NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn by Mavis Gulliver
(Cinnamon Press, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales 2014)
Slate Voices: Cwmorthin by Jan Fortune
(Cinnamon Press, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales 2014)
It is rare that one has the opportunity to compare and contrast the work of two poets addressing the same subject, albeit from a slightly different perspective, on such an extended scale but this is what is offered here. The subject is slate. The slate of Scotland and the slate of Wales: “two for the price of one.”
Mavis Gulliver gives an account of what was once the slate industry on the Islands of Netherlorn which are located off the west coast of Scotland. Gulliver has researched her material well. The poems are meticulously drawn and full of detailed description. As part of her research she travelled to all the islands that she writes about, even Belnahua, which has long since been uninhabited. Her collection is divided into four sections which are named after the islands that she visited. Each section opens with a short account of the island and is followed by a series of poems.
This is poetry that is very much grounded in the past. It is not, however, nostalgic but rather takes on the mantle of a place and a time that is seen through the lens of history. Only descriptions of the weather, abandoned machinery and disused quarries bring us back to the here and now.
In Wild Weather she writes:
Life on the western edge
inures you to gales
and in Going to Church she describes how she walked in the footsteps of the slate-makers:
climbed up and over moor
where rain flew in
like needles on the wind…
Throughout the collection we are treated to some haunting, memorable images: children swimming in quarry water on a bright summer’s day; the disused quarry at Ardencaple and the abandoned "Ticket Office at Blackmill Bay on Luing" where the last stanza captures the atmosphere of the whole poem:
The door is padlocked
but there’s life inside,
nestlings call for food,
keep up a constant chirping
as swallows swoop,
flit in - flit out again
between curtain and glass,
find no escape.
The past is brought back to life through chronicles of history, especially the poem that recounts the flood of 1881 and most effectively in the last section of the book that covers the uninhabited island of Belnahua. In particular, the haunting poem called Census 1921:
No hand to sign a name.
No occupation to record.
No wives. No widows.
Not a pauper left.
In poems such as "The Night of 21-22 November, 1881"; "Catherine McPhail," "Remembering 1840" and "Leaving Belnahua, 1914" historical fact is dramatically retold through the voices of the past and in a style that is immediately effective in its impact.
An unexpected literary connection sparks off Gulliver’s poem called "The Last Duchess, 1902." Slates were given names according to their size and Duchess at 24 inches x 12 inches was the second largest. The last Duchess, quarried on Easdale in 1902, can be seen in The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust Museum in Ellenabeich. Gulliver makes a neat reference to Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” in her opening lines:
whose smiles stopped altogether
at the Duke’s command -
but the last slice of slate,
split from quarried rock
trimmed to Duchess size…
This is an impressive first collection from a Scottish writer who has dealt with her subject sympathetically and has, in the process, crafted poems of great sensitivity and impact.
Jan Fortune’s collection is more spare. The poems here are of a darker hue. Set in North Wales, they inhabit a very different landscape from that which has gone before. In "Year’s Turn Beneath the Steps" it is a
World drained to grey,
a phosphorous lamp,
one clod of snow.
Beyond the fence, mountains,
wind, the sag of marsh,
a hiss of steam.
Once again, meticulous research has paid off. The poems offer an informed account of a past whose presence continues to dominate the Welsh landscape today.
Stylistically, Fortune’s poems are the more varied of the two. There are prose poems, poems written as nursery rhymes and lullabies, poems with Biblical references, a sequence of poems cast as a litany, poems with “echoes”, a poem carefully crafted out of the definition of a place-name, a poem conceived as a bilingual alphabet, and poems re-written as concrete poems where sheepfolds, cartwheels and inclines are neatly re-defined in visual form.
In "The Underground Men, 1936" Fortune brings back to life the men who laboured in the slate quarries not only by naming them but also by framing them in the guise of “the school photograph”:
They stand or sit on slate, rockmen, miners, labourers,
dust-laden, grinning at the lens, flanked by steward,
haulier with horse.
Their names people this valley still.
The work has long since gone.
For all the contemplation of a people no longer with us, there is a resurrection moment in the final section of the poem called "A Litany for Cwmorthin":
Long past Imbolc,
beneath a stick-thin tree:
a single snowdrop.
This poem, beautifully wrought with a few well-chosen words, sums up Fortune’s style where everything is pared down to the bone. It is what makes this such a powerful collection.
In both sections, evocative black and white photographs enhance the text. The title of each photograph has been taken from the text itself. In this way the photographs become an integral part of the book. Close collaboration between the two poets has helped to make this a seamless collection whose strength and power amounts to more than the sum of its two parts.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011) The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, Bristol, England, 2014).