Looking South by Stuart A. Paterson (Indigo Dreams Publishing, www.indigodreams.co.uk £8.99); ISBN: 978-1-910834-54-1
For a while there it looked as if Stuart A. Paterson could be lost to Scotland and become an honorary Mancunian. But Lancashire’s loss has been Caledonia’s gain as his homecoming a few years back spurred a prolific output of writing that should grab the attention of anyone seriously interested in the state of Scottish poetry. If Paterson seems ubiquitous at present – on radio, TV, in pamphlets and magazines, and giving readings wherever there’s the whiff of an audience – that surely attests to his devotion, or addiction, to his calling. You get the impression he’d read from atop a bus shelter, if requested – or even if not, for the hell of it.
That imperative to get the word out permeates ‘Looking South’, the natural successor to his previous Indigo outing, ‘Border Lines’. Here, he’s produced a volume of poems that is at once a lovingly crafted exploration of his native terrain around the Sandyhills coastline, and an insightful contemplation of its relationship to the rest of the planet. The world at his muddied and sand-caked boots becomes a metaphorical compass-point; landscape, objects, flotsam, detritus and the elements are its imaginative nerve-ends. Pubs and their people – and dogs – populate the lines, or turn up like strays who can’t resist having their shout. The effect can be fantastical as Paterson’s blurs the distinction between reality, fiction and rife local rumour. In the paired poems, ‘Anthony Hopkins at Douglas Hall’ and ‘Hopkins in the Stewartry Again’, the light-touch humour and descriptive warmth is irresistible, as he imagines the great actor striding purposefully down the coastal path, “his eyes fixed on pre-history,/foreign Gaels, ferm touns, dancing,/wild nights in little inns with farm girls,/though more likely his stash of Chianti/buried under the bench of Douglas Hall”. You’d be hard put to find a poet who can evoke the particularities of his locale so compellingly for the outsider. MacCaig comes to mind for the fondness and clarity of his vision; and, a skip across the Irish Sea, John Hewitt, who understood too how names and language steeped in history and myth can register beyond their immediate familiarity (“I take my stand by the Ulster names, each clean hard name like a weathered stone”).
In ‘Migrants’, Paterson goes so far as to imbue the elements with Greek chorus character: “We’ve never been here before, claim the waves/in rows of lazy declamation”. The title metaphors contemporary human effluvia, but it is the waves as unwanted, then welcomed, travellers that gives the poem its unexpected resonance: “don’t say you all look the same to me/with your urgent jumps, your bearded headbutts/on virgin, unprotected sand”; and “Each of you’s different I say, not new/or old, each liquid curlicue itself/an evidence of journeys only ever/taken once”. In ‘Abigail’, it is the storm – already, very usefully, granted personalised feminine naming by the Met Office – that echoes human turbulence: “Good luck Abigail, give it your worst,/holler at holiday homes & darkened/caravans until your fragile lungs/are fit to burst”. You can’t help but wonder with what relish he’d tackle a storm named Stuart. In ‘News’, the local and the global converge as he considers distant ‘natural’ and unnatural human disasters, from earthquakes to sinking boats of refugees, and observes: “On Portling beach the morning tide/has left a memory of a person,/a tragi-comic skeleton perched/wistfully on the skerries looking out”. The jolt to our consciousness, or complacency, is reinforced with the skull “wide-eyed, open-mouthed/as if warning everybody in the south/of river spates, lost balance, last/ones for the road, red-lettered bills,/missed calls, inactions, life-defining sanctions”.
This is unmistakably Paterson, as surely as if he were speaking to us up close. Much is said about poets’ ‘voices’, but his has the distinctiveness of a signature (extending to his favoured use of ‘&’ instead of ‘and’), and it’s a quality that enhances the thread of intimacy to this collection. Energy moves through the poems like a voltage – the words fair tumble out and somersault down the page, always with a cadence and sonic charge that invites you to read them in a gulp. Few poets can manage that with such apparent ease. In ‘The Range of the Awful Hand’, the language cascades: “because it’s Scotland, because it all breaks/down to revelling in glorious mistakes/& promises we know will last the length/of elections, seasons, the present tense.”
In his foreword to this book, Tom Pow describes Paterson as a poet ‘of attitude’, and that’s something that seeps through these poems. The pastoral is laced with class consciousness. Geography is political. The sands, the hills and seascapes are the settings for historical incidents and events that so often echo into the present and a world we recognise from our local to international news. In ‘Margaret Wilson’s Abjuration’, he confronts the political savagery and misogyny that condemned a young Scottish Covenanter in 1685 to death by drowning while tied to a stake. The poem, for me, recalls Heaney’s ‘The Punishment’; it’s an exemplar of how a singular incident can inform a poetry that connects past to present: “Oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew wheel/& keen above the mud, the river no/longer here, the harbour disappeared,/a granite finger scratching thin, wet air/where once, briefly, Margaret Wilson’s voice/in shaky prayer abjuring gods & men/for all girls ever silenced by them”.
This is one of those rare poems that excites a sharp intake of breath. My pencilled note on the page is confined to one word, “brilliant”. Underscored. If ‘Looking South’ does not solidify Paterson’s reputation as one of the foremost contemporary Scottish poets, there’s something wrong with our collective critical faculties; though I would guess his readership is growing fast, both north and south.
– Neil Young
Everyday world seen through new lens
Books: In the Curator’s Hands’ by Abegail Morley (Indigo Dreams Publishing, £6. www.indigodreams.co.uk) ISBN: 978-1-910834-49-7
You know you’re in strange territory from the opening lines of the first poem, The Depository, in Abegail’s Morley’s new slim volume: “At its darkest point, nothing shifts. In this breathless/place we’re foxed-paper,dip-penned letters”.
Reality is inverted, everyday objects speak back to us, and the dismissably familiar is imbued with intrigue. It’s quite an accomplishment, but Morley sustains the theme and effects throughout twenty-eight poems without once straying into the repetitive, or exhausting the surprises. It says much of her ease with her craft that she takes such a reverse-angled approach while capturing attention. It’s as if we are being invited to look again at the mundane and littered – paper, tickets, dusty toys, ephemera – through new lens, then turn them inside-out to explore their ghost existence. None of which would be possible without the pacing and vibrancy of language to carry our momentum; and here the poet excels. Morley has the best poets’ savvy to know that each line must be revealing without labouring for it; nothing jars; everything flows, her inner ear never falters. I found myself reading these poems with the ease of movement as if they were being whispered to me.
That’s quite a spell to weave. The language, at times, is intoxicating, and she manages to make the simple striking by how it pauses us. Hence, in poems such as ‘Ephemera’, the opening line, “The opposite of how I am lolls at Piccadilly”, is immediate but so unusual in its observation it tempts the reader back. I found myself revisiting it, even as I followed the poem through its vivid collision of street-scene to upfront vision from a bus seat: “I ogle pocket seams, sodden floor-strewn tickets”. There’s a sense here of life being stilled, or drawn to slow-motion so that we observe the disturbing magnitude of its minutaie.
Elsewhere, that knack for the killer line is repeated. In ‘Chronicles’, she shows how a few well-aimed words can distil a storyline, including background characterisation: “When his sister ran away for good this time”. ‘For good’ and ‘this time’– knowing and menace are compressed. Likewise, ‘Hair Wreaths Wrapped in Tissue’ has the undercurrent of threat: “I see his lips twist in a Kirby-grip grin”. I defy any poet to come up with a more shudder-inducing line in 2017 than this, as a commonplace item metaphors sexual sneer. Morley reinterprets the everyday brilliantly. That said, the poem-titles alone attest to one who is alert to the need to offer something newly-minted amid a deluge of writing vieing for our notice. I’m caught, at once, by the strange insistence – with maybe a hint of black humour – of ‘Photograph of Woman in Glassinine Envelope’. The poem is deceptively elegant, while exploring further the recurring impressions of estrangement and loss: “The loop of your voice/finds me flinching 50 metres below street level,/weeping on escalators where people rub hands/on rails”.
For all that disturbance, it’s worth emphasising the poignancy that leaks out from these pages. These are poems that move the reader by how urgent but unobvious they are. In that way, they also carry the depth of empathy and insightfulness of poetry that has no limit on its shelf-life. In a book in which almost any poem might be a highlight, I struggle to choose a favourite, but I’ve found myself returning most to ‘Boxed In’ for how it conjures the childlike wonder and fear of the world through the eyes of a boxed toy: “I’m the girl trapped in the box, stomach/an empty honeycomb/gold drained,/dull lustre,/tinny when struck/by a raised fist.” You get a whole lot of hauntingly affecting poetry for 33 pages here – and it leaves you wanting more.
– Neil Young
Good things come in threes
Readings: Express Yourself at Tell it Slant, Glasgow, October 2017
This month’s installment of Express Yourself, held in association with Glasgow’s ‘Tell It Slant’ bookshop at the Project Café on Renfrew Street, was a joyous evening of disparate voices and recurrent themes. The night’s programmer and driving force, Carla Woodburn, ceded the microphone to Shetland’s own makar Christie Williamson, who introduced the poets in three sets of three, spanning the Central Belt’s performance poetry and literary scenes.
First out of the gate where a threesome of Scotland’s finest female poets, representing our country’s three native tongues. A. C. Clarke read from her two latest collections, ‘Warbaby’, the manuscript of which won Cinnamon Press’ recent pamphlet competition, and ‘A Troubling Woman’, a literary concept album, celebrating the life and muse of Margery Kempe. These readings set the tone for the rest of the evening, foregrounding women’s experience through well crafted imagery full of avian, faunal, and floral depictions.
Clarke’s later readings had a surrealist bent, casting the spotlight, this time, on another female figure, lost to history: Gala Dalí. Her evocation of lupins, towards the end of her set, drew on the four other senses to strengthen the visual. Visions of the supernatural followed this, with a visceral description of the post-partum psychosis of Kempe, elucidating on the subject of mental illness in both middle age and the Middle Ages. With readings from their critical acclaimed pamphlet ‘Owersettin’ (Tapsalteerie, 2016), Clarke was followed by her literary colleagues Maggie Rabatski, reading in her native Harris Gaelic, and Sheila Templeton, in the Doric of rural Aberdeenshire. The two poets worked beautifully in tandem, with a poem of Rabatski’s, in memory of her deceased father, laden with the imagery of her island homeland. Templeton, in her translation, transported the narrative to the fireside of a cottar’s cottage in the North East, with intimate language, full of vocabulary so hearty you could chew on it.
The trilingual reading was, for me, a stand-out of the night, with poetic variations taken from various focal points. The experience was akin to witnessing a beam of light, split three ways through a linguistic prism, with each translation, an independent poem, itself; a ray unique in its own indigenous colour. Another stand-out was the reading by Glasgow firebrand Magi Gibson, who spoke passionately and frankly with her emblematic feminist perspective, before reading selections from her latest collection ‘Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks’ (Luath, 2017), and earlier collections ‘Graffiti in Red Lipstick’ (Curly Snake, 2003) and ‘Wild Women of a Certain Age’ (Wild Women, 2000). Her selections included contemporary references to Tristan and Isolde and meditations on grief and the loss of her parents. You could hear a pin drop as she brought her poem ‘No Angel’ to a close, a piece which bravely narrated the tale of a child victim of sexual abuse, in 1993, and the ensuring trial. Powerful stuff, indeed and timely, with the sexual abuse of all womankind being at the forefront of the audience’s mind, in the wake of the recent ‘Me Too’ phenomenon on social media.
Also present was Jim Ferguson, whose mixture of spoken word and musical musings, brought a bit of cross-artform texture to his work. His sung-rap renditions included pop culture references and international perspectives. The latter was subsequently a baton uplifted by Tom Hubbard, who contributed poems inspired by an East-to-West journey across Europe from the ‘Scots Leid in Europe’ collection. His selection, as the title suggests, included translations and re-imaginings in the Scots language of his native Fife.
The evening also welcomed short readings and performances from Woodburn and Williamson, and longer sets from Nicole Carter and Roger West and was concluded with a spell-binding reading by Edinburgh’s Jane Bonnyman. With selections from her ‘An Ember from the Fire’ pamphlet (Poetry Saltzburg, 2016), lauded on the cover by the late, great Sandy Hutcheson. Bonnyman brought the festivities to a decidedly literary close, something which the audience particularly and vocally enjoyed. Whilst there was something to savour from the majority of those reading, throughout, I found that the voices which impacted on me most, personally, were those of Rabatski, Gibson, and Jane Bonnyman, who, in particular, exhibited poetry of real quality, expertly delivered. Leaving the venue, with the scent of Bonnyman’s ‘hibiscus’ and ‘jasmine’ in my nostrils – a stunning image from one of her later selections – it was more than clear that this monthly event goes from strength to strength. The full house demonstrated that Woodburn’s monthly poetic curation is starting to get the attention it deserves, within her own community of poets and, also, among aficionados of the form.
– Marcas Mac an Tuairneir