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Bield, The Carryin, Swimming Between Islands...

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Donald Adamson
Tapsalteerie (2021) £5

The Carryin
Harvey Holton
Salty Press (2022) Ask your library

Swimming Between Islands
Charlotte Eichler
Carcanet Poetry (2023) £11.99

The A to Z of Whisky Place-Names
Jacob King
Whittles (2022) £16.99

The Corncrake – An Ecology of an Enigma
Frank Rennie
Whittles (2022) £18.99

As Jim Mackintosh has said in considering multiple poetry collections in this issue, the review process can be a bit like opening a box of chocolates (if you’re a fan of such food) and savouring the contents. Part of the fun of editing Northwords Now is to both have a first keek at such goodies and then send a broad selection to reviewers to see what they reckon. So now I’ll be greedy, as keeker, consumer and reviewer, to convey some of the pleasure I’ve had in sampling a quintet of titles over the past year in both poetry and non fiction.

First out the selection box is the slimmest volume: Bield – a poetry pamphlet by Donald Adamson. Donald uses Scots in this work for both his own poems and for resonant translations from Finnish. Originally from Dumfries, Donald now bides in Finland and has won several awards for his work, some examples of which have appeared in recent issues of Northwords Now. The warmth, gentle humour and skillful crafting of the poems in this pamphlet has made me both smile and think many times since Tapsalteerie first sent me Bield. ‘The Auld Craws’, translated from the Finnish of Lauri Pohjanpää, is a case in point, with stanzas such as:

A wee bit stink cam frae the byre,
the rain poored doon, and noo the daurk
wis faain ower the furrit *eld
as baith birds hunched a feathery neck

If, like me, you’ve little knowledge of Finnish poets, this pamphlet could be a good place to start.

Using Scots to powerful effect is also something that Fife poet, the late Harvey Holton, did with aplomb. So Salty Press is to be congratulated on bringing together poems drawn from three of his works: Finn, Four Fife Poets and Light and Dark, as well as poems unpublished at the time of Harvey’s passing in 2010. It’s a truism that poetry should be read aloud, but Harvey’s poems almost demand speech to liberate their rhymes and rhythms from the printed page. In his introduction to this fine collection, John Glenday acknowledges the influence that Harvey had on his own early work and beyond, through teaching an evening class at Dudhope Arts Centre in Dundee: “All my poetry since then has been built on the foundations that Harvey laid” says John, “: a deep respect for language; a keen focus on the quality of craftsmanship in constructing a poem and, most important of all, an understanding that poetry is a form of music as much as it is a form of literature; that half its life is found on the page and the other half in the air.”

A very different, but beguiling music is held in the pages of Charlotte Eichler’s first full collection Swimming Between Islands. The poems here are suffused with images of water both salt and fresh and creatures that live within, on and beside it. Part of the depth, in poems that range in location through Scotland, Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska, is in in how the poet explores connections, often tricky, between people, as well as ways that different locations touch the senses. A book for slow immersion and thoughtful swimming.

To round off, a brace of titles from Caithness-based publisher, Whittles, each of which has provided me with useful references and rewarding reading. I appreciate a good malt (though the concept of a bad one is unlikely, despite a name I could mention, but will keep for another telling). So Jacob King’s The A to Z of Whisky Place-Names now has a permanent berth on my bookshelves. This stems not only from my love of Uisge-Beatha, but also because of the thoroughness of Jacob’s research, the interest of his descriptions and what he reveals through careful toponymy. Not least is the way he demonstrates how a wheen of current whisky labellings use names of very recent coinage, rather than reflecting some deep roots in the landscape of their home distillery. Fear not, plenty of whisky names do have genuine connections to place, with descriptions in this book that can add to the pleasure of a dram, if that’s how your tastebuds are tingled.

A few centuries ago, the rasping, repetitive – and to some, downright annoying - call of the corncrake was a feature of meadows across Scotland. You could even hear the sound from the centre of Edinburgh at the time when the New Town was being built, back in the late 1700s. Now much reduced through removal of suitable rough cover by modern farming, Scottish corncrakes have dwindled and retreated, surviving mostly in the west and especially in the Hebrides. So it’s fitting that someone whose chronicling of his home in Galson, in the north of Lewis, won the 2020 Highland Book Prize, has now written what is likely to be the definitive monograph on the corncrake for decades to come.

Professor Frank Rennie’s enthusiasm for corncrakes has been an eye-opener for many (myself included) who have long known him as a champion of crofters, community landownership and sustainable rural development. In this context, it’s appropriate to see a photograph of Frank in the book with a pitchfork of hay over one shoulder, working to boost corncrake habitat in the community-owned Local Nature Reserve at Loch Stiupabhat, a short crake’s flight (these are long-distance migrants to and fromAfrica) from his home. Like the corncrake, this book ranges far, not least in the breadth of research, both of science and cultural links. More than 700 reference works underpin the scholarship here; but dinna be feart, the book is both a superb work of reference and a very good read. Another classic from the Rennie croft.

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