An Offering, Stewart Sanderson
Tapsalteerie, 2019 £5.00
Rhyming for a reason
One of the surprises here — this is Stewart Sanderson’s second pamphlet and I haven’t read the first — is the variety. There are carefully constructed landscape pieces, a tiny fragment and riddles about sparrows and ‘Egyptian’ herring.
The other is Sanderson’s use of rhyme. Sanderson is a wonderful rhymer. There were moments when as a southern reader (Sanderson is Scottish) the rhymes taught me something new. I’d never heard or read ‘sough’ before. Sanderson rhymes it with ‘rock’.
Not every poem rhymes. Some wouldn’t want to. But the consistency and confidence with which Sanderson employs it is hard not to notice. It’s not a popular device.
Rhyme helps a poet talk to the reader, to communicate information or make an argument, and because there’s something necessarily arbitrary about a rhyming poem, there’s no fear of being lectured or hectored at. This creates a kind of trust.
There are two sonnets, each of which holds a meditation on a landscape: a rhymed-wrapped sonnet is like a trap for an image. Then there are conversational poems, a disquisition on Shakespeare’s ‘lost play’, and the gentle ‘Waking in Grez’, which (judging by the date beneath the title) appears to be a reflection on the election of Donald Trump.
‘Love’s Labour’s Won’ is a witty thought experiment with a sad, understated ending. That the play probably never existed hardly matters. ‘Waking in Grez’ plays out the moment when you learn something awful on the news and are waiting to share the knowledge with someone who doesn’t know. In this poem, the imagery is subdued. Grez is ‘swaddled in smirr and woodsmoke’, while an imagined Glasgow floods with morning light like ‘a low / glimmering wave, which drifts like cream / through black coffee.’ Rhyme can be a kind of celebration of the everyday:
For me it’s time to take a shower
then try to write reality:
the vast vulgarity of power;
the falling short of poetry.
It’s a celebration of falling short as an end in itself, which — of course — is poetry’s way of winning.
Language and Landscape
An Offering explores the blurry edges between language and landscape in the context of the poet’s native country, Scotland. As a reader, I found myself vanishing into its rural spaces, subsumed into the poet’s own haar of unusual diction and imagery.
Scots words and place names, such as ‘machair’ and ‘Torridon’, are blended with English, locating us in a space that is in between worlds, and which juxtaposes present and past. This scrambling of diction also parallels the natural evolution of language as something which is constantly picking up different strains, migrating here and there, transforming.
There’s a freshness which comes from Sanderson’s blend of these archaic and sometimes esoteric Scots words, rather like breathing in ‘a fug of wet leaves’. Bleak and sensual landscapes become almost tangible. The poet’s appreciation of the richness of the natural world is evident with every poem, and his delight in finding meaning through the visible is infectious.
Natural details seep through this pamphlet:
Like lichen-covered teeth, these rings of stone
which mulishly refuse to disappear
into the machair and the moss
These details are pitted against human feeling. This is most evident in one of the gems in the pamphlet ‘The Edge of Things’. It is perhaps in this poem most of all that the blurry intersection between language and landscape, and the boundaries between Scots and English, are apparent. In contrast to our world of political tribalism, the poet promises that he will ‘stand’ right here — ‘on the edge of things’. We might conclude that the most radical position is always the objective stance — trying to understand both sides.
Sanderson finds this objective edge or boundary — the between-space — throughout the work, and with a lightness of touch: unhurried and unforced. This is poetry to savour and take time over.