Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Calder Wood Press, 2009   £4.50

www.calderwoodpress.co.uk

Six point five striper

 

Reviewed by Liz Bassett, Richard Meier and Robin Vaughan-Williams

 

Liz Bassett:

The title poem, ‘Easterly, Force 10’ is an extended metaphor of the gale as voice.  Lyn Moir addresses the gale directly, setting the tone for the poems to come, where landscape and weather are friend, combattant and ally to her thoughts.  The poem contains Moir’s trademark use of unusual vocabulary as in “flensing winds” to provide a precise description. It laments languages such as “Plattdeutsch” and “Scand”, once common along fishermen on the east Scottish coast, and now shunted into dialect. Moir savours and preserves such unusual words and idiosyncratic turns of phrase, which surface throughout her poems.

 

Some poems are stronger than others. To my mind, ‘Swallows’ is not so successful. There’s a fine line between observational poetry and observations. This text had the feel of ideas noted down in preparation for a poem that didn’t quite lift off.

 

Some of the images Lyn Moir evokes are great though. ‘Black’ gives us a dark cygnet “scorched timbers/ of a long-dead longboat” which will be “reborn/ in flames of glory,/ whiter than white.”

 

If I have a regret about this pamphlet, it is Moir’s tendency to dilute her image with qualification—”He (or she,/ to the onlooker no telling)”—or explanation (“relic of Vikings”). I admire her attempt to write a whole collection about one landscape though. It’s no mean feat to generate multiple images to evoke different aspects of one place. I liked ‘Not an Eider Duck’ for its quiet humour and original take on birdwatching, including as it does a duck that turns out not to be a duck at all but a football.

 

Although the majority of poems contain a solitary figure, I found one of the strongest was one in which the landscape is encountered by two people together.  I quote ‘December Morning, West Sands’ in full:

 

Along the water’s edge a skelter

of sanderlings

attempts to stitch the tide

to shifting sand.

A shimmer of oystercatchers

spikes the shore

with scarlet knives.

We walk. We thread together

sentences of shells.

 

Richard Meier:

Even by itself, the bald, bold title of Lyn Moir’s pamphlet—set as it is in a rough, squat typeface—would prime the reader for something elemental inside. Add to this the poet’s own accomplished painting of blue-black waves breaking on a shoreline and the reader, one feels, is being prepped for something quite dramatic. The first, and title, poem of the pamphlet begins then with surprising diffidence—

 

Perhaps you still speak Russian

when you pulverise our shore,

Estonian or some other Baltic tongue.

We should greet you with a phalanx

of interpreters lining the quays.

(‘Easterly, Force 10’)

 

—a diffidence—coupled with a poetic self-consciousness even—which left me feeling a little let down.

 

The next poem feels more natural however, and demonstrates well the poet’s painterly eye:

 

Out here where blue meets grey meets dove

meets green, the lines of white curls comb

the water’s edge

 

a seagull furls its wings and lands

splay-footed on the endless sands

bladderwrack-fringed,

 

green necklacing the line between

wet and dry, the map-marked shore

outlined in ink.

(‘Shoreline’)

 

From there though, as Moir drifts from swallows to swans, then from more swans on to ducks, I feared that the gale of the title had blown itself out into a light breeze. It is not that I have anything against bird poems, but I detected a detachment in these poems, a heart somewhat in hiding. Essentially I wanted the poet to work harder than, for example:

 

The ducklings paddle slowly out to sea

to sit on water, bobbing in the swell

(‘Bodybuilding for Beginners’)

 

not only to better deserve Penelope Shuttle’s rather lavish laurels on the jacket—“Seldom has the natural world been so vividly portrayed” —but more frustratingly since odd flecks of Moir’s description—the “charcoal glory” of a cygnet (‘Black’), for example, or a heron’s “sail-needle beak a curving dagger, prey impaled” (‘Unlike the herons’) —point to a keener, more authentic voice.

 

The pamphlet ends more strongly however. ‘A Change in the Weather’ is less oblique than many of the other poems; it has—in one memorable phrase—“knives in the teeth”, a quality which this  somewhat underpowered pamphlet could have done with having more of:

 

I thought when I saw it

the rain was your breath

swirling around me

in a thick autumn shawl

 

but this morning’s smirr

brings no protection [. . .]

 

Even when sun

slips through the cracks

between showers

the light that it carries

 

has no warming edge

to soften the blades,

gleams as hard silver

and steel in the wind’.

(‘A Change in the Weather’)

 

 

Robin Vaughan-Williams:

I keep going back to the first two lines of this collection, of its title poem:

 

Perhaps you still speak Russian

when you pulverise our shore

 

I found these lines thrilling—the way the breath of another’s voice gives way to an elemental force, both fused in the sensation of the wind on one’s face.

 

The collection is based around the shoreline, the boundary between land and sea. But this poem also suggests an outpost, a place that is at the boundary between languages. However, the languages mentioned in the poem remain objects, a list of names—Estonian, Plattdeutsch, Flemish—that do not enter into the language of the poem.

 

In similar fashion, throughout this collection, human artefacts and signs of civilisation tend to appear at a distance or as somehow tainted; the town that “peers, hesitant, through haze”, or an oil rig, “moving/ imperceptibly/ with understated/ menace”. Occasional references to “you” occur in a few poems, but there is a general sense of disengagement from human affairs, which contributes to an overall tone of quiet solitude.

 

Instead, the heroes of Easterly, Force 10 are the birds that populate almost all of its pages: herring gull, swans, herons, eider duck, curlew. . . . Sometimes they are there as part of the landscape, as in the beautifully observed ‘December Morning, West Sands’:

 

A shimmer of oystercatchers

spikes the shore

with scarlet knives.

 

But often they seem to serve as an allegory for human activities, as in ‘It Only Happened Once’, which begins with a perfect “ring of herons solemn on the sand/ a parliament at dawn”, and proceeds to ponder what they are discussing: “The tide/ the price of fish? Election plans?/ Heron succession?”

 

In other poems the allegory ranges from bodybuilding to growing up and rearing children. While this anthropomorphism can be comic or touching, at times it is also cloying. It began to feel as if the poet had got away from human society only to rediscover (or perhaps project onto) social relations in birds.

 

In one of my favourite poems, ‘The Gull Concerto’, the poet attempts to join in a chorus of ducks, swans, wind and sea. The result, however, is mixed, as she emits “a thin reed wail”, then a “yelp” and a “scream”.  There is a surprising hint of feral ecstasy and a will for possession here, as if she herself wanted to enter into the order of things she depicts.

 

Easterly, Force 10 is an accessible collection of poetry, and few readers are likely to find themselves lost. This is partly because it is largely based in the here and now, and partly because of its strong use of visual imagery. The abundance of visual metaphors, with their ability to turn careful observation into sudden transformation, is undoubtedly the collection’s high point for me: the way the shadows of herons appear as “unwritten staves/ scored on the sand”; “the cob” who “raises his iceberg wings”; and the “graceful mirrored heart” formed by the necks of two swans facing each other.

 

A few of the poems have overtly painterly themes, and the front cover features a reproduction of ‘Crashing Waves’, a watercolour by the poet, whose alternative role as a painter is surely one context for the heightened visual sensibility evident in her writing. One of these themes, which seems to run through the collection as one of its undercurrents, is the question of perspective. In some poems the poet is a detached observer, but in others she enters the frame, either as the painter—still the observing subject—or, as in ‘The Gull Concerto’, in an attempt to become part of the scene itself, to overcome aesthetic distance and the solitude it imposes.