Jen Hadfield – Byssus

Statement of Prejudice: Hadfield’s last book Nigh-No-Place came along at a time when I was doing a lot of entry-level thinking about poetry, and remains a pretty important book to me. Have seen her read a couple of times, she reads very slowly and deliberately, emphasising the poems’ aural qualities.

Review: Byssus is an odd, highly readable, lexically pleasurable book. The poems paint Shetland as populated primarily by its flora and fauna, and the human characters as somewhat embattled wildlife. Hadfield’s wry, affectionate humour animates many of the individual pieces, and is a personable and imaginative guide through what in many hands could be a prompt for heavyhanded existentialism. If Hadfield has a poetic tick it’s finding a scrap of fairytale or an imaginative hook in the minutiae of day to day life, although – far more than Nigh-No-PlaceByssus acknowledges and registers the underlying precariousness of island life.

1 JH

Okay, so that’s a fairly reviewish response so far. Byssus is a kind of difficult book to get a grip on, many of the pieces employ a kind of absurdist register towards, say, the cat, a carton of milk, stars (many many stars, another Hadfield mainstay), birds and so on. It’s difficult to agglomerate a direct or reducible response to the poems’ subjects; the lasting impression is that the Shetland of the poems is a harsh, unwelcoming, but nevertheless beautiful place, once you get your eye in. Again, more than in Nigh-No-Place, Byssus features an active human community; ‘Hydra’ (for D & S & F & A & L), ‘The Wedding Road, with Free Bar’ (a personal favourite and prime example of aptly-formatted free verse, witness ‘grasping our brok / en dahlias // while the con / sternations  // park / thems / elves’) and ‘The Sessions’ all feature groups at work/play in the present day. The nature of Hadfield’s documentarian, scientific narration keeps the poems at an observing remove, however, and even in the poems where the body (often human, more often animal) is in focus, the poems remain curiously disembodied. This is not necessarily a criticism, however, and much of the book’s joy in turning a skewed perspective on life might be lost by straying too close to the action.

‘In Revolution Politics Become Nature’ (after Ian Hamilton Finlay) is an unusual poem and I think worth examining more closely. Beside the title’s tricksy grammar (revolution turns politics into a state of nature? revolutionary politics suit nature? eco-politics are revolutionary?), it seems to hold (or maybe I’d like it to hold) a key to the poet’s attitude to nature writing, which constitutes a fair portion of Byssus’ run time. Note that the word ‘byssus’ refers to a kind of filament by which certain molluscs attach themselves to hard places, a kind of natural binding. Worth noting also that Hadfield habitually figures herself in zoological terms. Is the poet the byssal limpet? Shetland society at large? What of the loud echoes of the ‘abyss’? The poem in question is an interesting little portrait in which ‘A SNEEZING SHERIFF’ (the poem is in Finlayan all-caps) slowly turns from seal-like human to human-like seal, ‘R / EPRESENTATIVE OF THE SILENT MAJORITY THE / DARK GREY NATION IN / THE KELPBEDS’. Perhaps, then, Byssus should be read as Edward Thomas-ian ecocentrism, human society as one amongst many. There is certainly plenty of evidence of an observing eye in love with nature’s aesthetic possibilities, its renewing cycles (cf ‘A Very Circular Song’). Perhaps most pertinently, the number of poems in which the poet is alone in nature – on a ‘moon-walk’ in ‘Ceps’, handling quartz in a valley in ‘Quartz’, talking to lichen in the book’s opener, ‘Lichen’ – or in which nature is observed entirely outwith human agency, or in which the poet is, as mentioned above, figured in ecological terms.

3 JP

If many poetry books have a ‘single’ – a poem that works as a standalone event, uses an unusually memorable hook etc, see Nigh-No-Place’s title poem, or the title poem of Paterson’s Rain – ‘The Ambition’ (after Rabelais) fits the bill here. Hadfield frames her body as part of the landscape: ‘If my knees knocked it was two flints striking / My skin shagreen […] My fingerprints finely-carved trilobites of the shore’ and finishes with ‘My breadcrumb sponge my ephemeral path home.’ It’s a cool little poem, pointing towards an eco-friendly, humanist dissolution of the self, with a fine line in self-effacing humour (‘if my kidneys complained, they were Bert and Ernie’) that could well be the crux of the book. Hadfield presents (or proposes, or, as here, has semi-ironic ambitions towards) a non-hierarchical image of nature, with humanity as one among many. Cool! I like that view of the world, one in which nature isn’t a vague threat, or something to be dominated or overcome. It’s refreshing to read a sustained encounter with nature that is not necessarily animated by reaping a poetic harvest, or positions the natural world as exotic wallpaper. Hadfield manages to convey a relationship to her surroundings that is at once hard-won and affectionate, and, in ‘In Memoriam’, is the backbone of her aesthetic: ‘are we taking up the first language / or must we coin / a new one? // If we’re going to speak about this / I’ll need a tinderbox and tent / and waterskin. // We will need to use the nights / as fully as the nesting birds.’ It’s an intriguing thought, and one of the frustrations of the book is that one senses Hadfield has something interesting to express about her own aesthetic, but largely keeps her cards face down.

Whether you enjoy the book might hinge on how well you negotiate occasional cutesiness, the occasional indulgence of a conceit (‘The Kids’ won the Edwin Morgan Prize a couple years back, but the conceit (Monday’s child etc), while neatly handled, compels the poem to run maybe a section or two longer than it can sustain), or not always fully-sublimated Shetland vernacular. The last point, of course, is fraught indeed; the words are interesting in their own right, and are afforded great musical value within the poems, but sometimes feel like the subject of observation rather than the equipment that enables that observation. I will happily concede this point to anyone with a facility in Shetlandic, however.

3 DRJ

Tl;dr: I thoroughly enjoyed Byssus, and the re-reading necessary to write the review reminded me of the sheer number of dense, aurally pleasing and neatly painted pieces throughout Byssus. Perhaps the insight afforded by the longer prose pieces doesn’t quite match that of the tighter lyrics, and perhaps I was occasionally thwarted at times by the poet’s reservation when it comes to connecting the ecology of the poems to the larger political system. That’s probably unfair, as Byssus might have no such ambition, but it struck me. Anyway, Hadfield has written a worthy, mature successor to Nigh-No-Place, and I thoroughly recommend giving it a shufti.

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7 thoughts on “Jen Hadfield – Byssus

  1. Claire A May 5, 2014 / 3:39 pm

    Hooray! I hoped you’d review this. I love Jen’s stuff and liked this nearly as much as Nigh-No-Place. Also agree that “The Ambition” is the most special poem in it.

    • davecoates May 5, 2014 / 3:51 pm

      Glad you enjoyed! I’m open to suggestions for future reviews if there’s anyone you think is worth taking a look at.

  2. angelatopping May 5, 2014 / 10:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Angela Topping and commented:
    Great to see this honest, pulls no punches critic loves Jen Hadfield! She’s the real thing alright!

  3. angelatopping May 5, 2014 / 10:35 pm

    I’ve reblogged this. I love your blog for its honesty and so glad you like Jen Hadfield because she is the real thing, imho.

    • davecoates May 6, 2014 / 12:08 am

      That’s a really kind thing to say, Angela, thank you! Very glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Edward Ferrari May 8, 2014 / 1:32 am

    Hi – I’d be interested to read your take on Rory Waterman’s ‘Tonight the Summer’s Over.’ Agree with Angela, really appreciate the less formal reviews you do.

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