Had Field Will Travel
A review of Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield.
There are many things to like about this book, not least the cover picture of one very aware horse in an open landscape, that we can only take to be part of the Shetlands.
What else is to like? Dogs. Jen Hadfield likes dogs too, they are everywhere, from ‘Canis Minor’ to the sign-off poem ‘In the Same Way’. And it’s not only dogs, we have sheep, cows, horses, not to mention huskies and a polar bear. We also have, predominantly, the weather.
Ok, we all have weather. Yes, but this is weather one has to be out in, like the animals, with the animals, because we have committed them to this with our adhoc husbandry methods.
Another thing to like is her confidence in her craft. Her use of rhythm combined with rhyme, in for instance ‘Paternoster’:
‘Wild asparagus, yellow flowers
of the flowering cactus’
where the placing and choice of the rhyme words displays a playful insouciance.
‘A Bad Day for Ice Fishing’:
‘stroll this across the wasted lakefloor
while stealthy, the hole in the ice heals over.’
She takes risks, larks about with form. There is the picture she presents us, of her herself in longjohns: what is there not to like.
Reviewers write about the freshness of her writing, her vision. And it has that.
There are also redolences of other writers. ‘Redolence’ I now take as a Seamus Heaney word, this is apposite as we have echoes of early Heaney, in ‘Bridge End, October’:
‘I draw behind me a delicate rain –
hooves drumming lightly the steep, dry lane –‘
and Heaney’s ‘Gifts of Rain’:
‘………. steady downpour now
straw-footed on the mud’
‘………a herd of astounded hills’
can you hear Ted Hughes?
Older writers. And it is so good to see young writers reading and finding something that chimes in the older writers. There is definitely an echo of Auden’s magisterial tone, and the rhythm of ‘Consider this and in our time’, in ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is a Horse as Magritte May Paint Him’:
‘Consider this percheron in the climate – ‘
‘Paternoster’ the prayer of a work horse, cannot help but remind us of M R Peacocke’s ‘Goose Hymn’ (from Selves, 1995):
Hallowed be dy mane.
dy kingdom come,
dy draughtwork be done
‘We lub us ogre
It like we two legs
Two blue eye
It dict us born’
Hadfield’s ‘Odysseus and the Sou’wester’ carries many of the tonic elements of Simon Armitage’s version of ‘The Odyssey’.
What I have been pointing to are just echoes of other writers. Hadfield has another order of relationship with older writing.
With ‘Glid’, we have very much the excitement of the found poem, but combined, I would argue, with the revelation of language, its sound and ability to catch the ‘colour’ of an experience of phenomena, that Christopher Murray Grieve found in dictionaries of Lowland Scots speech: the language that formed Hugh MacDiarmid, and Lallans.
‘Redolent’: the word, is also latinate, ecclesiastical.
Like Heaney, Hadfield presents us with a vitalised vision of the world. Description is not revelation however, with its sacramentalism of the secular, allowing bog queens to speak, wood and ditch spirits to roam; in Hadfield there is a rhapsodic use language. That is, a language whose reliance is on song as much as description. It is the patterning of sound, the rhythm and rhyme, the tonic value of language, that becomes the revelation in this book. The way she breaks a poem is in essence, musical:
‘James and Mira ran off into the wood. You’d told them to shout
- heybear, heybear – and did they ever –
A godawful wriggly thing fell in Moira’s hair.’
The phrasing, use and placing of rhyme, the rhyme sounds that modulate from ever to bear to emphatic bear, to hair, give a playfulness to the piece. Nor is she averse to simple tunes: the “row, row, row your boat”, in ‘Glid’ for instance.
So much for echoes; the main person behind the writing has to be Edwin Morgan. We see him everywhere, in the suggested layout of parts of Burra Moonwalk (compare with Strawberry Fields Forever), andin the structure and form of Love’s Dog:
‘What I love about love is its diagnosis
What I hate about love is its prognosis
What I love about……..
What I hate about…………’
compare with Morgan:
‘What I love about dormice is their size
What I hate about rain is its sneer
What I love about………..
What I hate about……….’
(A View of Things)
The former by Hadfield also catches the strict layout of the concrete poem of which Morgan was an excellent ambassador.
Her ‘Dogwalk II’ opens: ‘Dervish lilac!
This is a take on Morgan’s expostulation-rich earlier poems, for instance, The Trio, with its ‘Orphean sprig! Melting baby! Warm chihuahua!’. This is an echo also of Adrian Henri’s practice, and the heritage of the Beat poets.
The formation of this particular opening also captures the fortuitous glimpses that sudden lightening allows of one’s surroundings.
‘Blashy-wadder’ has echoes of the Liverpool poets; it can be heard in the way an image is manipulated: ‘a gritter… rolled a blinking ball of orange light/ ahead of, like a dung beetle/ that had stolen the sun’. It is in the use of dayglo colour, and the way the emphatically ordinary is suddenly transformed into a mythical image.
But where is Hadfield in all this? And what is the Nigh-No-Place? In one sense she is the book. Her divided background (Canadian-British) allows no resting place; she inhabits no place, or nigh-on no place; we have all the unhoused images of the book to bolster this, as well, of course, as the divided format. She has to be her own country. She inhabits the width and wealth of the language that is available for her to use.
In this way the extended, exploratory ‘The Mandolin of May’ piece, as well as being one of the most successful pieces here, maybe allows her a way forward.
Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield £7.95 Bloodaxe Press 2008 http://www.bloodaxebooks.com
Winner of the 2008 T S Eliot Prize; Poetry Book Society Recommendation.