Sea spirit: Hadfield explores Shetland's shores. Photo: Getty Images
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Mother tongue: new poetry by Jen Hadfield and John Burnside

Two new collections by Scottish poets characterised by sharp attention to detail.

Byssus
Jen Hadfield
Picador, 70pp, £9.99

All One Breath
John Burnside
Jonathan Cape, 82pp, £10

Behavioural scientists are increasingly persuaded that the key to personal happiness lies in how we pay attention. If this is right, part of poetry’s value is how it can teach readers to attend to things that would otherwise escape regard. Two new collections – by John Burnside, the pre-eminent living Scottish poet, and the Shetland-dwelling Jen Hadfield, a more recent emergence in UK poetry – are sustained by acts of close attention.

Both books meet the challenge that the late Hugh MacDiarmid set for the poets who followed him when he wrote, “So I have gathered unto myself/All the loose ends of Scotland,/. . . naming and accepting them,/Loving them and identifying myself with them”. Although they are less explicitly concerned with nationhood than MacDiarmid, between them Burnside and Hadfield name a remarkable range of Scottish spaces, flora and fauna. The poems inhabit moors, cliffs, fields, shores, woods and edgelands, all touched by modernity in the form of quad bikes, turbines and mobile-phone signals.

Hadfield’s opening poem, “Lichen”, brings the focus down to the time-lapse level of an organism that measures its lifespan in centuries. I was reminded of the long shots of lichen on road signs in Patrick Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins, where it seems like a sleeper agent in enemy territory. In the poem, lichen is receiving our messages and seems on the verge of speaking back:

Who listens
like lichen listens . . .

The little ears prunk,
scorch and blacken.

The little golden
mouths gape

“Prunk” is lovely: a Shetland dialect dictionary gives the word as an adjective meaning “smart and well-poised”, but Hadfield turns it into the perfect verb for the occasion. She specialises in finding the very word for a thing, the word both surprising and true. The title of the book, Byssus, is a name for “sea silk”, the “beard” of the mussel, which anchors it to the seabed. In recent posts on her blog, Rogue Seeds, Hadfield shared some extraordinary photos of objects woven from byssus and expressed the hope that, in its “contemplation of how it batters us just to live, learn, make and love”, her book is the equivalent of the mussel’s beard: “my holdfast in such wild water”.

Throughout Byssus, her third collection, there is something magical and incantatory in the way she cherishes language at the level of the name, as if utterance itself might be a way of dwelling in the real and making oneself at home there. “Loving language . . .” the poem “In Memoriam” claims, “. . . I can only noun/about its shores/and surfaces”. The verse is constantly breaking out into linguistic delight that exceeds literal meaning (several poems make use of the printed page in the tradition of concrete poetry).

For this reason, the book will not always be easy going for readers who like poems to be tethered to clear sense. But the rewards are more than worth the difficulties, when, in “The Puffballs”, a puffball is transfigured into “blackened blowhole; toxic stoma. A toff/a pocked sphincter”, or when a poem breaks into a burst of vivid Joycean (“longbusy birdbrushed billows of the/equinoctial sea”) or Hopkins-ese (“Spring a hybrid/God, Gosh or Gum: dewlap bulging, bugling with Glory”). Even defrosting a freezer can be made splendid and alien by such gifts of speech: “the last of the piltocks; the mackerel fillets in their oily lamé . . . fluted scales of choux annealed in a frozen slick . . .”

“In Memoriam” asks the question: “are we taking up the first language/or must we coin/a new one?” Hadfield’s poem gives no explicit answer, but when John Burnside considers a similar point in “Nocturne: Christmas, 2012”, an elegy for the poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll, he comes down on the side of “first language”:

Say what you will, all making is nostalgia,
hurrying back to name the things we missed
the first time, when the world seemed commonplace . . .

In other words, poetry (“making’) seeks to capture what Burnside elsewhere calls “a blear/of Eden”, getting back behind the common to recover and give form to something original and true.

All One Breath, Burnside’s 14th collection, is a sombre book where memory and self-reflection merge into elegy in an air heavy with epigraphs. Burnside has always been a philosophical poet, and his meditations tend to cast their line a long way out and reel in their theme slowly through long sentences that gain momentum with each conjunction and clause, before landing the theme decisively at the end, as in “Hall of Mirrors, 1964”:

                                                     . . . the life
perpetual, that’s never ours alone,
including us, till everything
is choir.

Burnside is a master of the final, clinching line: “to this finale, orphaned, far for home”; “first catch, then canon; fugal; all one breath”. If the philosophising at times risks becoming ponderous at the level of the phrase (“It comes to us, after a time,/that there’s no forever . . .”), nonetheless across the length of whole poems and the whole book there is great wisdom about how people learn to get along with family and with their own past selves, “the backrooms of the heart”; about the limits of self and body; and about how human beings have mistaken and abused the non-human.

For me, the two strongest poems are “Joseph Wright of Derby: an Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump, 1768” and “Instruc­tions for a Sky Burial”. In the first, the sickening cruelty of suffocating a cockatoo in
a vacuum bell for demonstration purposes gives way to a vision of the unknowable world beyond the human and “the silence that follows a kill”. In the second, the image of one’s dead body being left out in the air for dogs, rats and crows to consume leads the poem to the edge of its own comprehension, grasping after “something/inexact and perfect”, “something like a song,/but taking shape”.

Burnside’s poems are exceptionally alert to these somethings, these known unknowns. It is “the surest mistake”, he suggests, “to think we already know/what matters when we see it”. All One Breath, in common with Byssus, provides a strong example of how to do the opposite, to discover what matters by paying faithful attention.

Matthew Sperling is a poet and academic

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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If you don’t know what a Fwooper is by now, where have you been?

Meet the latest magical characters entering the Harry Potter universe.

Yesterday, the latest and final trailer was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them –  the latest Harry Potter franchise film from J K Rowling. Based on an index of magical animals that Rowling released for Comic Relief all the way back in 2001, it naturally features a whole range of strange creatures from the series – with familiar and fresh faces alike.

So, let’s get to know the animals we meet in the latest trailer.

Niffler

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

Any self-respecting Harry Potter fan will remember the niffler. A mole-like fellow mostly found down mines, the niffler’s most distinctive characteristic is its love for (and ability to sniff out) gold. Nifflers were part of Hagrid’s most successful lesson, when he buried leprechaun gold and asked his students to use nifflers to dig up as much as possible – “easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures”. And who could forget when Lee Jordan, on more than one occasion, released a hairy-snouted niffler into Umbridge’s office, “which promptly tore the place apart in its search for shiny objects, leapt on Umbridge on her reentrance, and tried to gnaw the rings off her stubby fingers”? Some would say the niffler is a distant relative of the New Statesman’s own Media Mole – sniffing out content gold on a daily basis.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Niffler is a British beast. Fluffy, black and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery. Nifflers are often kept by goblins to burrow deep into the earth for treasure. Though the Niffler is gentle and even affectionate, it can be destructive to belongings and should never be kept in a house. Nifflers live in lairs up to twenty feet below the surface and produce six to eight young in a litter.

An Egg

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A. It’s an egg.

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself. Who knows what magical creature is appearing from within this hatching egg – the only animal we’ve seen hatch in the Potterverse before was Noberta the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, but this egg looks too small to be one of those. Aside from dragons, we know from Fantastic Beasts that Acromantula, Ashwinder serpents, Basilisks, Chimaera, doxies and fairies, Fwoopers, Hippocampi, Hippogriffs, Occamys, Phoenixes, and Runespoor all come from eggs. My money would be on this being the egg of an Occamy – a key player in the next movie – but their eggs are made from pure silver. So I’d guess this belongs to a Fwooper.

Nomaj

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A (but should be XXXXX to be honest)

Meaning “no magic”, this is basically your common or garden variety Muggle, just with a fancy new American name. Look how Muggleish this one is, falling through suitcases like a chump and getting in a muddle about basic magical principles. Get it together, mate! It remains unconfirmed whether this man’s animate moustache is a magical creature in its own right.

Billywig

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

You might not remember billywigs from the Harry Potter series – they only get a couple of passing, esoteric mentions in the final book. But anyone who remembers Fizzing Whizbees – in Ron’s words, “massive sherbert balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them”, will have a tangential relationship with them – according to Fantastic Beasts, they’re a key ingredient in the classic wizarding sweet. These bugs seem to match the billywig description.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Billywig is an insect native to Australia. It is around half an inch long and a vivid sapphire blue, although its speed is such that it is rarely noticed by Muggles and often not by wizards until they have been stung. The Billywig’s wings are attached to the top of its head and are rotated very fast so that it spins as it flies. At the bottom of the body is a long thin sting. Those who have been stung by a Billywig suffer giddiness followed by levitation. Generations of young Australian witches and wizards have attempted to catch Billywigs and provoke them into stinging in order to enjoy these side effects, though too many stings may cause the victim to hover uncontrollably for days on end, and where there is a severe allergic reaction, permanent floating may ensue. Dried Billywig stings are used in several potions and are believed to be a component in the popular sweet Fizzing Whizzbees.

Graphorn

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

This is not a “canon” animal in that it doesn’t appear in the original series. God, it’s weird looking.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Graphorn is found in mountainous European regions. Large and greyish purple with a humped back, the Graphorn has two very long, sharp horns, walks on large, four-thumbed feet, and has an extremely aggressive nature. Mountain trolls can occasionally be seen mounted on Graphorns, though the latter do not seem to take kindly to attempts to tame them and it is more common to see a troll covered in Graphorn scars. Powdered Graphorn horn is used in many potions, though it is immensely expensive owing to the difficulty in collecting it. Graphorn hide is even tougher than a dragon’s and repels most spells.

Fwooper

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

We see a bright pink bird sail past the Graphorn – I bet this is a Fwooper. Again, not an animal from the seven books, but here’s what we know about it from Fantastic Beasts:

The Fwooper is an African bird with extremely vivid plumage; Fwoopers may be orange, pink, lime green, or yellow. The Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity8 and the Fwooper is consequently sold with a Silencing Charm upon it, which will need monthly reinforcement. Fwooper owners require licences, as the creatures must be handled responsibly.

Bowtruckle

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XX (Harmless / may be domesticated)

A fan favourite, maybe because one attacks Harry in a Care of Magical Creatures class, before it “set off at full tilt toward the forest, a little, moving stickman soon swallowed up by the tree roots.” Aw, cute and feisty! Tree guardians that usually live in trees that produce wand wood, they are pretty damn adorable. We know they like to eat fairy eggs, and we can assume they particularly favour doxy eggs: Aberforth once said, “they’ll be onto you like bowtruckles on doxy eggs”.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Bowtruckle is a tree-guardian creature found mainly in the west of England, southern Germany, and certain Scandinavian forests. It is immensely difficult to spot, being small (maximum eight inches in height) and apparently made of bark and twigs with two small brown eyes. The Bowtruckle, which eats insects, is a peaceable and intensely shy creature but if the tree in which it lives is threatened, it has been known to leap down upon the woodcutter or tree-surgeon attempting to harm its home and gouge at their eyes with its long, sharp fingers. An offering of woodlice will placate the Bowtruckle long enough to let a witch or wizard remove wand-wood from its tree.

Nundu

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but pretty damn high we’d assume

Not in the books; not in Fantastic Beasts, definitely fucking weird. Pottermore have invented a Fantastic Beasts entry for it that did not appear in the 2001 book, so I guess we have to go from there.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (on Pottermore):

This east African beast is arguably the most dangerous in the world. A gigantic leopard that moves silently despite its size and whose breath causes disease virulent enough to eliminate entire villages, it has never yet been subdued by fewer than a hundred skilled wizards working together.

Thunderbird

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but, again, we’d guess high

Again, this is seemingly a new creation invented for this film. It apparently “senses danger and creates storms as it flies”, and a house of the American Wizarding school Ilvermoney takes its name from this bird, and Pottermore gives a bit of extra detail, supposedly from History of Magic in North America, 1920s Wizarding America:

Shikoba Wolfe, who was of Choctaw descent, was primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.

Occamy

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

A horrific bird-snake, it seems as though Occamys start tiny and cute and end up huge and dangerous. I am intrigued. Again, not one from the books.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Occamy is found in the Far East and India. A plumed, twolegged winged creature with a serpentine body, the Occamy may reach a length of fifteen feet. It feeds mainly on rats and birds, though has been known to carry off monkeys. The Occamy is aggressive to all who approach it, particularly in defence of its eggs, whose shells are made of the purest, softest silver.

Erumpent

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

We never see an Erumpent in the Harry Potter series, but who could forget the exploding Erumpent horn – “an enormous, gray spiral horn, not unlike that of a unicorn” – at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house? Hermione spots it as “a Class B Tradeable Material and it’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have in a house!” We can therefore assume the Erumpent is a risky animal to be around. Also fucking ugly.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Erumpent is a large grey African beast of great power. Weighing up to a tonne, the Erumpent may be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. It has a thick hide that repels most charms and curses, a large, sharp horn upon its nose and a long, rope-like tail. Erumpents give birth to only one calf at a time. The Erumpent will not attack unless sorely provoked, but should it charge, the results are usually catastrophic. The Erumpent’s horn can pierce everything from skin to metal, and contains a deadly fluid which will cause whatever is injected with it to explode. Erumpent numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season. They are treated with great caution by African wizards. Erumpent horns, tails, and the Exploding Fluid are all used in potions, though classified as Class B Tradeable Materials (Dangerous and Subject to Strict Control).

I’m sure there are loads more creatures to be discovered in the new film – but getting to know this small handful has exhausted me for now!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.