REVIEW by Vicky MacKenzie

NWR Issue 105

Short Days, Long Shadows

by Sheenagh Pugh

At the heart of this collection, the twelfth from poet Sheenagh Pugh, is her response to the landscape of the Shetland Islands, her new home after many years in Cardiff. Pugh uses the natural world as a way of reflecting on human life, a trope that’s been used by writers for many hundreds of years. However, there’s evidently still something compelling about this thought process for modern readers and writers, perhaps increasingly so as we become more aware of the impact of human activity on the rest of life on earth.

The opening poem, ‘Extremophile’, celebrates the diversity of life and its persistence in seemingly inhospitable situations:

[…] blind in the night of the ocean floor,
molluscs that feed only on wood
wait for wrecks. White tubeworms heap
in snowdrifts around hydrothermal vents,
at home in scalding heat.

Pugh revels in the sound of words in this poem (hear the lovely echo in ‘wrecks’ and ‘vents’) and it’s one of the most aurally satisfying in the collection.

A widely accepted remit for poetry is that it can show us a new way of looking at the world: ‘Gannet’ is one such poem. The Scots phrase, ‘heid-the-ball’, as a description of the bird’s dive, is a bit of a dud note, but I love the meticulousness of Pugh’s language as she describes the anatomy of a gannet’s eyeball and its inescapable deterioration:

the thin filaments fingering
their way across the iris,
the webs of blood

that will blur, one day,
into a blindfold.

The assonance and alliteration in ‘thin filaments fingering’ slow the pace of the line and echo the precision of the eye’s structure. The poet describes how, once blinded, the gannet will perch on a rock, starving to death, and ‘feel / sun and air pass him by’. Having admired diving gannets many times, I’ll now always keep in mind their demise once they lose those awe-inspiring hunting skills.

An important theme in Short Days, Long Shadows is that of give and take. In ‘Wedding Night in the Snow Hotel’, the theme is suggested by wedding vows but also echoed by the fact that all the fixtures and fittings will be melted by the next summer’s warmth, only to be ‘rebuilt // with different snow, as a tale / differs for each listener.’ Likewise a poem is given by the poet, but every reader takes something different away.

The weakest poems are those that feel the most personal, the most particular. There’s a sense that a few of the poems are ‘for’ particular individuals, and there’s less of interest for the general reader, both in terms of the language and the ideas. According to the blurb, Pugh is a poet for whom ‘too accessible’ is the best sort of compliment. But a poem should have more to give than what the reader receives on a first reading.

A sense of history is threaded through poems about ghosts, archaeological digs, and even early twentieth-century cross-dressers. There’s a wonderful sequence, ‘Walsingham’s Men’, about a group of sixteenth-century spies, one of whom works as the Royal Purveyor of Poultry: ‘Assessing geese, putting a price / on chickens. Some dullness is the price / of safety.’ A comment as true about poetry as much as anything.

In the touching ‘Letter to Dr Johnson’, the speaker writes to the man who once wrote ‘we shall receive no letters / in the grave’. She slips a missive under his door:

[…] just in case
on the other side, disembodied but portly,

a dishevelled ghost is waiting daily
for a letter to land on the mat.

Pugh is a poet who makes space for hope, however much it might seem to defy logic or reason. One of the strongest poems is ‘The Door Open’, which has an eerily off-hand tone:

Say you go away
on business: you are some time
from home, and when you come back,

a man has moved in.

The use of second person puts us in the situation, as we observe our wife (‘a good woman’) more alive than we’ve ever seen her before, thanks to this stranger. We’re told ‘Your children call him father’ and that you find yourself offering your house for his meetings, although you keep to your study, listening in ‘to the eager friends // building paradise on earth.’ The poem ends:

you are never sure

if it is care
for her good repute
or some other thing,

harder to name,
that makes you always leave
the door open.

Whether this stranger is Christ, some other good man, a fraudster, or someone else altogether, is not revealed, but it doesn’t matter. The poem seems to be more about keeping a whisker of faith, a gap in one’s cynicism to allow for miraculous possibilities, than pinning anything down for certain and thereby shutting off hope.

Vicky MacKenzie lives on the east coast of Scotland and is writing a novel about John Ruskin.

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previous review: The Poet and the Private Eye
next review: When the Roads Meet


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