Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Jim Mainland's "The League of Notions"

I had the pleasure of doing this interview with Jim Mainland some time ago and he let me quote some poems, mostly from his collection A Package of Measures. It's been far too long since then but now we have a pamphlet, called The League of Notions (as you will have noticed, Mr Mainland has a gift for titles). It is published by Hansel Co-Operative Press, which promotes literary works relating to Shetland and Orkney, in a limited edition of 300.

One of the poems I quoted in the interview was "Performance", which is a version in the Shetlandic dialect of Les Murray's poem of that name. This appears in the present collection, along with some more Shetlandic versions: a passage from Paradise Lost and poems by Holub, Tranströmer and Murray, again. The version of Tranströmer's "April and Silence" (original here) is a good illustration of what the dialect can change and add. In the standard English translation of the original, the first verse goes

Spring lies deserted.
The dark velvet ditch
creeps by my side
not reflecting anything.

Mainland's version:

Da Voar is by wi, forlegen.
Da saft dark stank
oags alang be me side,
aa licht lang slockit.

Now some of this is straight translation, though "velvet" becomes "saft", presumably for the richness of the three varying "a" vowels in "saft dark stank" (a stank is a ditch). But the last line, "all light long since quenched" is a departure from "not reflecting anything" that very much localises the poem. A "slockit licht" was an extinguished oil-lamp, and the fiddle-tune "Da Slockit Licht", composed by the Shetland musician Tom Anderson, recorded the depopulation of Anderson's native area, the Eshaness peninsula, made obvious by the lack of lights in abandoned houses. Mainland lives in Nibon, not too far from Eshaness, an area similarly beautiful and sparsely populated. This re-creation inevitably invests the line with a vast, rueful and very particular nostalgia.

Several of the original poems are elegiac. A dead person's voice is briefly heard in a "scatter of notes", or perhaps not, "I think I hear this, but I'm not certain" ("Presence"). In "Outsourcing", the lost voice is imagined communicating in ways that vary from the traditional, "smoke signal/or talking drum" to far more contemporary ones like "a rusty pumping/of borrowed beats and bungee dub heart" whose soundtrack is a "ribby vibraphone". Mainland, who collaborates with musicians in his work, has a keen love of the music of words, and the poem "The Chestnut-eared Bunting feat. The Bobolink meet the Rockers Uptown" - whose title is slightly less baffling when you realise it relates to the influx of off-course migrant birds that hits Shetland in autumn – is an exuberant tour-de-force of language whose vibrancy echoes in sound the visual extravaganza of the birds:

This is what the green wind bashes out
or bullyblows in – an irruption by Dali

out of Gogol by Hazzard County:
strident fire between the eyestripes,

Lucifer and Freudian, quiffed and
spliffed, coxcombed and crested,

with glamrock iridescent dusting
and the starling's I-speak-in-tongues app.

Mainland is rooted in a place, as is evident from his poem "Da Field Placings", a shape- poem set out as a map of place-names ranging from the descriptive (Deepdale, The Slithers) through the intriguingly odd (Troubleton, Rumblings) to ones like Tiptoby whose story can't even be guessed at. But he is also very aware of a wider world from which his lexis and imagery come just as much as from more traditional sources. Though one could trace influences, he does not really sound like anyone else currently writing (and I have just read, by way of judging a national competition, a year's worth of collections many of which did sound quite alike). I still want another full-length collection from him, but in the meantime, this is very welcome.
Tags: book reviews, jim mainland, poetry, shetland
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