Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Skald, Ian CrockattThe jacket has a beigey background with grey lines sweeping across it like the curved planks of a viking boat. There is a long black rectangles in teh middle containing a white emblem, like a horse or the prow of a boat, very viking in style. The title is in large purple caps in the top third, below it the subtitle, smaller, in black. Both are centred, as is the author's name below the black box, this time in fairly large black caps.

Arc Publications, 2020    £7.00

Evoking the Vikings

Subtitled ‘Sword & Sea Cloud’, Skald is an oddity. Its twenty-five poems (mostly) consist of eight-line stanzas, a mode which Crockatt, in an afterword, says ‘is derived from a highly wrought form developed by the Skalds, professional poets employed by the kings and earls of the Viking courts of the 9th-13th centuries’. This form (‘called dróttkvaett’ meaning ‘suitable for reciting at court’ ) contains ‘dense patterns of syllabic internal rhyme and half-rhyme, alliteration and pronounced rhythms’.

Crockatt’s stated aim is

to replicate the complex features of the dróttkvaett form while maintaining an approachable and immediate experience for the modern English-speaking reader.

The poems, he says, constitute ‘a quasi Viking tale’ set in northern Scotland and Iceland. And they do largely conjure up a world lost to time, longships and all. For example, Sea-rider, in ‘Cuil Sound’, stalks the red

    throat of dawn, sheer-bowed boat
heaving the west-bound waves
    North, South of her. Wet-mouthed
cold Cuil Sound flings sea-cloud,
    hails salt-scales, harries her,
hisses, hoards sore kisses
    for the heart-wood of her.

The poems provide rich evidence of Crockatt’s love of language and the sounds it can make — the poet tells us that when he first encountered the form, he, ‘loved the intense physicality of the music’. Here are the Viking clichés of ‘brandished blades’, ‘berserkers’ and ‘stone-encrusted crosses / grabbed from Christ-cold abbeys’, but also, to varying degrees, of hard, everyday existence:

Now that a thin sleet-smirr
    sogs the horse’s coat, force-
feeds itself through door-slats
    and loose-thatched straw-patched roofs,
we’re anyone’s; wolves, skalds, elves
    crossed monks, weirds, berserks, lost
gods — bastards all — enthral
    us. Child, welcome to hell.
        [‘The Unprotected’]

In bridging a millennium’s distance, however, the poems occasionally seem to me to be exercises in resurrecting the form simply for the sake of it. That sense is augmented by occasional anachronisms such as ‘testosterone’ and ‘thousand-watt’; but these aren’t time-travelling reinventions like Mercian Hymns, or even Highlander.

Nevertheless, from compound nouns like ‘soul-bells’, ‘blood-pools’ and ‘axe-scars’, and the plethora of verbs he deploys, it’s obvious that Crockatt took considerable pleasure in writing these poems. When viewed in the light of his ‘quasi Viking tale’ description, they successfully (re-)create their own world.

Matthew Paul