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Life’s Stink & Honey

Review by Jon Miller

A Review by Jon Miller

Life’s Stink & Honey
Lynn Valentine
Cinnamon Press (2021) £9.99

First collections are always intriguing: a new poet announcing themselves to the world.

            Lynn Valentine from the Black Isle has quietly been garnering a considerable reputation across Scotland, recently reading at both the Wigtown Poetry Festival and St Andrew’s Stanza and this has now come to fruition with Life’s Stink and Honey. Many of these poems are about half page long but rich in ringing phrase-making and in the deep sincerity of their emotional journeys.

            There are ways in which Valentine is a nature poet but a nature that is invariably fused with the human and how we are shaped internally by nature’s happenings, psychologically and emotionally, how it lends itself to our natures and what we find in or gain from it. There are animals - crows, horses, hares - and, surprisingly, there’s a lot of water in a collection whose title is tactile, physical, embodied.

            Poems evoke the sea, wild swimming, islands, rivers, waterfalls and tidal flows as Valentine moves easily between different elements with an eerie fusion of sensibilities and an ability to dissolve the barriers between the human and natural worlds - she wonders if she 'will ask the tide for answers’ - and those beyond our everyday earthly perceptions - ‘messengers/between this world and the next’.

            Contained in the idea of water is that of a mother’s waters breaking in childbirth or the sea as mother and this acts as a background to Valentine’s poems about childlessness. This is a difficult subject - Valentine evokes a longing that never leaves and can rise unexpectedly in ordinary everyday happenings. When clearing out a junk drawer, out-of-date parsley seeds ‘remind you that you don’t have children’; or on a visit to the Sheela Na Gig at Rodel on the southern tip of Harris:

                        My barren belly

                        concaves in the wet

                        afternoon, my waterproof

                        the only second skin I’ll own.

            However, these reminders are never maudlin or self-pitying but a dwelling in and acknowledgement of the presence of a deeply-sensed absence, one she notes wryly that is displaced into making:

                        a magnet

                        of your heart for dogs, bees and postcards

                        from pals you’ve not seen for years

            Grief and its sadness are prevalent elsewhere in this collection. In ‘Witness’, there is a kind of rage against the dying of the light moment evoked in magnificent imagery of her mother’s                         

                        fury at leaving….

                        A wild colt galloping in the corral of her bed

                        the mattress her saddle

                        the blankets her fence

And the brilliant ‘Grief as an Iceberg’, she observes its

                        long creak into the sea

                        screaming, as it tries to keep itself whole

            Valentine is also an accomplished writer in Scots (she was runner-up in the Scots category of last year’s Wigtown Poetry Competition) and the half-dozen poems in Scots included here are not the slightly forced or hackneyed ‘Scoats’ that we sometimes hear but finely wrought contemporary pieces that fit easily into the voice and sensibility of the collection. The Leid o Hame is her mini-manifesto - ‘A will take this hansel/an pass it oan/scrieve ma wurds, sing ma sangs’; there is a portrait of her exhausted father as snow-plough driver; Rag Dollies and The Loast Bairn return to childlessness.

            However, I don’t want you to think this is a despairing gloomy collection or one that concerns itself with unrelenting tragedy. Hers is a voice that is tender but resilient, its griefs leavened by her delicate touch of language and an ability to catch the numinous, the half-seen in the half-light of living and this is where much of the power of her poetry resides.

            Always there is Valentine’s musicality of phrasing, a deftness and delicacy of touch in her imagery and linguistic constructions. The collection is littered with beautiful phrasing: ‘the fat lap of dark’, ‘the shape of rain fastened/in faraway trees’, ‘my breath a pearl a severed shell’, ‘a dance of wind/through a worn door’, ‘punch-drunk on light’, ‘house martins writing/their goodbyes, zebra-ing/the sky, until all was wing’, ‘I catch the solstice in my hands,/pass it to you’ - and indeed this passing on, this generosity of observation, is what she achieves time and time again.

            It is this richness which provides the uplifting soul of the collection, that brings to it its hope and its rescue in the haunting beauty of the world that sustains, despite everything.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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