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Review of "Beyond the Swelkie", celebrating the centenary of George Mackay Brown

(eds Mackintosh/Philippou, pub. Tippermuir)

The “swelkie”, for the avoidance of doubt, is the fearsome swirling current in the Pentland Firth that makes the crossing to Orkney more of an undertaking than its length would suggest. It has nothing to do with selkies, those mythical shape-changing creatures irritatingly over-used in poems (GMB did use one in An Orkney Tapestry, but typically he gave it an original twist; his is a seal-man, not a seal-woman).

This memorial is divided more or less equally between poems and essays. Some of the poems are about GMB, others inspired in some way by his own poems – you might be surprised by how many poems carry the epigraph “after George Mackay Brown’s ‘Beachcomber’” and imitate the structure of that poem. I think this can sound a bit like an exercise, and on the whole I preferred those which took a line or image of his and then spun off in a new direction, like David Bleiman’s “A Wee Goldie”, which has for an epigraph the line “He woke in a ditch, his mouth full of ashes” from “Hamnavoe Market”, but which deals with the guilt of those who out of mistaken goodfellowship enable alcoholics and end up at their funerals: “so here we stand in rain, who stood our rounds”.

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Review of The Red Gloves and other stories, by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press 2021

“…he stood up there like someone important, spouting as if he knew it all, but he didn’t, did he? He had no idea. Were all adults such frauds, was it all false, the way they pretended to know things, to be experienced, to have learned, have passed exams? Were they really all fakes like he, Jack, was?”
 

It may seem perverse to start by quoting the one story in this volume that has no supernatural element. But in a way, “Not Such a Bad Thing” is key, because Jack, who has plagiarised a story from an old book for his English homework, is experiencing a revelation about how little the adults whom he has seen as omniscient actually know. His teacher has not spotted it, the head of English has entered it for a competition, the judges too have awarded it first prize. Jack acquires a new perspective on himself and his world, and this is what happens in most of the stories here.

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Review of “100 Poets: A Little Anthology” ed. John Carey, pub. Yale University Press 2021

With an anthology, one is reviewing both the individual poems and the linking concept. If I were John Carey, I fancy I would be annoyed by the description of this concept on the back cover: “an anthology of verse based on a simple principle: select the one-hundred greatest poets from across the centuries, and then choose their finest poems." This of course is preposterous: no one person could do it. You would need a committee of 25, speaking at least that many languages, and they would still be arguing by the end of the decade.  

Sure enough, when one reads Professor Carey’s foreword, it becomes clear the sensible chap was attempting no such thing – in fact he was doing something far more personal. He sees the anthology as a follow-up to his A Little History of Poetry (which I haven’t read) and states “I have chosen 100 poets, mostly but not exclusively English and American, who seem to me outstanding”. As for the poem choice, “all the poems I have chosen are chosen for a single reason – that I find them unforgettable.”  

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Review of “100 Poems To Save the Earth” eds Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, Seren 2021

This is my month for reviewing anthologies. Two, which have in common both “100 Poems” in the title and a certain ambiguity as to the remit. I should mention that I have a poem in this one, though as usual I feel I can reasonably review the rest of it.
 

The introduction makes it clear that the title is deliberately “provocative”; the editors do not imagine that poems can of themselves save anything. What they hope for is that reading them can inspire people to “slow down”, “pay attention and notice what we have been missing.” So, eco-poetry, but the intro also states “we have abandoned a traditional view of “nature poetry” or “environmental writing”, especially where it sidelines particular groups (eg people of the global majority/BAME/BIPOC writers, LGBTQ+ poets, or writers with disabilities)”
 

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Review of The European Eel by Steve Ely, pub. Longbarrow Press 2021

When Steve Ely remarks that his name caused him to be “chosen” by the European eel as a chronicler, I doubt he is being entirely facetious. George Herbert, after all, was convinced that if “son” and “sun” were homonyms, this must be because the Lord, for some good reason, wished it to be so. Ely does nothing half-heartedly and having decided to write a book-length eco-poem centring on the endangered eel, his first act was to make an exhaustive study of its life, habitat and history. The result of this is that he is very much at home with the scientific vocabulary – geographic, oceanographic, biological – attaching to it. And being Ely, he sees no reason to avoid using this because it might be esoteric or unfamiliar to the reader. He does provide an informative glossary and notes at the end, which can profitably be read after the poem, but personally I would first read straight through, immerse yourself in this Sargasso of fascinating new words and rely on the meaning becoming clear enough from the context.

For one thing, the lingering on the tongue of lines like “leptocephalus, the larval form of anguilla” and “the thermonuclear/microplankton of the drifting epipelagic” pave the way for the sudden brutality of his description of the Gulf Stream, in which the same verbal euphony belies the words’ meaning:

     a roaring salt river
     hurtling north on the edge of the American
     continental shelf, its estuaries of blight;
     oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine
     neurotoxins, chromosome-warping
     neocotinoid run-off. The leptocephali soak it up
     and tumble to Hatteras with the flotsam
     of the current – single-use Canaveral
     space junk, the strip mall’s car-tossed,
    fast-food trash and radioactive manatees. 

He focuses on one individual eel’s journey from her birth in the Sargasso Sea to a Yorkshire pool and back again – eels breed in the Sargasso and find their way there from all the various European rivers and streams where they have spent most of their lives. Having made this epic journey and bred, they die. This eel’s odyssey encompasses, beside natural predators, the blades of hydro-electric plant turbines, potentially fatal pollutants like benzoylecgonine, found in the tissues of eels in cities where cocaine use is high, and indeed Mr Ely himself, who temporarily removes her from her habitat to make a study before re-releasing her.

Obviously the journey, though based on extensive research, is largely imagined, and some of the imagining creates startlingly effective imagery: 

      rippling spearheads
     of foliate gelatine, glittering in the half-lit heave
     like a shoal of shredded cling-film.  

Its single-minded purpose also generates terrific momentum. One danger of eco-poetry is that it can sound like a sermon or lecture. This poem never stands still long enough for that: the ways in which humans are casually fouling up the eel’s world are noted, deadpan and laconically, as she travels, never dwelt on – after all, new hazards are arising at every turn and demanding attention. Power pulses through these lines like the eels through the water, never more so than at the literal climax, when the eel finally mates: 

      the hypertonic waters are smoking
    with milt, and her shuddering body
    can hold it back no longer. She cracks like a whip
     and her body convulses, spurting gusher
     after gusher of glittering golden ova. 

Another way to get eco-poetry wrong is to make it so gloomy and doom-laden that it is no fun to read – as Brecht so aptly remarked, if you want to educate or persuade an audience, you must first give them an incentive to sit still. Here the incentive, apart from the intrinsic interest of the eel’s journey, is the joyfulness and delight of Ely’s language. He has always enjoyed diving into an ocean of words, and rarely has this trait been more appropriate than in this poem. In an earlier collection, Incendium Amoris, I occasionally found the allusiveness and linguistic exuberance detracting from the momentum. In The European Eel there is such a narrative drive that the passing allusions to other endangered or extinct former inhabitants of the earth, like right whales, passenger pigeons and evicted Gaelic crofters, speed by and become part of the poem’s landscape as if we were glimpsing them through the window of an express train.  

Fortunately this particular train can be boarded again and again, and the details of the journey noted more carefully. This is, I think, his most consistently powerful and entertaining book for a while, and certainly one of the most impressive books of eco-poetry I have read.

  

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Review of Terminarchy by Angela France, pub. Nine Arches Press 2021

there’s enough warmth in the air for bare arms, and at home
the heating’s been off for weeks. Sparrow mutters behind me
We’ll pay for this!
 

(“Early Spring”)
 

It is typical of this collection that an innocuous title like “Early Spring” should turn out to be, not some Victorian or Georgian celebration of poetry’s (alleged) favourite season, but a warning about how climate change is disrupting the seasons. Sparrow, putting in his sardonic two penn’orth over the poet’s shoulder, is a constant presence. Smaller and livelier than Hughes’s Crow, he is also sarkier and conveys his unwelcome news with a wry humour, in another poem with an ambiguous title:
 

     Rooks gather, their rusty calls ratcheting
    from the branches and a voice whispers
    at my shoulder Nice place, if you can keep it.
    (“Getting Late”)

It will be clear by now that this collection’s concerns are primarily ecological. Like all the best ecological poetry, it neither preaches nor accentuates the negative; the focus, mostly, is not on “look what we’ve lost” but “look what we have, and dare not risk losing”, which is not only a more productive approach but results in a lot more enjoyment for the reader.  Often this comes from her sharp, humour-leavened observation of the natural world:

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Review of This Much Huxley Knows, by Gail Aldwin, pub. Black Rose Writing 2021

“Dad sits on the armchair in the lounge. He’s reading a newspaper with the pages out wide so I can only see the top of his head. He’s had a busy morning buying paint to fix the ceiling and now he needs a good rest.”
 

From a slightly older narrator, this might be sarcasm, but Huxley, our protagonist-narrator, is seven and repeating what Dad has undoubtedly told him.  This is a novel aimed at adult readers, but with a child narrator, and not one looking back at the past, but narrating in the present. A dangerous proceeding for an author, for there is an infuriatingly lazy assumption that anything with a child narrator or protagonist must be aimed at children. But the benefit is that it gains you an unusual first-person narrator: not only can he show your readers a perspective on things they do not usually see, but he is necessarily sometimes an unaware narrator (particularly since the adults around him give him only partial and sometimes downright mendacious information), and since your readers are adults, they may be ahead of him, which is a great way to ratchet up the tension.
 

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Review of Broken Lights by Basil Ramsay Anderson, ed. Robert Alan Jamieson, pub. Northus Shetland Cl

This is the second in a series of reprints, Northus Shetland Classics, and, like the first, concerns an author who died too young. Anderson died in 1888 at 26, of TB, like several of his siblings. (He came of an ill-starred but talented family; his niece Willa married the poet Edwin Muir and became a well-known author in her own right.) Anderson’s family were part of the ‘Shetland exile’ community in Edinburgh, where his mother had removed after the death at sea of her husband. Another member of this expat community was the older Shetland writer Jessie Saxby, who had acted as a mentor to Anderson and who first edited and published this book after his death. It contains his poems, extracts from letters to his brother and a friend, and an introductory essay from Saxby including several tributes from others. 

The letter extracts are fascinating, and moving because of the contrast between their lively, conversational style and what we know will shortly become of some people mentioned in them. Here, Basil’s younger brother Andrew, a teacher of engineering, has used his expertise to get a smoking chimney to “draw” properly: 

“Andrew calculated what was the requisite current of air necessary to draw that smoke up that lum, and of course, when he had ascertained that, drew up the window the precise distance to allow this current access to the room. He then betook himself to the kitchen.” 

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Just because it's so

I've been thinking about a thing. It is incredibly rare to find, in an 18th, 19th or even 20th-century novel, a disabled or ill character whose disability or illness does not, in the end, become relevant to the plot. Wilkie Collins has umpteen ill and disabled characters, far more than most, but to the best of my recollection, they are never disabled or ill just because they are: in the end their affliction will always be a plot point. The eponymous Miss Finch's blindness is central to the plot; Noel Vanstone's chronic heart condition is why he dies at an awkward moment in No Name; the mental backwardness of Mrs Wragge in that novel also enables the plot, as does that of Anne Catherick in The Woman in White. In The Moonstone, Rosanna's deformed shoulder identifies her in disguise; even Lucy's limp is there to explain her bitterness against men (embittered disabled people being a pernicious but common 19th-century novelist's trope). You'd think, in George Eliot's Adam Bede, that Mrs Poyser's delicate health was an exception, but not so: far into the book, we learn that it has been carefully seeded to give her a reason to be upstairs in bed at a time when she would surely otherwise have spotted Hetty's pregnancy, which goes unnoticed by the less sharp-eyed members of the household. And of course Silas Marner's catalepsy is crucial.

In fact the only exception I can think of in that period is RLS's Catriona. Quite early on in this novel, we learn that our heroine is short-sighted. The first time I read it, I was unconsciously waiting for this to become somehow "relevant". It never does, in terms of plot. Catriona is myopic, just as she is tall and grey-eyed; it's just part of who she is.

My unrealised expectation was, I think, prompted by Chekhov's remark about loaded guns (if you mention one in a story, somebody had better fire it eventually). There is sense in this, of course; one doesn't want to load stories with irrelevant facts. But to equate human disability with that gun is to assume a norm, and to suppose that any deviation from said norm needs an excuse connected with the plot. Relating to a different norm, I once asked a thriller writer (not a very good one in my view, but very well known) if he would ever include a gay character and he said firmly, no, because their sexuality would be irrelevant to the plot (as far as I recall, there wasn't a whole lot of racial diversity in his work either, presumably for the same reason).

But a writer sets a story somewhere in the world, and if his world is populated exclusively by cis white physically and mentally perfect specimens, it had better be a fantasy world, because it sure as hell isn't this one. There is a reason to include characters who don't fit supposed norms, not for the plot but simply to make the world of the book credible.

One would suppose, indeed hope, that contemporary novels would recognise this, and maybe they do; there are so many, and I probably haven't read enough to know for sure.  (Though as late as 1980, the blindness of Jorge in The Name of the Rose is still crucial to the plot.)  Is it more common, in the 21st century, for writers to include characters who are ill or disabled just because they are?

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Review of Ancestors: Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials by Alice Roberts, pub. Simon & Schuster

As some will already know, I have a real thing about osteoarchaeology, so this is a title I was never going to resist – hell, the cover illustration had me hooked. In addition, it is about the relatively neglected but fascinating pre-Roman period. 

Alice Roberts was originally a doctor, who gravitated via anatomy to palaeopathology and osteoarchaeology and is well known as a TV presenter. She was at one time working toward a professorship in anatomy but seems to have settled for one in “public engagement with science”, which sounds more like PR than anything else. Nonetheless, she knows her subject and has written an absorbing book about ancient funerary customs and what we can deduce from them. If the latter is often hedged about with caveats, this is how science is meant to be: her refusal to come up with the kind of easy answers one often finds in newspaper headlines on this topic is admirable. Late in the book, she refers to the huge shift from burial to cremation in Britain over the course of a century (78% of bodies are now cremated, as opposed to 0.7% in 1900), and points out how easy it would be for our distant descendants to attribute this to a seismic shift in religious belief, when in fact it came about for reasons of hygiene, cost and lack of space in cemeteries. It is a salutary warning not to make assumptions like “graves with swords = male; graves with mirrors = female”. 

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