‘Nigh-No-Place’ by Jen Hadfield

Posted: September 29, 2012 in Parameters
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Nigh-No-Place  – Jen Hadfield         Bloodaxe Press        2008

Winner of the 2008 T S Eliot Prize; Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

There are many things to like about this book, not least the cover picture of one sassy horse in an open landscape, that we can only take to be part of the Shetlands.

What else is to like? Cats and dogs. Jen Hadfield likes them too, they are everywhere, from Canis Minor to the sign-off poem In the Same Way. And it’s not only cats and 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 the weather she writes about 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. Grazing animals would normally seek out trees, bushes etc for shelter in bad weather. We have them penned in open fields.

What else is there to like? There 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 baggy 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 to be 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

…………………………………                                                   

                                                        Still mammal,

straw-footed on the mud

In Hadfield’s Kodachrome

………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 for themselves, in 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):

Paternoster. Paternoster.

Hallowed be dy mane.

dy kingdom come,

dy draughtwork be done

………………………….

with

We lub us ogre

It like we    two legs

Two blue eye

It dict us born

from:  Goose Hymn (from ‘Selves’)

Hadfield’s Odysseus and the Sou’wester carries many of the tonal 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, and usage, 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 here 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, which becomes the revelation in this book. The way she breaks a poem is in essence, musical:

Kodachrome:

James and Mira ran off into the wood. You’d told them

      heybear, heybear – and did they ever –

                      Hey bear!        

               Hey bear!

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 the 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), and in 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……….

from: A View of Things

The former by Hadfield also catches on the page the strict layout of the concrete poem, of which Morgan was an excellent ambassador.

Her Dogwalk II opens

Dervish lilac!

                     Local

                                  lightening!

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 also 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 Jen Hadfield herself, in all this? And what is the Nigh-No-Place? The whole landscape of Britain spells out emphatically that it is a landscape formed and conditioned by man; it has been stripped bare, organised, ‘farmed’ extensively. It is now possible for non-farm animals to starve in what we would consider rich farmland: their normal diet has been disrupted to such a large extent. Crows, the traditional ‘undertakers’ of nature, are now anathematised for attempting to feed, with the little that is left them of their traditional diet. The lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh capture it well: … if you seek for any wilderness/ You find, at best, a park. 

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 sectional, divided format. She has to be her own country. She inhabits the width and wealth of the language that is available to her.

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.

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