Review of Northern Alchemy

Christine De Luca has been a palpable presence in the Shetland literary scene for as long as I have been involved in the arts here. I can't think of any time during my trusteeship of, and subsequent employment by, Shetland Arts Trust (later Shetland Arts Development Agency, or SADA) when she didn't powerfully feature, as a writer, performer, communicator and tireless advocate of Shetland dialect. Her passion was always, and still is, energising; her poetry always a joy and a thrill to read. So let me start by saying that this is not a review of Christine's latest book, Northern Alchemy, as I understand that term. Many others have reviewed her work before, and much more ably. The brief in this case was a request for a response from someone not born to or raised with the dialect, to this latest publication, in which every poem has an English 'translation' next to it.

Before I start on Northern Alchemy, I hope it will not be considered discourteous to mention another famous Shetland poet, in order to set out the conundrum that frames my response to it.

There have been two occasions in my life when I have actually been poleaxed by art - quite simply knocked off my feet. One was suddenly coming upon Stanley Spencer's Resurrection: Port Glasgow at the Tate; thankfully there was a bench right behind me that caught me as I sank. The second was in the kitchen of the late, much missed Alex Cluness, when he handed me Robert Alan Jamieson's 'Da Boat Biggir's Nefjoo' to read. Once again, I was grateful for the armchair behind me, because otherwise I would have ended up on the floor. I can only think that the Spencer, depicting the Last Day in a Port Glasgow cemetery, with folk climbing bewildered and grateful out of their graves into the welcoming arms of their loved ones, was a vision of mercy, faith and love that fired some singular sense of loss and longing in this atheist heart. The second, though, was one of Alan's (Robert Alan Jamieson's) poems presented in his own particular form of written dialect, Shætlin, that some have in the past accused of being inaccessible or off-putting, but which he used to represent the language of his township, 'a unique shoot of the Germanic tree of language in script form - a linguistic time capsule where Nordic meets Anglic.'

Writing about her love of J.R.R.Tolkien in the London Review of Books, Jenny Turner described how, even as she accepted all the flaws in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, she still felt deeply connected to it: still locks with my psyche in a most alarming way. There is suction,
something fundamental passes between us, like when a spaceship docks.

There are many fine novels that have affected me greatly, and about which I am so proprietorial that I get personally offended if somebody says they don't like them; but poetry is the place where I most feel this targeted, personalised effect that Turner describes. When I read some poetry there are moments when I think: 'that poet is speaking to or about me.' She or he knows me, and has voiced something that I feel but could never, or have never been able to articulate.

'Da Boat Biggir's Nefjoo' had no trouble going straight to the target as far as I was concerned. And, like Turner's incoming spaceship, it has hit home every time since. I've read the English version many times: it's lovely. So why did the dialect - and in particular this dialect version speak louder and so fiercely directly to me, a non-dialect speaker? You can talk about poets voicing universal experiences in particularly personal ways: in this case, the poet captures and expresses a glimpse of his childhood on the family croft through a series of images and half recalled snatches of conversation. I didn't grow up on a croft so that is not the 'suction' (as Turner would describe it) I experienced. It was more the remembrance of that precise moment in childhood when the magic of things is about to be revealed as actually quite prosaic, causing everything to change forever. A feeling shared by many, I'm sure, but most poignantly expressed, as far as I was concerned (born in Manchester, raised in Wales), in the dialect. It's a conundrum indeed, and one that kept raising its head as I read through Christine De Luca's deeply impressive and thoroughly rewarding collection.

Let me say at this point that I never attempt to 'speak Shetlandic' in my everyday conversation. The occasional word or phrase might rise to my lips naturally, and that's fine. That's about having lived here for thirty years. But I view any conscious attempt of mine to speak in the dialect like my teenaged self would have viewed my Dad disco dancing. It's just wrong. Awkward. And those frozen smiles that he incurred were not meant to be encouraging, however much we appreciated his efforts; they were actually grimaces of embarrassment. Now here's a thing. I have visited Spain and Latin America and attempted Spanish there (occasionally with hilarious results: ask me about the Chilean toilet paper story next time you see me); ditto France and my A level French. It felt clumsy, but it felt the right thing to do, the courteous thing to do. I have no idea why I don't feel the same way with Shetland dialect. Much has been written about how Shetlanders view non-Shetlanders attempting to converse in dialect and I don't want to open up that can of worms here, other than to say that I would feel fraudulent if I did it. I only mention it because my response to the dialect poetry of Robert Alan Jamieson, of Roseanne Watt and indeed to that of Christine De Luca includes many 'incoming spaceship' moments, and I've been trying to tease out why.

The title of the book is intriguing: Northern Alchemy. My first reaction to this was to think of the medieval idea of magically turning base metal into gold. Was the author using this as a metaphor for poetry itself, the transformation of the thought or impulse into words, thus creating a poem? It couldn't, I was sure, refer to the process of translation, as Christine herself would never think of the original dialect versions as being the 'base metal' awaiting transformation into the 'gold' of English. A quick dash to the Oxford English Dictionary was reassuring; alongside the reference to medieval chemistry, was an alternative version: 'A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination'. This was more like it.

Christine is no stranger to translations of her work - her poetry has been published in Icelandic, Norwegian, French and Italian, but this is the first time there has been an edition has included only English translations next to their originals. In the foreword she describes having had up until now to be content with only being published locally because the 'need to express thought and feeling using the dialect' left her with no choice. Only local publishers were prepared to accept work exclusively in dialect. Shetland's status as a minority language, she says, gave her 'a sense of stewardship' a challenge that she found 'hard to sidestep.' She has taken up this duty of stewardship with dedication and pride ever since. The fact that she now has the opportunity to have a major publication in Shetlandic and English is both gratifying and exciting. A wider audience beckons, and a portal has been opened for them.

But the act of translation is interesting in itself. I'm using the term in a shorthand way, deliberately avoiding the quagmire of the 'can dialect be described as a language?' debate. Is the main idea of this act of transcription to express the essence of the poem in another voice and still retain its poetic nature? Or, as Christine says in the foreword to Northern Alchemy, 'to give as accurate a translation as possible, rather than compromise for the sake of making it "poetic" in English.' What is being honoured here, primarily, I wondered: the poem itself or the original tongue in which it is being expressed? Christine does not want to compromise what makes her dialect poems essentially 'her' for the sake of being poetic in English. That must be hard for a poet of her skill and sensitivity, but she is determined to be true to her original voice rather than to the broader concept of what 'being poetic' might be.

In Roseanne Watt's debut collection of poetry written variously in Shetlandic (or 'Shaetlan' as she terms it) and in English, Roseanne speaks of being brought up in a family where her father spoke in the dialect and her mother spoke in Irish-inflected English, and of their voices having 'equal weight in my mind.' She offers what she calls 'uneasy translations' to some of the poems, and again, I wonder at the source of such unease. Did she worry that she would betray one voice, somehow, by trying to convert it to another? With characteristic determination (and an equally characteristic hint of defiance), she confronts the challenge head on with the final poem in the collection, the titular Moder Dy, written using both Shetlandic and English, in alternate verses. The message is clear: your voice is your voice, and that's that.

One of the poems in Christine's Northern Alchemy openly celebrates the joy and the increased potential of having more than one language.

Takk peety apö dem
at's born to wan tongue: dem at nivver preeve
maet fae idder tables. Raised wi twa languages
is unconscious faestin: twa wyes o tinkin.
Een extends da tidder; can shaa wis anidder wirld
Yet foo aa wirlds is jöst da sam, but different.

Here was a clue about how to approach the poems and their English translations; 'jöst da sam, but different': so I decided to keep it handy as I read through the rest of the poems.

This is not the full collection of Christine's work, but instead a splendid selection which demonstrates the dazzling breadth and the variety of her craft. I especially love the ones that are about language, and in particular, the dialect itself. I was delighted to find one of my favourites, 'Glims o origin'. It is a joyful celebration, not just of the discovery of language, but specifically of Shetlandic. The reference to the influence of incoming mariners places this thrill of discovery in a distinctly Shetland setting. The poet glories in the almost physical, material elements of her language.

Foo mony generations o bairns
is quarried dat sam wirds, fun
aa needful soonds aroond dem?

This image of 'quarrying words' is so potent, as is the idea of their relationship to the land and seascapes and history of Shetland.

wave-wörn, wind-riven wirds,
der aedges shaaved aff, makkin
a meld; a tongue fit fur saga

'Yarbent' is another, very affecting recollection of the multi-layeredness of Shetland words. In this the poet remembers learning the word 'yarbent' from a much-loved aunt, and how careful her aunt was to make sure she had truly understood it.

You took time to mak sure I'd gotten
ivery tirl, ivery whenk o da wird
you'd used: dat een I'd asked aboot.

'Yarbent', it turned out, was a greatly descriptive, very particular word, a description of a meteorological phenomenon which presaged a dry season; in the poet's mind, it remains evocative of the grief she feels at her aunt's passing.

In her preface to Moder Dy Roseanne Watt ponders this hard-wired relationship between dialect and the natural Shetland environment: 'On a sonic level, Shaetlan reflects its landscape: hard and open, yet with constant fluctuations of light.'

This is one of the great strengths of Christine's dialect poetry and is manifest in the many poems she has written that involve Shetland locations. It is also the 'alchemy' of conjuring a specifically Shetland experience from what might be seen as a more universal one.

Northern Alchemy opens with what I consider to be Christine's strongest suit - poems about her experiences in, and memories of, Shetland. 'Gyaain ta da eela', 'Gyaain fur da mylk' and 'Wast wi da Valkyries' all describe personal memories set in various Shetland landscapes. The translations are good, but the dialect originals have that echo of the landscape itself that plunge the reader straight in to Christine's world; it's Shetland, as Roseanne Watt puts it, 'at a sonic level'. In 'Swans apö Spiggie Loch' we see the following:

Quendale is baetin her breest
Scoosburgh battened doon
Spiggie clos stookit. Ness kye
rive hidmost girse.
Dey'll winter in fat byres.

Quendale is beating her breast
Scousburgh battened down
Spiggie well harvested. Ness cattle
tear last grass.
They will winter in fat cattle sheds.

Both are lovely intimations of the coming winter, but 'Spiggie well harvested' sounds almost a polite version of the perfectly evocative 'Spiggie clos stookit'. You can feel the sharp shards of corn under your feet in the latter.

I therefore wondered if it would make a difference if the poems were those that Christine wrote about places outside of Shetland.

'Hairst mön owre Hjøllund / Harvest moon over Hjøllund' is a scene imagined or recalled from rural Denmark, a quiet lament for the growing mechanisation of farming. I appreciated them both, and it was perhaps the fact that our own Houlland sounds so much like Hjøllund that erased much of the difference for me. This is a truly lovely poem, whichever version you tackle first, although if you were to force my arm up behind my back I'd plump for the dialect version. In her foreword, Christine describes how, whilst Norn was 'pushed to the margins' in the developing tongue of Shetland, 'much of the sound quality and vocabulary still remain'. The Scandinavian cultural ties still bind and the dialect does not seem at all out of place here.

There are also poems not directly about the land - personal meditations on life, love and change. At first I took 'On the rebound/ On da reboond' as an exasperated reproof to a lover who has tested the poet's patience; when I'd read it two or three times I began instead to think it might be the poet talking to herself about the frustrations and challenges of the act of writing. Maybe those two notions are closer to each other than we might at first think. The English version is beautifully constructed; there is no hint of sacrificing the poetic ideal for the accuracy of translation here. But the dialect version crackles with impatience and accusation, altogether harder edged than its English counterpart.

As I read on through the book, I admit that I was nearly always drawn to the dialect versions first. And that returns me to the question that I asked myself nearer to the start of this article: why did Jamieson's 'Da Boat Biggir's Nefjoo' strike me more forcefully in the dialect than in the English translation? And why do I prefer Christine's dialect poems to their perfectly presented English translations? I can only conclude that there is an alchemic reaction between the thoughts being expressed and everything that I have come to know and love about living here. The feelings being evoked are universal - love, loss, joy, the power of memory, but their mode of expression is specific. When they come together, we have the alchemy that bestows what I can only describe as authenticity. The notion of authenticity has dogged me throughout my academic history. What is it? How do you know it when you see, hear or read it? Is it a genuinely objective concept or an endlessly subjective one? For all my mental toiling on this matter, I admit that I still don't know the answer.

Your voice is your voice. For Christine De Luca, that voice has first and foremost been Shetlandic. This doesn't make her English versions inauthentic; you can still see the gifted poet in the careful crafting that she brings to them.

Are these English versions, then, a form of 'knappin', with their jagged edges smoothed over and their Shetland words explained? 'Knappin', if you're not sure of what it means, is when Shetlanders deliberately adapt or anglicise their way of speaking. I'm treading very carefully here because I am aware that this term is often used in a derogatory or mocking way: sometimes as though the person doing it is pretending to be something they aren't - which clearly is not the case for Christine de Luca, who has always prioritised and cherished her dialect voice in her writing - and sometimes as though the person knappin is somehow betraying their dialect and their identity. There is no betrayal here in Northern Alchemy.

Furthermore, I'm going to take the risk of standing up for knappin. As far as I'm concerned, as an incomer of thirty years standing, it was a kindness, a courteous way of including me in a conversation until I could understand the dialect on its own terms. I was grateful for those acts of inclusion, for that helping hand when I was feeling out of my depth.

And that is how I'm reading these English translations of Christine's wonderful poems - as a kindness to those who have never heard the Shetland dialect or have never visited Shetland. She is opening a gateway for you. If you go through it you can start to enjoy what I still believe might be the authentic Shetland experience. But you don't have to read those ones first. There is no need to go wading in armed with a copy of John Graham's dictionary and a worried frown. How you approach Northern Alchemy depends on how you approach a box of chocolates. Some people have to read the card first in order to be sure of finding the flavours they like or are familiar with. They need to be sure where the coffee creme is. Others ignore the card, go straight in and take a risk, trusting that the chocolatier has produced many and diverse objects of wonder and hoping that they will be rewarded by a revelation, even if they are not absolutely sure they can accurately place or identify it. There is no right or wrong way of doing this. But I recommend laying the chocolate box card down, and just reaching in, if you want to experience the thrill of discovery. Go on. Risk it. What have you got to lose?

But don't be fooled by my apparent swashbuckling bravado here. There's an absolute cracker of a poem towards the end of Northern Alchemy that makes a mockery of everything I've just said. In 'Ivery day, reboarn' Christine describes the hazards and the thrills of kayaking in the waters by Ronas Hill. In the English version:

We've seen submerged reefs before,
taken risks. But this is learning to see things
in a different way.

As in kayaking, so in the act of creating. Forget everything I said earlier, because this dialect poem and its English translation spoke with equal force directly to me. There's double alchemy for you. That's the problem with being an L-plate reviewer: one minute you are declaring something with a confident flourish; ten minutes later you're calling yourself a liar.

Review of 'Northern Alchemy', Kathy Hubbard, The New Shetlander, No 292, Simmer Issue 2020