The Look-Out Man, Shug HanlanThe jacket is dark brown and looks like textured leather. The title is centred with THE and MAN in red caps on the jacket. But between these words, there is what looks like the photograph of an old badge, perhaps a metal one. It is oval and the lettering on it is red. Curving round the oval shape (which is also ringed in red) are the letters G. & S. W.R.. Then in very large letters LOOK on one line and on the next hyphen and OUT. At the foot of the jacket in small cream lower-case the text reads Poems by Shug Hanlan.

Kerfuffle Press, 2019  £3.50 (plus £1.00 postage)

Voice mastery

In this collection, it seems to me that voice is the key. The speaking voice is deliberate and carefully controlled, but it changes sharply from one poem to another. Often it’s dead-pan and unmistakably Scottish (even when writing in English). The concluding poem, for example, titled ‘The Reason I write Poetry’ (and the whole poem is the answer to that title) reads:

Pretty soon,
is giving you cash,
drink and free drugs,
just for being creative.

This strikes me as a sort of performance voice, engaging, funny, slightly rueful.

But in ‘Spoilt Rotten’ the voice (and the persona) is different: ‘His poor mither still irons his shirts. / [ ... ] That laddie has no consideration / for any cunt but himself.’ Still, it’s a wry humour that underpins the effect in both cases. So you might think you’ve got the measure of this poet.

Hardly. ‘The Reef’, a poem in the first person, is strangely mournful. I liked it without understanding it at all:

I can just about hear Sarah
softly flitting around
above blasts of wind
clawing though
slim cracks in my bedroom window.

But two more short poems, deliberately placed on facing pages (‘Cash, Edinburgh 1999’ and ‘Bread, San Francisco 1960’) fascinated me with their overt voice-play. The two pieces express a philosophy of life (arguably precisely the same philosophy) in different voices. In the Edinburgh version, the speaker is talking about sharing:

It wiznae like right,
this is your cash
an’this is ma cash.     
Nae point in writing things doon.
Ah jis live from day to day
ah jist do.

In San Franciso:

It wasn’t one of those
this is your bread
this is my bread situations.
I don’t like to clutter my life up.
I just dig it
and feel the thing.

I found the juxtaposition fascinating. It looks simple, just a bit of a joke — but I think it’s more than that. I would like to hear the verbal links from this poet in live performance. I think they might add another voice again.

Sometimes voice is everything.

Helena Nelson