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Rammo in Stenness

A Review by David Wheatley

A Review by David Wheatley

Rammo in Stenness
Ingrid Leonard
Abersee Press (2022), £5.00

‘Yet /these roads do not turn in here but writhe on /Round the wild earth forever’, wrote Edwin Muir in ‘The Sufficient Place’. The journey away from roots is a primal theme in Scottish writing, but usually on the understanding of a larger narrative – call it the nation – that connects both ends of the voyage. As an Orcadian, Muir stood at an oblique angle to that narrative, as reflected in his demurral from Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scottish nationalism but also in the haunted quality of his landscapes, in which the elsewhere to the island home is as likely to be Franz Kafka’s Prague as Edinburgh, or some stylised, allegorical nowhere. The edgy landscapes of Ingrid Leonard’s Rammon in Stenness have much in common with Muir’s work. Stylishly and mysteriously, they move between the Orkney of childhood, wartime family history, the neolithic past, and life in Lithuania, where the poet now lives.

The past is not a single road but forking paths, as in ‘Thi Early Dead’, which recalls the death of the poet’s father before imagining ‘thi clean /stone path tae home’ that he no longer walks, as the dead man’s memory passes into the landscape (‘but thi dial wis fixed; /in wake or sleep, I’d be faerd o thi ditch’). Present and past are not discrete entities, but overlap like shifting tectonic plates; in ‘Rain in November’ the young speaker lies in bed while ‘a glacier advanced over hills /by our house, the colour of a polar field’. ‘Shopping Week Queen’ recalls Kathleen Jamie’s poems of nascent female sexuality and the multiple ambushes that lie in wait for its young narrator. War is a constant presence. In ‘Transmission’, death in conflict robs a great-aunt of her husband, leaving us with the soldier’s name fading from the lips of neighbours, and a ‘kistless plot in the kirkyard.’ Meanwhile in ‘An Orkney Couple’ the poet recalls an older man teaching her brother to reupholster a chair with a needle and thread. ‘Hid’s no wark for a lass’, he tells the poet. The gendering of needlework as masculine comes as a small surprise, but the poem absorbs the slight as it reaches back into further family memories of war and its aftermath.

            There is continuity with previous generations, as the poems stitch their impressive tapestry, but awareness of difference too. In ‘The Kinswoman’, an emblematic figure from the past goes about her never-ending ‘industry of the hearth’. But ‘I am no kinswoman’, insists the poet, resisting the impulse to take over the foremother’s experience and present herself as its mouthpiece, as might happen in an Eavan Boland poem. And yet the poet remains ‘bound to the women of the past /by the red pain of belly and haunch’, as she writes in ‘Maeshowe III’. If this represents some swithering on Leonard’s part, another difference from Muir is her alternation between English and Orcadian – Muir having judged that the future of Scottish poetry lay in English. For readers whose experience of Scots stops with Burns, ‘skrothales’, ‘whaap’ and ‘lerblade’ will present a strange but tangy Nordic quality, handled (as far as this non-native can tell) with authority and skill.

            At the death, Rammo in Stenness branches out in a different direction. ‘Lithuanian Post Office, December 2020’ transplants the poet to somewhere altogether elsewhere, where she fills out a ‘small-print form in triplicate’ to keep the lines of communication with home open in a post-Brexit world. Like Muir before her, Leonard writes with wry wisdom of communication across cultures, and the often troubled relationships between smaller countries and their larger neighbours. As a chapbook, Rammo in Stenness is an intriguing snapshot of work in progress, which may settle into different patterns by the time Leonard publishes a first full collection. As it stands though, this is work of both promise and distinction, gestating its griefs and joys in the Northern dark and carrying them ‘in sweat and song to the earth’s clean womb /to be blessed by a sun gaining strength.’

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