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6 March 2014

Mother tongue: new poetry by Jen Hadfield and John Burnside

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

By Matthew Sperling

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:

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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

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