The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher, Dawn Watson
The Emma Press, 2019 £6.50
A sense of place
You may not expect a Belfast-born poet to write so convincingly like a native of her travels in South East America. But in The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher, where many of Dawn Watson’s poems are set in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, she creates a strong sense of place through her use of vivid imagery, language and dialect.
Place names and Americanisms were the first thing which grabbed my attention here. The book opens with ‘How To Kill Snakes with a Slipper’, and beneath the title a Deep South folk rhyme from 1862 is cited: ‘RED TOUCH BLACK, LUCKY JACK. YELLOW ON RED, SOON TO BE DEAD’. We immediately know that this is a world of dangerous creatures, the child-like rhyme bearing sinister implications further enhances our sense of place, or rather our position as an outsider.
The poem goes on to refer to ‘the liquor store’, ‘Pop Kola’, ‘Old Gold’ and ‘the Ogeechee’, which the notes at the back of the book inform us is a 294 mile long blackwater river in Georgia. Modern Americanisms are also employed in ‘Don’t Shoot, Sir’:
A cop car squealed
into the parking lot.
The watching crowd ate
snow cones thoughtfully.
This language doesn’t just build a setting and provide context for the reader, it is also used for its sound. In ‘Peach Season’, ‘she watched the orb spider knit a message between two scuppernong vines’. These exotic and unfamiliar words are gorgeous to say out loud, as is this, from ‘At the Gas Station’:
Those pumps are full of sassafras and sweet bay,
one hundred shortleaf pines.
Watson enhances her use of native language by incorporating local dialect. In ‘Heading Home to East Tennessee via the Town of Bat Cave’, she writes: ‘the heat rose bold through the valley.’ An English/Irish person would probably add a ‘ly’ on the end of the ‘bold’ in order to feel comfy and at home. It’s a subtle change, but it works wonderfully to enhance the sense of place, of exploring this strange, distant world through the eyes of the poet.