:

    ‘Whit next?
    Hair o the dog? Voicemail? Text?’

Weel, Beuy? I luk forwird tae hearan fae you again.

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