Jen Hadfield: Blashey-wadder

20 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008).

I cherish many of the poems in this collection. They rarely offer an argument or even take narrative form. Hadfield gives us radically fragmentary moments or impulses that obey only the logic of a list or a roll of film.  ‘I turn the camera on dazzled / Everything -‘, she writes in Glid, a line that might – almost – have come from Emily Dickinson. She also draws on the (often repetitive) idiom of (sometimes cod-biblical) chants and prayers – riffing on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, or, in one case, Burns’ ‘Selkirk Grace’.

There are many precious images of the inanimate becoming animate (‘The fields wore cows like fuzzy Hombergs’)(Kodachrome), and an especially memorable evocation of the sound of a mandolin (‘Crumpled notes would prang out of those paired strings, a salvage-metal sound, like freight cars screeling over a crossing’) (The Mandolin of May). I enjoyed the pleasing miscellany of things in a poem about coveting one’s neighbour’s stuff (Thou Shalt Want Want Want), the phrase ‘hair like loose voltage’ (‘witless…’), and some intense observations of rockpools (Daed-traa).

But Blashey-wadder really stands out for me, condensing the diverse pleasures of the volume on a single page. It begins with a hint of a story (‘At dusk I walked to the postbox’) that locates the poet in space and time – referring to ‘the storm that must’ve passed you earlier today’ (addressing the reader as an honorary local) and the up-close sensations of that walk with a glorious zoomorphism:

and I crackled in my waterproof
like a roasting rack of lamb

The stanza consists of three clauses (whose subjects are ‘I’, the storm, ‘I’ again), a structure adopted by the poem as a whole, from which the embodied self withdraws for much of its length, returning only at the end when once more it is situated indexically (‘North’, ‘yesterday’).  The anaphoric ‘and’ that begins each clause is the key link word throughout, suggesting less a chronological sequence of events, than unpredictable shifts of attention that might occur in any order.

And so we flick through snapshots that feature waterfalls, puddles, seven cows, a rockpool, all bearing the effects of the gale.  An overpowering nature dwarfs the banal human traces on the landscape – the postbox, a byre, ‘a punctured football reel[ing] around and around’.  But the contest is complicated by a more defiant presence:

a gritter, as far as I could tell,
rolled a blinking ball of orange light
ahead of it, like a dungbeetle
that had stolen the sun.

The gritter is the one thing that is unaffected by the wind, and is indeed designed to make sure the weather doesn’t interfere with routine.  Yet while it might look like it has ‘stolen the sun’, the poet chooses to puncture its pretensions by suggesting that it simply looks like a insect which has.  Like the poet in her cagoule, it has become animal.

‘Blashy-wadder’ is – the glossary tells us – a Shetland term for ‘wet and unsettled weather’. And the sense of the local is maintained by dropping a proper name (‘Bracadale’) mid-way, before the vernacular returns at the end, as the poet turns to her dog, remarking on his prescience in one last metamorphosis that blurs the human and the animal, the immediate and the not-yet:

he saw we had it coming –

and I mean more’n wet weak hail
on a bastard wind.

What that ‘more’ is – we can only imagine.  The implication may be merely metereological, though it could refer to any catastrophe on the horizon, measured on a personal or planetary scale or anywhere in between.  Being overly elliptical is always a risk, but Hadfield gets away with it in these last two lines, partly because it is set against an empirically rich backdrop and – as if to compensate for its vagueness – uttered in what I fancy to be a conspiratorial low voice, or perhaps a Tom Waits growl.

Bad weather ain’t the worst thing that can happen.

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