In the simmer dim: Barbara Cumbers, Dempsey & Windle

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I’ve always wanted to go to Shetland. Geologist Barbara Cumbers spent a month’s residency there in 2017, and has visited the islands on several other occasions. Reading her pamphlet In the summer dim (Dempsey & Windle) has only increased my desire to travel there one day.

The title of the collection is taken from the Shetland name – ‘simmer dim’ – for the absence of darkness in midsummer. In the first poem of the collection, ‘North’, Cumbers says:


    There is so much light, the midnight sky

     Is full of it. Not stars nor moon – just light,

     the simmer dim enough to read by

     I am drinking light and space.


But she is aware that the “price of summer light is ice, / … and the deep winter dark.”

There is a marvellously evocative poem about the Northern Lights:


     Because the night is shining green

                 It might split open


     So I wait in the still and the cold

                                    for the solar wind

                   to blow the sky apart

                               (‘Da mirrie dancers’)


For Cumbers, the Shetlands have the magic of a children’s story. And not just any children’s story. As her notes point out, Robert Louis Stevenson visited Unst in 1869, ten years after his father and uncle had built Muckle Flugga lighthouse off the island’s northern coast. Stevenson published his classic yarn Treasure Island in 1883, and included a map that bears a superficial resemblance to Unst. She says:


     He could put the treasure

     anywhere – it was already here

     in the peat of the island,


     its crofts and chromium

     and northernness, its serpentinite,

     all the contorted rock of it.

                                 (‘Treasure Island’)


This passing reference to the poetry of geology – the poet’s passion – is fleshed out in ‘An eccentric geologist describes the ophiolite fragment that form the eastern side of Unst and Fetlar’ (a title long enough to surely make it a poetry competition contender). She lovingly describes what she calls “snake-rock” as “too old to remember the ocean floor/  …  has secrets locked away, written in water // it holds as part of itself.”

‘Directions’ describes a loss of bearings on Shetland – “not north or south    south/ is safe   and north // is nowhere” – while ‘Burning’ conjures up a vision of Shetland’s annual fire festival held in January, when a full-size replica Viking longship is set alight, to commemorate the islanders’ heritage. The poet sees a fishing boat leaving at sunset, and imagines it is heading “to meet Viking gods of ice and fire”.

A no-nonsense pantoum about a ‘Last day’ encounter:


    An otter surfaced near me quite by chance.

     I needed a piss and crouched beside a wall

     sheltered from the wind. A lucky glance –

     a whiskered face emerging from a pool.


emphasises the poet’s other passion, for the wildlife on Shetland. There are mentions of ponies, of course, but also orcas, seals, geese, gulls, storm petrels, ducks, ravens, gannets, puffins, and bonxies, also known as great skuas, as well as botanical finds, “plants that live only here”.   

I have also loved the TV series Shetland not particularly for its plots – what a crime-ridden place! - but for its scenery. Shetland could be described as bleak – “no trees, no mountains” – but that simplicity is somehow wonderful. Cumbers explores and celebrates the topography in poems such as ‘Island voices’, ‘Hermaness’, ‘Grind o da Navir’, 'A landscape for Sue’,  and ‘Bridges’, the latter about how oil money has made a difference.  

This slim collection is a picnic of delights. In the simmer dim contains riches; poems to treasure, that take you there.    


Barbara Cumbers, In the simmer dim, Dempsey & Windle, £8.50




◄ Mark Connors joins Write Out Loud's reviewing team

Poems by Ted Hughes written after the death of Assia Wevill and their daughter Shura to be auctioned ►


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