Full Disclosure: Harry’s a pal. I was in the same writing group as him for a while and saw drafts of a couple of the poems in Tonguit back then. Briefly discussed his pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam on this blog when he was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Prize last year. I contribute to his Patreon, and his advice on setting up my own (and more generally his thoughts on regarding artistic labour as labour) remains invaluable. NB: Many poems in Tonguit are in Scots, and Giles has provided standard English glosses on his blog; the pdf might be useful for this review. Also note that wordpress can’t render the proper formatting of many of the poems quoted here.
Review: The word ‘tonguit’ pretty neatly maps onto the English word ‘tongued’, referring to a sort of inquisitive probing motion, a sensory and sensuous exploration. In Giles’ first collection the word’s secondary meaning of ‘language’ (or ‘acted upon by language’) is loud and clear. The first lines of the book’s first poem, ‘Brave’, declare:
‘Acause incomer will aywis be a clarty wird,
acause this tongue A gabber wi will nivver be the real Mackay, A sing.’
Giles both acknowledges and performs the complicated act of self-positioning that appears in various guises and contexts throughout the book. It’s tempting to quote from ‘Visa Wedding’ (‘Listen, hit’s semple: // in Orkney A’m English; / in England A’m Scottish; / in Scotland, Orcadian’), but that poem makes explicit what most, if not all, the other poems in this collection seem to understand as a prerequisite; that the world is strange, and one’s own position within it arbitrary, confusing and often subject to aggressive social pressures. On a cursory read Tonguit might appear kind of piebald, with deft formal experiments sitting alongside political flyting and geeky concrete poems, but they are all underwritten by a hyperawareness of bizarre and violent systems of power. These systems, Tonguit heavily implies, infect every aspect of daily life; labour, housing, travel, public services, pop culture, mental health, even the most intimate personal interactions are subject to interference from capital and the state. The poems’ often elaborate conceits seem to indicate the effort necessary to even begin criticising (or offering alternatives to) these in-built, ready-made oppressions; even then, there is no guarantee of escaping complicity.
[Note also that, as with Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Tonguit’s unglossed use of Scots is an assertion of the language’s place within a broader spectrum of Englishes, and is its own small subversion of the dominant mode; moreover, the ‘magpie’ (Giles’ descriptor) nature of this Scots asserts a plasticity and openness within that national tradition. The book seems to find in its Scots a linguistic space relatively unsullied by the centralised authority of standard English, which in Tonguit is more often than not the language of corrupt business, government and cultural paternalism. Perhaps just as importantly, the Scots in Tonguit sounds friggin lush.]
So far as I can tell, there is only one poem which features both an autobiographically recognisable, anecdotal voice (aka Default Player Character in the Contemporary UK Poetry RPG) and standard English: ‘Piercings’, which directly engages with the speaker’s first queer relationship. I don’t think it’s accidental that this particular poem utilises the book’s most direct means of communication; perhaps employing Scots or a poetic conceit would have mystified a scene whose clear and uneuphamistic expression still remains relatively rare in the politer corners of poetry culture. That said, the poem’s real transgression seems more in its flaunting of social niceties, specifically in the feeling of loss, bordering on betrayal, when the speaker understands that his former lover has ‘pulled // out every metal sign, become / employable, less obvious’. Capital has a place for queer people, the poem suggests, provided they can leave their non-normative markers at the door.
Tonguit’s several excellent love poems operate under a vital intuition, namely that it’s probably better for everyone’s nerves if you leave it to the reader’s imagination. ‘Poem in which nouns, verbs and adjectives have been replaced by entries from the Wikipedia page List of Fantasy Worlds’ is aptly titled and creatively arrayed:
‘Don’t belkan to me, don’t tir like
I’m lodoss to your emelan blest,
like I’ll xen when you tortall my deverry tarth,
ooo, I’d landover earthsea with you, panem. […]
eidolon to pern me, tamriel! Harn me till
all my mundus aurbis one glorantha Eä!’
The gist is all there, and with some pretty delightful nerdiness to boot. Giles is also a games creator, and there’s a kind of purposeful playfulness to many of the book’s pieces. The reader takes on the poem’s specific circumstances and adapts their approach to fit; that act of adaptation, of shifting one’s perspective, is vital to the poem’s meaning. ‘Sermon’, in which a speech by the Prime Minister to the Munich Security Conference has had the word ‘terrorism’ replaced with ‘love’, is a real highlight in its demonstration of how any word, sufficiently stripped of meaning and context, may be weaponised. Of course, every poem asks the reader to follow certain conceptual commands, it just happens that these rarely ask more than ‘imagine a poet in a field, feeling things’ or ‘imagine they’ve read Kierkegaard after an episode of Downton Abbey’. Giles trusts the reader’s capacity to play, or play along, and to see genuine subversive value in it.
‘Your Strengths’, for example, is composed of government-mandated questions from the UK Citizenship test, a Department of Work & Pensions psychometric test (which was proven to give the same result regardless of user input, ie ‘you are fit to work’) and a DWP Work Capability Test. In performance, Giles delivers the fusillade of intrusive, personal, loaded questions with ever-increasing aggression and scorn as the Kafkaish horror unfolds. Those under interrogation, the poem suggests, have been forced into such a position of weakness that the questions barely need to make sense; indeed the senselessness is likely part of a state-sanctioned exercise in humiliation:
‘Do you lose concentration on a daily basis?
Do you lose control of bowels at least once a month?
What must all dogs wear in public?
Can you cope with minor changes to routine?
Can you complete a simple task?
Can you complete a simple, everyday task?
Can you complete normal activities without overwhelming fear or anxiety?
Can you sustain any personal action?
Do you always say thank you, even for little things?’
By the end of the poem, the line between the abusive governmental voice and the voice of the poet finding potential for subversion within that voice is difficult to distinguish: are questions like ‘Are you able to look at things and see the big picture?’, ‘Can you let bygones be bygones?’, ‘Do you always try to get even?’ provocations to political action or reminders of the governmental will to violence?
Happily, Giles overtly political-minded work does far more than rail against the darkness, and leaves ample room for interpretive or discursive thought. A series of poems from his pamphlet Oam – first written as part of a campaign to reopen Govanhill public baths in Glasgow – forms a hopeful and deeply human centrepiece; where amassed power terrorises, community organisation in Tonguit performs small, sustainable, subversive acts of love. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ is a beautiful bit of caricature, unravelling toxic masculine ‘hardness’ into something nurturing and communitarian:
‘The hairdest man in Govanhill has airms like rebar fae
cartin aboot auld folks’ messages.
He spits that haird hit colfs potholes.
He pisses that haird hit dichts stairwalls
n hit smells o roses n aw. […]
He’s that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattooed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE.’
The comedy is straightforward, but the poem’s celebration of selflessness and generosity (‘he’ll staund in fer a missin goal post / ithoot ye e’en askin’) in the face of the decimated public service budgets is pointed and urgent. Likewise, contemplative pieces like ‘In yer haunds thare are nae deid hings’ ‘Blue Ghaists’ and ‘Govanhill Baths, July 2013’ broadcast their political messages quietly and subtly through their insistence on this particular place’s vital importance, investing the baths with history, social context, and the simple fact of its immediate value as a service. The latter piece, a haiku sequence, places the then-derelict baths into the realm of natural cycles, endurance and renewal:
‘steel shutters / brusts
fae reid brick a bluimin
boots on auld
white tiles / something saft gies wey,
some wee herb’
Deep time is a vital source of meaning in Tonguit, which locates these gains and losses within geological contexts (see ‘Pantoum on Reading Wikipedia’s Timeline of the Far Future’). The book holds a kind of dual perspective between the locally immediate needs of human beings and the fact that on a big enough timescale, even the Holocene extinction will barely register. Even this apocalyptic undercurrent has wonderfully uplifting moments, however, like the weirdly celebratory poems for crickets, ‘Song for a Lover as Magicicada’ and ‘If you measure the distance between the teeth they’ll tell you’. The former invokes the predictable mathematical patterns that determine cicada life cycles, the latter the discovery by researchers at the University of St Andrews that:
‘it turns out the fossil of a cricket
is a lossless audio codec
is a phonograph cylinder expecting the right
mandrel and needle
hey Indestructible Record Company you know squat
against the fossil record’
The cricket’s song survives, and the microscopic focus invoked by the poem finds traction against the inconceivable vastness of time through which such a small thing has passed intact. There’s something deeply reassuring about seeing humanity’s place in such grand schemes, of asserting that yes, our own lives are tiny on this scale, but on that scale (the one valorised in the Govanhill poems) they simply cannot be overvalued. And both scales are valid. Tonguit asks the reader to consider its scenes from strange vantage points, to permit alternative systems of meaning; this drive to hold multiple, ostensibly contradictory, ideas in tension is one of the book’s great pleasures.
The long view and the contemporary are intimately bound in ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ (‘Old advice for building a country’), a sequence of versions after the Tao Te Ching (a 6th century BCE document from the Zhou dynasty court), dated to September 2014, the time of the Scottish independence referendum. Unlike elsewhere in the collection, ‘Aald rede’ is written in Orcadian, which Giles notes has ‘a different but related grammar, orthography and vocabulary’; the choice seems to indicate the deeply personal nature of the subject matter, but also to lend the piece an added strangeness, amplified by the decision in Giles’ English glosses not to provide a direct crib. The poem demands extra work of the (non-Orcadian) reader to draw out its meanings. Here’s a sample, from ‘57’:
‘the mair the laas
the peurer the fock
the sneller the blads
the mair the strowe
the sleer the sleyts
the waar the wark
the mair the ring
the mair the crime
n fock transform thirsels
n fock govern thirsels
n fock growe fouth
n fock growe haemelt’
Giving the poem enough attention to work out its meaning is very much worth the effort (‘laas’, which doesn’t seem to appear in the glossary, means ‘laws’; I first read it as ‘loss’). Suffice to say the government who applied this philosophy would please its citizens better than its shareholders.
Tonguit sees the need for immediate and radical political change, and celebrates direct action; it acknowledges that this moment is just one in a vast history. It offers its heart to the reader in deeply personal poems about marriage, love, loss; it buries the confessional behind arbitrary language functions and semantic emptiness. It is dazzlingly ostentatious; it is stark and delicate. It sets all manner of stalwart presbyterian hackles ablaze at its attempt to seek balance and mindfulness in a world that hates both. But this, too, is a heartening aspect of a book that in other hands might have appeared too all-singing or over-reliant on gimmick; Tonguit enacts variousness as much as it valorises it, and in its hard-won optimism is a powerful and timely meeting of formal weirdness and deeply human political philosophy.
Tl;dr: This is an awesome book, unusual and surprising and featuring some incredible moments of calm and imaginative generosity. With multiple readings the surface playfulness gives way to deep considerations about the nature of power, and language’s complicity. Read it.
Further reading: harrygiles.org; @harrygiles
You can buy Tonguit from Freight Books or your choice of ethical book wholesalers.
PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.