is take you places. I mean real geographical places.
I’ve never been to the Shetland Islands but in the last few months I’ve published two pamphlets that took me there.
First there was Laurna Robertson’s Praise Song. Laurna was born and brought up in Lerwick, the capital and main port of the islands, and the most northerly and easterly town in Scotland.
Praise Song evokes both places and people: it reaches into the Viking past. It calls up Quarff and Fladdabister, Cunningsburgh Hill and Gunnister Hill, the Holm of Melby, the Bridge of Walls and Foula, ‘the edge of the world’. There’s something deliciously, exotically enticing when a person writes with love about a place they love and know – and you find yourself suddenly there, in the title poem, giving praise
granite cliffs lit by sunset.
For stretches of rust pink thrift,
eyebright, wild orchis and lady’s smock,
honey sweet clover and bird’s-foot trefoil.
For puffins skimming under water; for dark caves
glowing with gannets . . .
Praise Song also conjures human beings, and—dead or alive—they live. The Misses Angus, for example. Great-grandmother Elizabeth, and great-grandmother Fanny. Mackie ‘who played Mikado on the Lerwick stage; / Donnie—his twin—who half a world away in Adelaide / felt his death twinges; Peter, pilot out of the port of Leith.’
And how I love the moment of arrival, the ship docking:
Bells sound from the bridge. Anchors rattle.
Cables are thrown. Dockers warp the vessel
alongside. Families fill the pier.
Two figures, huddled against morning cold,
search for the sight of your face at a porthole.
No, I have never been there. But I have been. And again in Stephanie Green’s Flout, I am back. No wonder people are drawn to the Shetlands, as Stephanie has been, a non-Shetlander: half Irish, half English, living in Edinburgh, but drawn to the islands again and again, their landscapes, their language, their gale-force winds
Veering up the voe, swirling round the salmon-rings,
ripping out the mussel strings,
Imaginary, mythic characters, larger than life, attractive and scary, loom eerily (the Njuggle and the Trowie, for example). But most of the all it’s the lonely landscapes that call, the far northern places where the poet encounters herself. In Steekit Stimna ‘Only the intense blue / of lochs, the long voes, / skies so pale they are transparent.’ And in the Keen of Hamar, at her feet, mysterious tiny plants, ‘a galaxy / of frog orchids, mouse ears, / moonwort, sandwort, sea plantain’.
Where else but the Shetlands could you juggle with place names like ‘the Peerie, the Muckle, / the Mid Heads o’ Yesness’, ‘the Kirn o’ Scroo’, and ‘the jagged fins of the Slithers’?
But all countries have that mystery of names, their curious rootedness. Something in place names calls to you, even when you have no idea where you really are, even when you’re just visiting on a poetry page. And so in Peter Jarvis’s Nights of a Shining Moon I am in another continent, and it is Africa.
Peter was born in Zimbabwe. He’s a white African who has travelled and lived in different African countries, and now lives in Scotland. So Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho also find their way into these poems, as do human characters and ways of life far from familiar. There are the San, for example, who believe ‘all birds are endpoints of the wind’, and whose hunters, if they want to go home with their kill, must not look at the moon:
Lower your head, hunter,
keep your eyes down
lest the moon’s water
settle like liquid honey
on the grass of the pan.
Stephanie Green’s Shetland poems often feature Shetlandic words. In Peter Jarvis, it’s African words that trickle in. In ‘Aubade’, for example, the sounds of Setswana mingle unapologetically with English: ‘The crescent ngwedi is low; in the sky / dinaledi phatsima still illumine the scene.’ There is comedy here, and ancient ritual, and tragedy.
I will not forget what happened to little Shindingeni. His fate encapsulates the terror of children mangled by violence they can’t understand.
Beauty and terror. Peter Jarvis’s poems do both. I am lingering in another continent, under a moon brilliant and strange. I have seen it in the night sky before, but not like this.