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09 October 2018 @ 12:46 pm
Review of Fuglicaavie by Jim Mainland, pub. the print floor 2018  


Jim Mainland's pamphlet titles are always an interesting indicator of what he is up to. A Package of Measures alluded both to government measures and the various verse forms he was using, while League of Notions, (reviewed here) again associated his political themes with the exuberance and fancy of his language and imagery.

"Fuglicaavie" is an Old Norse portmanteau word meaning, more or less, a blizzard of birds, originally coined by Shetland fishermen to describe the cloud of birds that follows a fishing boat coming in with its catch. The poem with this title is a shape-poem representing the said boat, and the picture – both the boat and the cloud of following birds – is made up of words from the Shetlandic dialect of Norn, the language spoken in the islands until a few centuries ago but now lost as a language, though many words survive in dialect. Anyone who doesn't get the point of shape-poems should have a look at this one and see how moving is the image of the cloud of lost words following the boat home; if there is a way this could have been as powerfully expressed without using a pictorial image, it isn't obvious to me.

 But as one of the quotes used as an epigraph points out, the word caavie can apply to anything, which is why we also have the grim poem "Styrocaavie", about the pernicious microbeads of polystyrene, deceptively resembling snow, with which we are busy polluting "our"  environment:
falling as friendly precipitation

in the beauty of clog and glom and chronic
fallout beside take-away residual hill and shore
headaches falling into the interstices and sleeving
for the central nervous symptoms whose falling

systems take hundreds of years to decompose whose
few known methods of breaking down cannot
be simulated

As can be seen, the language here becomes, in a different way from the words in "Fuglicaavie", itself a caavie, a blizzard of words not necessarily falling in what we may think of as the "right" order. And the randomness, the breakdown of ordered syntax, immeasurably heightens the anguish of the tone. Mainland is a poet living in a remote rural place; it would be a huge mistake to suppose him, on that account, apolitical or unaware of contemporary concerns, particularly environmental ones. Bidisha, chairing this year's Forward Prize panel, said snidely and superficially "A poet is not an old white heterosexual male philanderer talking about what he saw on his walk". Leaving out the "philanderer", this would actually be a fair description of Mr Mainland and his methods, but you see, madam, it rather depends how sharply one observes on one's walk and how one's talent transmutes observation into language.

As readers of his earlier work will know, Mainland often collaborates with musicians and some of his poems do have musical accompaniments which I've heard performed. When I was wondering how on earth the poem "Fuglicaavie" could be performed for an audience, it did strike me as possible, given a projector and soundtrack, so that the words could move across the screen, while several disembodied voices spoke them in random combinations. It would be unconventional, but then it is rare to find a poet to whom both shape and music are so important.

There are more conventionally constructed poems too in this collection – even a long poem in terza rima (""The Water Diviner"). But the measured cadences of "The Carpenter", celebrating Francesco Tuccio, who made the Lampedusa Cross from shipwreck wood in memory of drowned refugees, hold the same anguish and power as the caavie poems:

After the sea of children's cries, and worse,
the flooded, capsizing, submerged silence,
a slow dystopian interrogation
of lost papers and sifted identities

The poet conjures up a possible motivation for so hazardous a journey:

a dream
you once had, where you walked among strangers,
were freely enfolded in their welcome;
a gesture whose simple shape your fingers
now trace and retrace clasp and unclasp:
a tree out-branched, upright on the level plain,
a raised hand to haul you from hostile waters.


This pamphlet is £6 inc, p & p and is probably the best £6 you've ever spent if you are interested in what innovative and aware poetry can do, whatever the age, ethnicity and inclination of whoever writes it.  The author is doing the distribution: he can be contacted at Rockville, Nibon, Hamar, Shetland, ZE2 9RQ. Or if you're lucky enough to live near Lerwick, you can find it in the Shetland Times bookshop.