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Three Reviews by Helen Boden

A Review by Helen Boden

The Last Days of Petrol
Bridget Khursheed
Shearsman Books (2022) £10.95

The Sleep Road
Stewart Sanderson
Tapsalteerie (2022) £10.00

The Inner Circle
Henry Bell
Stewed Rhubarb Press (2022) £5.99

‘How did we get here?’ is the apt first line of a book that asks us to consider when innocuous, inevitable change becomes emergency or crisis. Khursheed’s title The Last Days of Petrol provides only a cryptic clue to the ways in which she will do this (driving to her ‘geek’ day job, making a virtue of the endgame of commuting, is what provides her with both time and subject matter for poetry). It’s a daring but ecologically and poetically insightful perspective, one that hovers over the realities of choice - while we still have it - and complicity. At its best this is achieved with wry wit:

There are several
lorries ahead and they all contain animals
or quarried stone; an accident
could reinstate acres of field and dyke.

Several poems highlight tension between landscape ‘managed’ and rewilding, in both past A Better Prospect and present - New Media, Teviot in Flood, and Peak Oil:

the long grass around the machinery harder
to manage vole tunnels the kestrel ceiling . . .

The word, manage, works hard here; offers an updated take on MacCaig’s dichotomy of who owns / is owned by the land: do we manage the land or does it, eroding and depleting, manage us, its tenants?

the tide is coming in and will
wash up the beach, next the cottage, one day
the garlic, the tourists, the viaduct
where our car is parked, eat up our very home
blow us down it is before we’ll see                                            (Sookin-in Goats)

The sequencing is careful. The end of the title poem seems to offer hope: ‘and the grid flows into green lanes’. And the next poem is titled The Green Path, but this concludes:

roll the green carpet right out to sea
and its gannet pierced tidal slop
of toothbrushes and tampons and wire and algal bloom
back into Eden again

It is followed by a detritus list-poem, Good Intentions, where ‘this is a latrine’, overseen by an intermittent and indifferent lighthouse beam: are actions such as litter-picking any more than a futile, uneasy, managed gesture at greening? Elsewhere The Clovenfords Vineries considers the paradise / hell of supporting the growth of something outwith its own terroir, the disruptions implicit in adapting and making indigenous. We’re invited, too, to imagine starlings as ‘teenagers in a mall’, and other reversals of the usual direction of analogy between artificial and natural:

that birch shining up on the hill
imitating a phone mast
so real it is fake                                                      (No Signal at Muchrachd)

As well as the speaking ‘I’, acknowledging the complicity of those for whom off-grid is not an option, poems take the point-of-view of other occupants of the land - creatures, an historical estate worker, a burn ‘seducing’ its bridges - or imagine the subject (a Culloden fatality) behind an objéct (an oatcake).

This is a rewardingly difficult read on several counts, not just the content and the speaker’s perspective on it. Threatened deluge or overwhelm is enacted at the level of syntax.

Peak Oil and Commute – where ‘water’ is repeated nine times (plus half-a-dozen synonyms for it), in an inexorable train of association and implication - are unpunctuated single-sentence poems. Khursheed’s is an impressionist eco-poetics, but this is not single-subject collection. She is adept at recording the forensics of species’ (hedgehog, dragonfly, many birds) behaviour, and diverts from the late days of road trips to verse-map the workings of other ecosystems - her own brood, familial flittings, biodiverse edgelands, the human body.

Sanderson’s book is a glorious practical experiment in ways of mediating the natural world in words, through borrowed and invented forms.

A reading knowledge of the land
reveals what is recorded here . . .

 . . I walk across
this written and unwritten ground
my footprints footnotes to its loss
a poem waiting to be found.                              (Hill Fort)

Nan Shepherd noted the pleasure of walking alongside tracks of creatures who went before, ‘companioned, though not in time’.  Sanderson is companioned by ‘precursors’, ranging through ‘langsyne’, as his title poem has it, on a continuum from deep to historical time, with ‘others who came to this place / before you did’ (Dunadd) - including Gaels, Picts, Romans, Scots, and ‘stone straining to articulate / a sense of something in the haar’ (Broch). He demonstrates too the portability of vocabularies assumed specific to particular eras or discourses, such as Communism (in Sleepwalking), or economics:

the Beaker People’s tongue

. . .

is turning silence into song.

Tuning the words. . . tests
their torque, presses at prosody
until at length the whole work rests
in an achieved economy.

This way wealth is created out
of any raw material . . .                       (The Wealth of Nations)

Despite the call to ‘walk with me on this road to sleep’ (Ways to the Wood), the announced ‘sleep’ theme carries less weight in this volume than ‘petrol’ does in Khursheed’s. It’s hinted that we sleepwalk or ‘drowse’ towards climate disaster and species extinction - but also continue in the footfall of ancestors required to be constantly alert, while ‘somehow the vault of heaven held / and holds’ (Dunadd). Sanderson’s environmental language tends towards the apocalyptic rather than polemic (‘a thousand hills / overflowed by the sea’). He signals times out of joint, but his virtuosic use of form suggests alternatives, possibilities; hope.

This is a rich yet delicate mix of traditional and experimental, that begs to be read aloud, from the textured ottava rima lyric Cowlairs (the collection’s obligatory and appropriate deer-sighting poem), to sparser statements derived from sources including Ogham inscriptions and musical cryptograms. Several poems imitate the visionary rhyme of Blake’s songs or Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads. Their insistent, regulatory iamb supports an ample syntax, whose archaism works because of balance provided elsewhere by the modernity of the found texts – such as the four meditative list-poems which punctuate the collection by simply but compellingly naming ‘The Lichens of Scotland’. More ambitious samplings and interventions include An Unstatistical Account – a listing of topographic features ‘entirely’ found from a text contemporary with Lyrical Ballads (1798-99), but ingeniously reworked into a 21stC litany.

Several poems (Sleepwalking, Highland Vowels, The Sense of Beauty) are made of text juxtaposed from more than one source. There are some beautifully set notes at the end of the collection; I’d have liked to read them on the same page as the more complexly constructed poems - such is the intertextuality of the work, the note seems as central to our understanding of it as the very apposite epigraphs to other poems about Lady Grisell Baillie and Anne Grant of Laggan. What lingers, though, is the simultaneously sharp and dreamlike way Sanderson dwells on, and with, the ‘unstated’ - where words are not yet, or are being, lost.

The content as well as title of Bell’s Inner Circle riffs on the intersections between urban infrastructure and social attachment. The first word(s), ‘Ahinkivrycuntsjistgonnagitoanwieachother’, acknowledge what Tom Leonard made possible for Glasgow Scots poets, but don’t prepare us for the surprise reveal of their context five lines later: ‘Ach, it’s jist lik me cawin ye yer honour, /yer honour’.

These poems are often conversational: remembered, invented or implied dialogues - between auld firm fans, domestic partners, Govan neighbours debating the merits of Partick’s ‘gentry-ficayshun’; between English and Scots. And in Thi Seccont Burnin, the School of Art fires are situated in a longer history of city conflagrations, ‘Glesga fighters / mixing two unmalleable naitures  /Clyde n fire.’

But there’s also a mute conversation going on, between what’s kent and what’s said. Bell’s speaker retains the detachment of outsider-witness - on a fantastical bus trip, or ‘getting on a train full of Rangers fans, / I’m reading a book about the Easter Rising, / and I’m feeling a wee bit self-conscious.’  They know to ‘quick have some small talk ready’ when working as butcher’s assistant or spotlight operator at the Pavilion Theatre - where the ‘circle’ trope is superbly aligned with that of omniscient observer, until:

After the matinee and evening’s done
you climb, light-headed, down.
You missed a cue, and didn’t light the dog again.
Who cares. You’re on the subway home.

The aphoristic Thoughts on Keir Street conversely add up to a polyphonic chorus: ‘when it is truly clear and dry the sky pulsates right out from the sandstone’ / ‘Mice are fine if you only have a couple’.

The ‘inner circle’ is Bell’s emphatic, and often empathic, shorthand for all this city embraces: panegyrics to the people and the patter of its districts; to iconic buildings, the plausibility of the downright improbable, Edwin Morgan, and ‘Comrade [Tunnocks] Teacake’:

No empire biscuit this, no.
A teacake
of internationalism,
circling the earth
spreading its mallowy joy.

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