Zoë Brigley reviews Jackie Kay’s Fiere (Picador £8.99), Martyn Crucefix’s Hurt (Enitharmon £9.99) and A B Jackson’s Apocrypha (Donut Press £10.00)
The texture of language is rich, vivid and tangled in these three new collections. The title of Kay’s new book, Fiere, is a Scots word for ‘companion, friend, equal’, and it infuses the English language with Scots and Igbo words showing that humankind is indeed an interconnected species. A prime example of this poetics is Brockit, the poem’s title playing on the words brocket, brocked and brucket which refer to the black and white spots or stripes of an animal. The poem seemingly begins in Africa where “a zebra kens and maks sense / is unco proud o’ its difference”, before it turns to a more Western countryside “brocked” by “black and white oats”. The poem’s remit is both specific in its Scots dialect and macrocosmic in the sweep of its content; it is both personal and universal when it demands that we “Streak back through the lined time, find a’ the brock-faced / beauties: balanced, waiting, biding time”.
This interest in the beauty of difference is personal in Fiere; the collection is described as a poetic companion to Kay’s memoir, Red Dust Road, which maps the rediscovery of her Nigerian and Highland origins. It is also, however, a testament to the beauty, fragility and poignancy of human relationships in general. Many of the poems are devoted to family: to sons, fathers and mothers; while many others invoke dead relatives and friends, including poems for the poets Edwin Morgan and Julia Darling. Often in such poems, the narrator’s relationship with the dead is intimate, palpable almost, certainly still connected to those who are lost. For example, in Igbo Bath, the speaker takes up “the Igbo style of bathing” which means “splashing my bowl / of water under my arms between my breasts”. This simple, domestic routine conjures a moving and spiritual experience, as the narrator imagines herself
inside the body
of my grandmother; bathing the Igbo way
I am a split second, a spit and a jump away.
Making sense of this mixed heritage, however, is far from simple. In Upkor Market, the narrator recognizes her own face in those of Nigerian women, and she believes that they recognize her too when they greet her with the word “Oynibo”. The speaker’s inbetween status is only emphasized, however, when she discovers that “Oynibo” means “white woman”.
As a poet too, Kay occupies an inbetween space, emphasized by the epigraphs of the book from Robert Burns and Chinua Achebe. She engages with use of Scots as a lyric voice, and with Scottish poetry of companionship and friendship: the sentimental truth of Burns’s “trusty fiere” of Auld Lang Syne. Yet she extends this poetics to comment on race and womanhood in a poignant and urgent manner. Take for example Kay’s rewriting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. In the extract from Kay’s version, A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple, the focus is not on an emblem of nationalism, but on a vulnerable and life-giving part of a woman’s body. The nipple is “the spit o’ the corona borealis” or “a galaxy, a milky way”, and such macrocosmic imagery leads the speaker to question “Whit’s a planet but a lump o’ rock, eh?”. The conflating of the earth with the woman’s body belies this notion, however, and the speaker concludes “I’ve an affy feeling we’re all for it”. Fusing Scottish poetics then with Kay’s concerns about race, Fiere emphasizes that humankind is connected for better or worse, and what redeems human beings is love, friendship, remembrance.
Like Kay, Martyn Crucefix is concerned in his new collection Hurt about how human beings relate, though his collection considers pain and how it separates us rather than unites us. As a translator of Rilke, Crucefix is well aware of the possibilities of language, and, like Rilke, his language is intense, compressed and vivid. The sequence, At the cross hairs, brings together a group of poems which explore violence, hurt and the abject, often using objects or creatures from nature. For example, in Water-lily, Crucefix describes how beneath the water’s surface with its vivid blooms, “You see the crud, skeletal leaves”. The lily is of course all too human, and the trauma of hurt is a legacy which lingers on: “The report echoes long after the lily has survived.” The mingling of the human and nature is used again to good effect in Stag beetle, a creature which epitomizes the violent struggle for existence. As Crucefix writes it, the encounter with this creature is disturbing, frightening even, because it represents callousness, a readiness to destroy, which is also present in human beings:
You tease antlers apart
try to peer at what lies
beneath my pitch-black
forehead, but only find
a nest of feelers,
each furred and rooted.
Nothing in the stag beetle’s make-up can explain its violence. What is discovered on opening up the creature is alien, abject and inhuman, and it harbours death: “I am the stag /of your age and occlusion”.
The mortality hinted at in poems like Water-lily and Stag beetle becomes a palpable presence in More than it comes to, a long poem inspired by Walt Whitman’s letters and his American Civil War memoir. The writing is redolent of Whitman’s cadences and vividly conjures the horror and brutality of war:
I saw the Lacy house, a brick mansion of the long-gone days,
I saw a tree within 10 yards of the front of the house,
And at the foot of the tree a heap of amputated legs & arms & hands.
What begins as a nostalgic reminiscence about bygone history and traditions becomes grotesque when the focus turns to the amputated limbs of dying soldiers, who have presumably fought to keep their traditions alive. The physical evidence of barbarity is matched too by the loss of fellow soldiers. Writing home to one soldier’s dead mother, the speaker tells how “I loved your son, this young man, / though I only saw him immediately to lose him again”.
The poignancy of parenthood and companionship is a theme of Hurt which emerges powerfully in the sequence, Essays in island logic. This section has an Odyssean narrative; it quotes from W S Merwin’s Odysseus in the epigraph and it focuses on the unit of a father, mother, and son – Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus – who circle one another like ships. The poems oscillate from one point of view to another: the father considering history as “a glorious empire of ruins”; the mother dreaming of her girlhood on her father’s farm; and the son discovering the strange power that he has over women. What is clear is that these three figures lead separate lives. As Crucefix emphasizes in this sequence, he considers the longevity of love, at the heart of the trio is “the gaping wound surviving still / restless in its stony bed”. All that is left is an unbridgeable divide: “man’s glittering and impassive ocean / to woman’s cold moon”.
If Kay explores human connectedness, and Crucefix considers human separation, the vision of A B Jackson in Apocrypha is one of chaos, disorder and heresy. In a beautifully produced print-run of 250 copies, Apocrypha is a sequence of twenty-one poems riffing on Biblical stories, the language mingling the reverent, bathetic and mundane. Worshipful pronouncements jostle with vivid descriptions of food and parodic versions of Biblical characters. A B Jackson has said that the poems are inspired by the spirit of Wallace Stevens, as well as the Carry On films: two influences that perfectly represent the balance between truth and hilarity in Apocrypha. Jackson has also labelled the poems as camp, quoting Susan Sontag who has said “One is drawn to camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough.” In the camp transplanting of Biblical stories to 21st century life, Jackson achieves a surreal, textured language, which parodies commercialism, war-mongering and urban existence.
Like the chaotic stream of images that bombard us through the media and web, Apocrypha bounces from UNIX to equinox to Weetabix. The landscape, however, is peculiarly Scottish:
Therefore avoid St Andrew’s,
its burnt crust of a castle ,
golf ball truffles
Barabbas came to Butterstone,
found his chalet, unpacked.
Self-buttered with sun lotion
In both examples, the religious and the mundane mingle to comic and parodic effect. The warning to avoid St Andrew’s seems laughable when coupled with the meagre castle’s “burnt crust” or the trifling golf balls. Similarly, Barabbas, the wandering Jew, is on holiday at Butterstone Loch, rather than travelling the world in torment. Placing the universal characters in a local setting undermines their power as archetypal figures. Barabbas, Abraham, Ruth, Jacob and even Jesus are powerless before powers of greed, commercialism and political chicanery. In contrast to the connectedness of Fiere or the poignant separation of Hurt, Apocrypha proclaims the meaninglessness of any narrative that we create to order the world.