I don’t think I’ve ever liked so much a poet I understood so little on first reading. Alex Cluness’s lines are long and rhythmic, with the feeling, if not the form, of the heroic hexameter of Homer and Virgil. And the first poem opens like an epic: “Too far from the time of big cities, the train grows colder and the sky greyer,/ The sky higher than this untying of north”. I had no idea where he was taking me, but I eagerly signed on for the ride. (The pamphlet’s unusual 8”x4” format holds each short poem perfectly on one page, accommodating the long lines with ease.)
Cluness, I discovered online, is a Shetland poet, and the North he inhabits is a place where the physical realities of light, sea and sky are enormous—cosmic, even—and the moment of creation is always Now: “We have got to the sea at last. You will recognise it yourself as the folding point where all things/ Have receded into nothing and nothing is as it seems. … the place where memories fuse and the voices of those you love/ stop whispering.”
This is the sort of vatic, bardic voice that could easily lapse into pretentiousness. But Cluness doesn’t. His music is too good. And if you read the poems a couple of times, you get a pretty clear understanding of what he’s saying, or at least where he’s coming from: he’s as big inside as the sea and sky, and so are we all. It can take outsized language to say that. “The moon has a fullness never seen; there is no ladder to the end of this.”
Mind you, sometimes he’s just talking about being in love, and the language seems a little too big. (“All the psalms are now about you and/ The universe is wide open, alive and singing…”) But in this strange little book, with its cryptic, post-apocalyptic-looking illustrations by Andrew Morrison, the biblical, creation-of-worlds tone seems apt. And strangely intimate.