Liz Niven, Burning Whins and other poems, Luath Press; Walter Perrie, Caravanserai, Chanticleer Press; Seán Rafferty, Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments, Etruscan Books
The poems in Liz Niven’s Burning Whins are genial, conversational, good-spirited pieces, interspersed with charming lino-cuts by Hugh Bryden. A commission by the Highlands and Islands Ltd forms the first part, “An Turas: The Journey, or The Angel’s Share”. The author travels to various outlying locations, to Shetland in the far north, across to Campbeltown in Argyll in the west, and so on. Usually the plane lands in the right place, but in the case of the Campbeltown trip weather prevents scheduled arrival and the poem talks instead about the other passengers’ lives as they return to Glasgow Airport. The poet overhears replanned journeys and contingency measures and she celebrates the little explosions they all see beneath them, Bonfire Night fireworks.
The next sequence, “Merrick tae Criffel” takes an imaginative leap from “An Turas”, which perhaps dwells too much on airports and aircraft life to reflect the full promise of a Highlands and Islands commission. Here Niven presents a dialogue between the two lowland hills of the title, one character speaking English, one character speaking Scots. The central poem dramatises the foot and mouth slaughter enforcements as they take place across Dumfries and Galloway. Although the idea is inspired and the sequence now joins Nicholas Johnson’s Cleave as a significant engagement with this tragedy in poetry, the dialogue is on the worthy side and, as elsewhere in Burning Whins, the poetry is underpowered.
Niven’s tone, like Merrick’s and Criffel’s, is kindly and reasonable throughout the book, but detailed engagement with language, at a word by word and line by line level, is generally missing. The collection’s title poem is a case in point - the “whins” are gorse, by the way, the word having Scandinavian roots so perhaps common to both English and Scots. This poem has rather prosaic lines such as: “[W]e’re far from strife. Far from the superpower plotting carnage, / or, the black horror which plucks small lives // from quiet family gatherings”. Few would fault the sentiment or sincerity of this extract, but words and phrases like “strife”, “carnage”, “the black horror” and “plucks” used in this generalising naïve way are simply worn-out: they have little power to move or to evoke beyond sympathy recognition.
This tendency means that the collection is at its best when it is using anecdote, short story and broader structural effects, such as the poem “found object” whose entertaining payoff is to imagine an alien unwrapping a cereal packet freebie in the shape of a “flesh coloured woman / in need of a good // dusting down”. The poem “Midwinter Blues”, about failing to write, is one of the tightest poems here. The understated visual play and breathless rescaling between a “colander” of sky and stars and a loose string bag of tangerines - which allows its fruit to fall out - is rendered relatively succinctly and beautifully evokes the season (Christmas is a time of tangerines, those learner-oranges).
William Perrie co-edited and founded Chapman which since 1970 has been one of the stalwarts of Scottish literary magazines. Today he is the co-editor with John Herdman of the new little magazine Fras. At first sight, the first poem in the pamphlet Caravanserai, “Film Clip – Lithuania 1942”, seems to share the tendency that is there in Liz Niven’s work to consider large subjects without quite the attendance to the weight of each word that the theme deserves. Here Perrie contemplates mass summary executions of prisoners of war. Where Niven is never bitter, Perrie’s speaker has a self-disgust which, in one poem at least, his text extends to the whole human race. The act of watching the footage leads him to conclude, “The whole stinking human business / is complicity, unwilled complicity and mess / between coffee, adverts, conversation.” Perhaps the angry banality of that phrase, “the whole stinking human business” operates here, however, as the articulacy of what cannot be said, foregrounding the tiredness of language to cope with atrocity. Certainly, the difficult concept of “unwilled complicity” and the queasy uneven use of rhyme throughout this poem suggests a broadly philosophical poetry which is engaged formally, and this is the case throughout Caravanserai.
The sequence “Epilogue for a New Age” reflects on the First World War. Time is handled movingly, notably through the image of a dresser thrown from a window in 1967, a wedding gift, it transpires, to a sister from a favourite brother, his last present before his death in the conflict. The changing from one time to another and back again gives the sequence layers of meaning which telling the story plainly would not give. The sequences “Desert Notes” and “Overwhelmed” are each concerned with the desert lands hinted at in the pamphlet’s title, the first as a place of the limits of existence and language – I think here of W. S. Graham’s whitescapes especially – while “Overwhelmed” is a sensual and sexual contrast, describing gay encounters and “pleasures, pleasures half in body, half in soul, / that join where abstract histories unroll.” This is a booklet which quietly rewards re-reading.
Seán Rafferty’s Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments is a companion volume to Etruscan’s beautifully printed Poems of 1999, itself a revised and augmented edition of the Carcanet Collected Poems (1995). Rafferty was recognised by Sorley Maclean, Hamish Henderson, and Gael Turnbull as a poet of great interest, and MacDiarmid early on saw his promise. Rafferty’s first major sequence “The Return to Wittenburg” was published in one of the more intelligent Scottish magazines of the 1930s, The Modern Scot, and is republished in the present volume for the first time since then. The collection is fascinatingly uneven, like a glorious B-sides album, but it has the same unusual mixture of ballad-like characters, musical theatre songs, and epigrams in a high sonorous register: “Who knows what bird of further flight / may choose for cage this skeleton / and housed in the heart’s shadow sing / and sing behind these bars of bone / under its wings the folded light / and all of its plumage in its song.”
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