North End of Eden, Christine De Luca. Luath Press Ltd., £8.99.
Christine De Luca opens her new collection North End of Eden with a credo. It’s her responsibility, she suggests, “to write in a way that tries to awaken the interest of dialect speakers and reinforce their sense of the value of their linguistic heritage”. “[I]f my poems do not speak to other Shetlanders,” she goes on, “I might as well give up. The writing has to be authentic, should sing with their cadence …”
I have a great deal of respect for her endeavour, but I want to go a bit further and suggest that if a poem is going to succeed in its work, it has to be true to itself first, or to put it another way, the poet has to do what is best for the poem before she does what is best for the poet’s audience. Sometimes, but not always, these are the same thing.
In “Haem-front Heroism” De Luca is at her most fluent: I’ da voar, as dey delled, we gaddered meyflooers at der burn; i da simmer, we’d sweem fae der shore; i der biblical hairst, wi coarn sickled, stookit, we’d bal neeps an stocks i der door. The reader loups the fence like the poet’s almark ewe (“Trespass”) and loses themself in such sure rhythmic topography. Escaping from one consciousness to another like this is, for me, the infallible mark of a poem that is working. But in the last line De Luca fankles that rhythm and blurs that vision with a burr of abstract, literary vocabulary. Now, I’m a believer in the mixed and mongrel nature of our spoken (and our poetic) language, as I think De Luca is, but “archives lyrics lost” is a frog in the throat in the last breath of this elegant and otherwise instinctive poem.
“In my earlier collections a third of the poems were in Shetlandic whereas now it is two-thirds,” states De Luca’s introduction/credo. Her dialect poems are without a doubt her most potent. An intermittent fluey blurriness of language and image is almost entirely restricted to her non-dialect poems; such as “Attachment, Detachment” (whose premise I like), which suffers from a sort of municipal generality of diction. Some words – often those of Latinate origin, “fresh eyes kaleidoscopic complexity,/archive initial clarity”, are just hard to focus on, as if Vaseline’s been smeared on the lens. And some big, abstract idea-images, such as “intersect of history, myth and legend” are hard to respond to emotionally. North End of Eden brings together a great many poems in response to paintings. It’s hard to write good poems about visual arts, or music, I think; the poet runs the risk of creating a literary facsimile of the visual work. It’s difficult, as Ezra Pound might have put it, to “make it new”. De Luca articulates the challenge in this poem from her “Burra Suite”, responding to Sarah Longley’s paintings: What it is to catch the sea’s colour, movement; nothing but a thrash of light, air, water, rock. I agree with De Luca that Longley catches that “thrash of light, air, water, rock” (Longley was visiting me when she made some of those sketches; I remember her big gory brushes in my sink, the splash-back paint-spattered, their hair sopping with colour.) In that urgent, verby particle of language, De Luca does scoop up some of those ions.
“Rites o Passage – 1” and “Rites o Passage – 2” (answering paintings by Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt) are also strong, but De Luca’s poems of paintings are not always entirely successful; when the diction is abstract, the vision is remote: the exhilaration of it does not falter: a flawless race to snatch the changing moment, imagination in overdrive. And yet she’s able to make us see very acutely, particularly in dialect poems. My taste is for her dryer, less decorative landscapes, such as the wonderful short poem, “Da Coall”: Signs o splores, da stuff o life: banes, oo, shalls, pens. Flooers, snibbit snug, barely lift a head: tae-girse, tormentil; whitna tapestry fur a killin field. Unsentimental, but not indulgently gothic either. De Luca’s poetry is often as strange and immediate, and also substantial, saying things which need to be said. I was grateful to see her tackle the fashionable notion of “liminality” in “Nae Aesy Mizzer”, when she invites her reader, with typical courtesy, to see her identity as “an aald map”: Shetland isna banished tae a box i da Moray Firt or left oot aa tagidder – ta scale up da rest – but centre stage.
Peripheral has new meanin, an marginal. “Liminality” (the phenomenon of the dangerous/alluring threshold or “edge”) can be, as De Luca hints, a dated notion verging on the colonial, when it tries to explain why people are attracted to “edge communities” such as Shetland. Liminality as an idea can’t help but treat those alluring “edges” as commodities, while overlooking the fact that for folk in Shetland, this is the centre.
Artists and writers often explain to me that what attracts them to Shetland is its latitude, as if northerliness, like “edginess” were a virtue in itself. The more writers an idea captivates, the greater the challenge to “make it new” in art.
I have never been so moved by any of those “norths” as by De Luca’s in “Imprint”, so peculiar and right an image, familial and unsentimental: nort is a state o mind wi nae slack: aert’s loops taen in, da tap grafted aff. Typically, “beyond Shetland’s shörmal”, De Luca’s poems about other cultures – Breton, Rajastan, Newfoundland – look for likeness before difference. Illuminated by marginalia and the growling glosses at the foot of the poem (for the benefit of non-dialect speakers), De Luca’s alternative map is, as so often seems to be the case with Shetlanders, democratic, open-eyed and open-minded.