Review of North End of Eden

"Christine De Luca's latest collection is, to use one of my favourite dialect words, fairly prammed with treasure. I admire her energy and application, throwing off verse after verse, as Iain Crichton Smith has it. There's a great variousness here, a roving from Shetland to Canada, France, Spain, India and "ither places forbye", as they say - a wealth of inspiration, often art- or music-related, or marking an anniversary, in dialect and English.

Even when the subject is a Shetland one, as in Burra Suite, the voice isn't afraid to stray outwith. In Circles o Bruna Ness, for example, the reference to her hael continent keeps insularity at bay. This sequence develops different moods and motifs, variations on a theme and glories in the landscape, the natural richness, the birds and plants, the abandoned crofts, switching between past and present, and moving between different forms, so that you get a sense of imaginative completeness and an implied contemporary relevance.

Many poems make connections between Shetland and other places, and not always obvious connections, either, although always personal and apposite, as in Da York boat, Swallows for steynshakkers, Breton circle dance, Fire - sang cycle: Shetland and Rajastan, or Gaet-markers: meids ta line up Ithica or/ Isbister, hit's aa da sam.

My favourite poems here unfold gloriously from chance happenings, or dazzle in sudden concatenations of images, surprising the poet as well as the reader, it seems. In Transformation, inspired by the tapestry Water Surface by David Cochrane, a flicker of changing perspectives propels us suddenly and exhilaratingly to a personal memory and a strongly rhythmic affirmation: and in Trespass, inspired by a final visit to a family home in Vidlin, the poem skims from one chance realisation to the next, and a different, perhaps more rueful, resolution. In the sonnet Accidentals a spontaneous observation becomes a playfully extended metaphor which ends brilliantly. Blue Een is another poem, spare, almost taciturn, where the movement takes you quickly with it, thanks to its structure and beckoning enjambment, to the image of a man, a dog, a sky and the blue eyes of the title.

I admire, too, Christine De Luca's ability to conjure a story from scarce scraps and strands, as in Lodger, another poem with a family connection, where lives are animated by succinct brush strokes and a few luminous details and juxtapositions. Incidentally, I was amused by the very modern construction in the penultimate line of this poem: A'm lovin da views fae Maggie's windows,/ her clowey honeysuckle, da mindin on a faider.

And in Catchin da licht, a great poem is spun out of the finding of a stone on a beach - in this case Labradorite, used as a ballast for windjammers on the North Atlantic crossing. Put it this way, I knew nothing about the stone before, but I certainly feel familiar with it now. The poem is remarkable for its precisely observed sound. Listen to this, for example:

...steyn taen fae Labrador,
da ebbs o Newfoondland.
Naethin as dour as sea anunder

a skull-cep o clood, mooskit
or shaela. Wind backing, bassel
o weet thwack on sail,
an da shift o steyns reeselin
I da howld wi ivery rowl.

and note how the becalming oo assonance gives way to aa and the onomatopoeic ack as the wind picks up, and then the sibilance to catch the way stones brush against each other, before the final owld/rowl to let us hear how they move more heavily, as a mass.

And, towards the end, picking up from the earlier glink apon hit, we have:

...whit dey saa

wis da wing o a dragonfly,
hits shiller o blues, glister
o maaves an greens an, for
da takkin, prisms o simmer:
heam shores, a lift o azure.

The contrasting hope expressed in this section is emphasised by the repetition of the short 'i' sounds, each one a little springboard of promise.

I'm not sure whether the English words dragonfly and azure sit easily here, however; perhaps a Shetland neologism or image could have been used instead. But I notice that mixing dialect and English is a feature of several poems, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to be inclusive. This works well in On da rebound, a feisty, insistent, unusual poem I'm still unravelling. Some dialect poems have English titles, such as Avoirdupois, a baffling word I've been itching to use in a poem since encountering it on the back of my school jotters. Sustainability - inspired by 'a swan's feet bag exhibit in the Manitoba Museum' - is another example, although here the word is humorously undermined in typical Shetland fashion. The poem outlines the possible story behind the bag's creation, then ends: an nae doot da swan's feet bag set aff/her rivlins whin shö travelled oot. I like that traivelled oot.

There are many fine reflective poems here, too, especially those inspired by artefacts at the Britsh Museum and Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. Tagidder, for instance, where conjoined twin foetuses, preserved in formaldehyde, speak, has a tender directness and ends powerfully, almost abruptly, leaving a silence you fill yourself: ...Shö wis da een dat strokit/ wir fair heads, wir peerie taes, sained wis/wi her tears. Said hit wis a shame. The way the moving rhythm of these closing lines is interrupted by the full stop, leaving the brusque elliptical sentence at the end, emphasises the understated condemnation here. In Advent wreath, about the Ipswich murders, each victim is commemorated in a four-line verse with limpid homespun elemental imagery reminiscent of George Mackay Brown. But there is no anger here or interrogation, just submission and resignation, and, in common with several other poems, biblical references.

Noth End of Eden is Christine De Luca at the top of her game, writing with great assurance and authority, and always, always, as she puts it, da element o winder. Her reputation beyond Shetland is fully deserved. I sometimes have reservations about the constraining nature of the dialect voice, but the cosmopolitanism of Christine De Luca's poetry acts as a welcome antidote to that. In fact, she appears so profligate with her use of dialect, and so versatile, we forgot how small the store of words really is - and that is the true measure of achievement.

Review of 'North End of Eden', Jim Mainland, The New Shetlander, No. 253 - Hairst Issue 2010


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