Review of North End of Eden

"I was first attracted to Christine De Luca's work, precisely because it was in Shetlandic. I like the tang and texture of it, its rough edges and unfamiliar cadences that draw my attention to the archaeology of language. Words like blyde, gaet and pooch show where English and Shetlandic diverged from a common root and occasionally you get words like sainin (blessing) or kyunnen (rabbit or coney) which English used to have, but which have simply disappeared.

I also love the way Shetlandic is so closely hefted to the land and the way of life. It has adapted closely to the specialist needs of a community which lives intimately with the land and the sea. There are words for things an urban community doesn't notice, words like bretsh, lönabrack, or shörmal ,dealing with the sea and the coast, blaahöl, or taing, for landscape features, flan (a gust of wind) hairst-blinks (summer lightning) or skalva, (large-flaked snow) for wind, storm and weather, and like almark (a sheep that jumps fences) for farming . Reading Shetlandic extends our awareness into a new territory, but it also reinvigorates our understanding and increases our sensitivity to our own.

In the introduction to her earlier collection Parallel Worlds Christine De Luca says that she writes in Shetlandic to: homage not just to the people and landscape which formed me, but to the language - or dialect - which allowed me expression.

but the issue seems to be kept somewhat at arms length. In conversation about that time she once expressed some concern that writing in Shetlandic might become restrictive. It would feel contrived and artificial to write poems that native speakers did not want to read, and there seemed to be an almost exclusive demand from them for poems about nature or nostalgia.

In North End of Eden, Christine De Luca has triumphantly resolved this dilemma, and her new collection has a much wider scope, more confidence, and considerably more authority. True to her roots, she now writes

If my poems do not speak to other Shetlanders I might as well give up. The writing has to be authentic, it should sing with their cadence, one which reflects the elemental nature of their surroundings.

Now, however, support from editors and publishers at home, plus recognition from translators abroad who are willing to work directly from Shetlandic, has grounded her poetry more thoroughly in her native language, much to the benefit, not only of this book, but of Scottish poetry at large.

There are sixty-seven poems in this book, two-thirds of them in Shetlandic. But this does not mean that the poems are all about Shetland. There are, of course, many poems about the landscape, people and history of the islands, but there are also poems like Trespass, Russian Doll and Haemfaring,

O aa da identities stakit athin wis
whit een is da primal, da sharpest an truest:
da haert-holl time canna erase?

which deal more broadly with the sense of being at home, creating a home, a national identity.

There are several poems which featured in the anthology The Hand That Sees (edited by Stewart Conn) - I particularly liked Da Seevent Bairn, but it's hard to choose - and some reflecting on her mother's death from breast cancer - particularly Severed which starts as observation of a statue in a museum, but creates a moving parallel between her family's ritual of perming her mother's hair, and the care she received at the end.

Christine De Luca has also included poems about her travels, and this is where the collection reaches both a centre of gravity and a growing point. As she writes in Nae Aesy Mizzer

Shetland isna banished tae a box
i da Moray Firt or left oot aa tagidder
- ta scale up da rest - but centre stage.

From her heartland of Shetland, Christine De Luca looks out to Finisterre, Quebec, India, Italy, Thailand, finding ways for marginal cultures to speak directly to each other without mediation or modification by the mainstream.

See me noo as du wid a aald map: finger
Hit lichtly; enjoy hits mizzerlessness,
da marginalia, da element o winder.

It seems to me that the greatest strengths of contemporary Scottish poetry are its rich diversity both in the languages available to us and in poetic form and subjects, and our refusal to reduce ourselves to the margins of British writing. In this collection Christine De Luca shows herself to be not only a heavyweight poet in her own right but also a trailblazer for the rest of us."

'North End of Eden', Elizabeth Rimmer, Northwords Now, Spring Issue, 10/11


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