Review: ‘Swiet Haar’ and ‘Dark Island’ (Abersee Press)

Swiet-Haar-FB cover

Swiet Haar, the first of these two new chapbooks from the Stenness-based Abersee press, brings together two established, stellar figures from Shetland literature with two younger but equally exciting Orcadian writers.

The Shelties are Robert Alan Jamieson and Christine De Luca. Jamieson is the novelist and poet who lectures in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, while De Luca is the current Edinburgh Makar, the official poet of the city.

Highlights of the poetry collected here include Jamieson’s lyrical Shetlandic versions of a range of Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese and Orcadian poems (the title ‘Swiet Haar’ comes from his translation of the GMB classic ‘Hamnavoe Market’), while De Luca’s ‘Digestin a poem’ is a sharp Shetland satire on Hugh MacDiarmid’s pompously ‘intellectual’ appropriation of Norn language during his residence in Whalsay in the thirties.

The first of the two Orkney writers represented in ‘Swiet Haar’ is Kevin Cormack, the Kirkwall-born artist and musician who now lives in London. Cormack is emerging as an especially interesting poet. His work gathers family, personal, or community memories, rendering them in particularly sure-footed Orcadian; maybe this has to do with his musician’s ear. The poems are postmodern, lyrical, and often satisfyingly surreal. There is a little darkness and lot of wit in all of them.

Cormack’s ‘Hert’, I think, is a poem that will find its way into a future anthology of the best Orkney poems of the 21st century. It is certainly a community poem, but it’s also a slightly dark, contemporary piece without sentimentality, and with none of the literary ‘heritage’ problems that are apt to afflict writers in rural parts of Scotland: ‘Wur hert is a ba./ A cork-filled, leather-bound,/ harlequin, humbug ba. A game,/ played through the streets – a skreed,/ a scrum, a buull in a china shop,/ driven up t’waard the hospital, or doon/ t’waard the pier -/ bite the watter or bite the waall.’

There’s also a short and poetic prose piece – previously unpublished – from Amy Liptrot, author of the now famous memoir The Outrun. ‘Sunlight on Stone’ is a finely crafted essay where Liptrot reflects with characteristic candour on homesickness, and the curiously comforting prospect of carving the letters on her own gravestone.

The other booklet of this pair, Dark Island, represents the most welcome return, after a long absence, of Duncan McLean the writer of fiction – reinvented as an integral part of the emergent and indigenous Orkney literary scene. Well, I say ‘reinvented’, but there’s all of the trademark wit and outrageous satire that we know, love and expect from McLean – it’s just that now these talents are being applied to contemporary Orkney. Stories like ‘Larkan’, ‘Housewarming’ or ‘Twatt’s Tearoom’ are deadpan hilarious, and we should be glad that we have a writer this sharp and this perceptive in our midst.

A great many people are writing fiction about Orkney these days, and some of them, I might sarcastically add, have even visited Orkney. But we can’t accuse Duncan McLean of cultural appropriation – he’s been here too long, and he’s simply too accurate, too entertaining, and too perceptive for that. McLean might never be an ‘insider’ Orkney writer, but he’s the next best thing – an honorary Orcadian, and ‘Dark Island’ represents a bizarre, irreverent and absolutely necessary component of our new island canon

Dark Island FB cover

Swiet Haar and Dark Island are available from Stromness Books and Prints, The Orcadian Bookshop, and Kirkness and Gorie.

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