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Objects for Private Devotion...

A Review by Mandy Haggith

Objects for Private Devotion
Lydia Harris
Pindrop Press (2022) £10

Reading the Landscape
Carol McKay
Hedgehog Press (2022) £7.99

The Red House
Sharon Black
Drunk Muse Press (2022) £10

Such a Sweet Singing – Poetry to Empower Every Woman
Edited by Kirsty Gunn,
Batsford (2022) £12.99

Sphagnum moss can absorb eight times its own weight of water, an apt metaphor for poetry if ever there was one, the best of which seems light on the page and then as you squeeze it you realise just how much it is holding, how much thirst-quenching goodness it can offer.

This is what Lydia Harris’s poems are like: delicate fronds of words drenched in images, oozing with thought-provoking ideas. The poems mostly come from Westray, where the poet lives, and from historical and archaeological research, emerging out of objects held in museum collections, fragments gleaned in digs and stories from documents, graveyards and local people. They are like magic spells that conjure life from apparently inert objects, as if the times past laid down in peat bogs, burials and ruins can be brought back to us in all their vivid strangeness through words: a fragment of knitted fabric becomes a bonnet then a child, ‘...and the child peat yields / is a runaway child, with a hop, a skip and a follow-/the-burn...’. Then the child gains a musical instrument:

‘His small spoon
has a whistle bored
in the handle.

He sups
what the moon drops.
He pipes back.’

Soon he has a mother and a home and
gradually we can see and hear a whole
community in their landscape. In ‘Lyde
Road’ the poet asks, ‘What else will I
find?’ and answers

‘A kerbed hearth, a pyre,
an amber bead...

human hair, fair,
the fineness of a young person.’

The cover image of the book is of an elaborately carved prayer nut, a ‘toy for the soul’, which we can see as akin to a poem. ‘Open the nut on its hinge, / the book on its spine, / your heart to the garden.’ But it isn’t only ornate objects that attract the attention of this exquisitely observant poet: quernstones, bones and pebbles seem just as sacred.

With each page we turn, the poet has discovered another relic, visited a broch, unearthed an ancient manuscript or watched over the shoulder of an archaeologist picking through a midden and she shows us not just the things, but the lived experiences they signify. Each object is worthy of the ‘devotion’ of the title, each contains mystery and wonder. This is no dusty collection of museum pieces, it is alive with birdsong, fish, and lots and lots of beautiful moss! Here are some Orkney handbells chiming with their own bright lives.

‘None of them
wanted to be wrought
from iron or to swing a lead tongue.

They’d rather be terns flaring
the tide’s way in a halo of bronze,

or rock gongs with frowns gone firm
tuned to the sound of willow-seed-fall

the breath of white clover
pitched to a nestling’s song.’

Lydia Harris writes with disarming simplicity, without overt end rhymes but in crisp rhythmically varied and subtle lines rich with other kinds of sound patterning, lots of consonance and internal rhymes, each word treasured and precise, each poem as carefully curated as the best sort of exhibition. It’s a tightly woven fabric of sound that seems to convey the voices of people and other animals across centuries and millennia. Noting down the graveyard inscription to those nameless people ‘buried here but not inscribed’, she presents them to us doubly inscribed, honouring through these haunting poems the indigent people, those drowned at sea and above all children, midwived here back from the past to haunt us.

Moving from the far north to southern France, Sharon Black is also busy at haunting in her collection The Red House, which also uses museum pieces, historical archives and lived experience of local people to show us the community where she lives in the Cévennes mountains. The house in question was the last silk spinning mill in the country and she gives us a rich picture of the whole process of silk production from the ecosystem among which the mulberry trees would grow, to all the work involved in creation of beautiful fabric and the other activities of the community in times gone by. The book teems with the ghosts of people, again conjured through objects: a pouch for incubating silk worms, a mule blinker, a shepherd’s cup, a walnut oil reliquary, a baptism dress, clogs. It also throngs with people from the present day, those agonising over the sale of a tumbling house, many generations in the family, to the mayor who ‘wears a cockerel hat, /the stuffed bird waggling as he struts, / shaking hands, chest puffed up’. Old trees watch over the changes in human lifespans, observing ‘the way an old home’s swallowed / by the seasons, then the decades,/ then a sketch of someone else’s dream.’ As well as the many trees, around the village there is great natural diversity, which we regularly encounter throughout the book, from earthworms and caterpillars to roe deer, little owls and wolves. This is deliciously vivid poetry and on a cold February morning it’s rather gorgeous to wander down to the river below the poet’s house, where she goes ‘Every day in August’:

‘and the river seals itself round my swimming
while green breaks into fragments,
bugs slide away, the body floods and soars
and this is not a ritual, this is not a ritual,
this is more than saying I give thanks.’

Vivid writing is also a feature of Carol McKay’s tantalisingly brief pamphlet Reading the Landscape. It opens with a stunning allegory of a crow/husband and this is just one of many brilliant portayals of the natural world and our paradoxical place within it. Here’s another:

‘Fox crouches for his rendezvous with shrew.
The magpie’s bone horn beak tugs more stout twigs.

Lured by the spring sun’s angle-shifting light,
the baby in my arms uncurls his fist.’

After a nondescript poetry reading, the River Clyde is enjoyed ‘declaiming its way out to sea.’ In the hospital garden an ‘umber leaf ’ falls, ‘weightless.. like a burden’. Walking the Lowthers, the poet is ‘a tick on a living hill.’ This is deep, unpretentious, highly polished writing. There isn’t a word wasted.

If these three excellent collections have whetted your appetite for women’s poetry you could do worse than to acquire Such a Sweet Singing for your bookshelf. As Kirsty Gunn says in her introduction, women’s poems can ‘deepen the experience of the ordinary so that it becomes extraordinary’ and, as this anthology shows, women have been doing this for centuries. Covering themes of courage, love, imagination, family, home and life, the poets include the well-known, such as Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and Mary Oliver, but also those unfairly neglected like Charlotte Smith, Margaret Cavendish and Alice Meynell. I loved finding Denise Levertov’s poem ‘About Marriage’ (and against ‘wedlock’): ‘I would be / met // and meet you / so, / in a green // airy space, not / locked in.’ Lavishly and strikingly illustrated, hardback but elegant, this book of poems holds at least eight times its weight in thirst-slaking nourishment.

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