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Byssus
by Jen Hadfield

Reviewed by Caleb Caldwell


Published:

Published by Pan Macmillan, 2014   |   80 pages pages

On her blog, Rogue Seeds, Jen Hadfield writes of how the poems of Byssus developed from her time traipsing over the subarctic terrain of Shetland – an archipelago off the Northern coast of Scotland – laying on its tidal banks, camping on the Lang Clodie: “I wanted to dig down into this place, prospecting the infinitely-revealed complexities of ‘home.’” The word “Byssus” itself – one of many references here to Shetland’s flora and fauna in the collection; we also encounter choux, galangal, sillock, yoal – refers to a clam’s “beard,” a twist of strong, secreted filament with which bivalves secure themselves to rocks or seabeds. And indeed, the poems in Byssus, Hadfield’s third collection, seem to emerge from Shetland’s natural landscape – its hills and tides and woods and fields – and its human one, our familiar world of iPhones and golf courses, turbines and quad bikes (ATVs).

Underlying the collection is the remoteness of the Shetland islands, their natural attributes, and relative vacancy. In the poem “Hydra,” for example, Hadfield describes Foula, an island inhabited by just 38 people, as “distant // in blue haze.” And yet even as she unearths the natural histories of her surroundings, Hadfield avoids romanticizing Shetland as some primordial place of origin (as J.M. Synge did, famously, in his appropriation of the language and culture of the Aran Islands). She is everywhere vigilant against the “unfaithful act of composition,” as she puts it in “Ruined Croft, with Listening Station,” a poem that reimagines an idealized Shetland landscape by painter Edwin Henry Landseer to include the “green dome of the listening station” and “relics // of the Cold War.”

Hadfield works in part as a taxonomist, cataloguing language as well as Shetland’s ecology. Byssus even has a small glossary of the Shetlandic dialect, mostly nouns and names: drummie bee, prunk, spoot, moorick, laverick, kye. They’re felicitous words – etymologically old but new to most readers – that in their strangeness bring the occasion (a neighbor leaving a voice message), or animal (a “kye” is a rabbit), or action (“prunk” is an adjective meaning “well-poised,” but Hadfield uses it as a verb) not nearer, exactly, but within the rim horizon of our view. Hadfield’s is an alternative, more ambiguous project than the one outlined by Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “So I have gathered unto myself/All the loose ends of Scotland,/. . . naming and accepting them,/Loving them and identifying myself with them.” Neither Hadfield, nor her poetry, is quite so rapacious – and her restraint, her detachment, allows the ends of Shetland to remain loose, examined but irreducible and strange.

In her usage, Shetlandic words function as both signifiers and things in themselves – word-objects to be turned over and over on the page and in the mind. Through them, Hadfield accesses an old crux of poetry, the ideal of the unity between word and thing. She poses the question as follows:

First we’ll need
To agree:

 

are we taking up the first language
or must we coin
a new one?

The “first language” refers to an account from the Book of Genesis, in which God performs an act of naming so powerful that it calls the things named into being. In such an Ur-language, the ontological gap between thing and name collapses. Looking to a “first language” – as to Shetland itself – as a source of primordial truth is attractive to Hadfield, but she acknowledges that it results only in nostalgia and a loss of language’s true potentialities. Nor do “new” languages offer more. The irony, as Hadfield recognizes it, is that both “first languages” and “new ones” are failed propositions. Language, Hadfield writes, often “abdicates” completely. In “In Memoriam,” she eschews the efficacy of simile: A thing is “not like // anything” and a noun is merely a “nickname,” which adjectives “salt, parch, and wizen. . .” This is not to diminish the power of poetic language, merely to ascribe to it its conditions and reach. Much as salt functions as a preservative, language in Hadfield’s telling preserves things to render them accessible.

Besides preservation – the task of the natural historian she occasionally resembles – Hadfield finds an obvious delight in the language of the simple scenes and landscapes she describes, sloughing off the top layer of dead or stultified words that “fray and sift down around us.” The intensity of her attention is sufficient, in “The White Goods,” to reveal the strangeness and beauty in a freezer defrost: “Their frost- / pelts crawl all over each other; the / glacial brow has doubled over the door.” Other poems, such as “The Waxcaps” – a description of a little red fungi – evince a genius of compression: “Someone was carried across this field, bleeding steadily.” Her writing is tough and spry and works well across multiple registers: from nods to Hopkins (“Spring a hybrid/God, Gosh or Gum: dewlap bulging, bugling with Glory”), to nursery rhyme and fable (“The Finns” and “The Kids”), to the formal and visual tics of concrete poetry (one of Hadfield’s poems is even designated “after Ian Hamilton Finlay,” a Scottish artist and concrete poet).

If Hadfield’s poetry itself participates, as the blurb on the back of the collection claims, in a “practice of attention,” it does so without privileging poetry – or even language, for that matter – as the primary mode of attention-giving. We speak. The “lichen,” Hadfield writes, “listens,” with its “assiduous millions of black / and golden ears.” Hadfield too listens, allowing the lichen, the kye, and the drummie bee to quietly trouble her, and our, relationships to words and things.


Caleb Caldwell is a Ph.D. student at Washington University – St. Louis. He reads and writes about many of the usual suspects. His work, scholarly and otherwise, has been published in several print and online publications, including Entropy, Slant, and Religion & Literature.

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