Travellers of the North, Fiona Smith
Arc Publications, 2022 £7.00
Giving voice to the past
In an informative introduction, Fiona Smith relates that she wondered how she could ‘best translate the story of [the tenth-century saint] Sunniva, who had voyaged miraculously from Ireland to Norway to escape a forced marriage’; and that the poems in the pamphlet ‘are an attempt to liberate Sunniva from her story and give her a voice.’ This laudable aim is addressed in dramatic monologues and other poems which tell Sunniva’s story from an engaging variety of viewpoints, including Sunniva’s own voice in five, and Sunniva and her followers’ collectively in seven.
The differing angles, given in a pleasing assortment of forms and line-lengths, enable aspects of this little-known Dark Ages story to be brought alive with barely any over-explication. ‘Sea Terrors’, for example, summons the terrifying mythical creatures of the deep:
Of all the hostile creatures that roam the seas,
one of the most horrible is the Draugen.
He haunts the sea as a headless fisherman
and he who sights him is blighted, doomed,
condemned to certain death that very day.
More importantly for the success or otherwise of the pamphlet as a whole, Smith’s ventriloquism of Sunniva’s voice, which could so easily have come across as melodramatic or too modern, rings true, as in ‘Holy Woman’:
I am not pious, I know nothing of god,
save the spirits that inhabit both land and sea.
Yet I will use this power to curb unruly ways,
calm the Norsemen, let them work the land for me.
It takes a confident writer to fill in the gaps of a story which is half-myth at best. To do so in poetry, rather than prose, is doubly difficult, but Smith (an Irishwoman herself) has evidently steeped herself in this narrative and allowed her imagination to power her poems. ‘Sunniva Longs’, for example, offers precise, memorable phrases and images that vividly bring the saint’s strength of mind and heart to life:
I, Sunniva, am quite mad with longing.
To run wild as a boy in a streel of golden sun,
to run on into the cold drench of dark,
the air sharp with briars, apples, horse sweat.