Red Squirrel Press, 2009 £4.00 + 49p P&P
Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Sue Butler, Nick Asbury
Nalini Paul grew up in Canada but she has lived in Scotland for the past sixteen years, and the Scottish natural world features heavily in her poems. It’s an inscrutable, hostile world with its own hierarchies and mores, and is a source of endless fascination for this poet. Throughout this pamphlet the reader is presented with an unstable natural domain and the human kingdom often thoughtlessly impinging on it. In ‘At the Weir’ the weir in question is a man-made catch-all of spent consumables:
A mineral water bottle shakes
yellow-bellied plastic flotsam,
taps an Irn Bru and beat-up football
conspiring beneath the weir.
The speaker feeds the birds that gather. The phrasing can be a little awkward (as it is in this quatrain) but the images are often pretty:
The night starts its approach
and the moon, like a faux pearl,
emits a brash light, a cosmetic brooch
sitting snug in a candy blue sky.
Trees stripped bare stick to the edges
and sandstone glows a pink fuzzy light.
Human impact can beautify and support nature, as well as spoil and hamper her, and Paul highlights this fragility very finely.
But most of these poems seem content to say the same sort of thing in the same sort of way. The images can delight—“seagulls snicker”, “a heavy hat floats on a head”, a cormorant has “wings open loosely like a limp toy/ on a draw string”—but there’s not a lot of substance here. Paul pulls off her image-rich poetry best of all in pointedly short poems, such as ‘Sunset over Gairloch’ from the sequence ‘Cyclical Haiku Types’:
The orange light melted
rich like toffee,
sad like time’s stuck surface.
The pamphlet itself is nicely produced, and the image on the reverse, showing a nest of eggs against a battered sheet of corrugated iron, fits the content perfectly: these are lonely, fragile and hopeful poems in which nature brushes up against urban awfulness and comes out on top by a whisker.
Nalini Paul clearly has a passion for the natural world. In ‘Geese Crossing’
Violet light shifts shadows
as borders ripen with life.
The frozen loch cuts
through lattice branches.
A moorhen creeps across ice,
to a dance-hall tune.
A pigeon wears a grey collared suit; a crow “like a falling bow-tie flies”; a dead moth in a poetry book has ‘wings like gold leaf/ legs delicate threads”; and in ‘The Light Changes’
Catkins like caterpillars
dazzle sunlit orange-bronze.
Having picked out some of the many lines that show Nalini Paul’s skill with language, I’m rather stuck as to what to tell you about nature poetry that you won’t already know. There are geese, a fox, the sea, the wind, the moon . . . all the usual suspects beautifully described. And perhaps that’s enough. But at risk of wanting too much, I kept thinking where is Nalini Paul? Where is she?
When I go walking I don’t want people ruining my view of the landscape. I have a friend who’ll verify I leave her house at 4.00 am on summer mornings to get the limestone behind Malham to myself—the emptiness, the silence. But in some of these poems, while they’re jam-packed with nature, there was an absence, a lack that started to call as loudly as the geese with their “racket of honks, crescendos”.
All the same, Nalini Paul uses ‘I’ quite a lot. In ‘Autumn’, for example:
The last copper leaf clings, trembling.
I can almost hear it aching,
its fear of the fatal fall
alive as it flutters
and she continues:
when I walk on slippery leaves
I tread the ground carefully.
But only rarely does she reveal more than a brief sighting of herself. In ‘Wild Sanctuary’ I thought I saw her, “Playing tag with the elements. . . running from Atlantic blast/ to hide amongst wildflowers and machair. . .” but in an instant she was gone.
Again I glimpsed her in ‘Solitude’, confessing “Someday, I’ll think of leaving you,/ but not for some million years.” The glimpse was fleeting. And was that her sitting on the pier in ‘Fishy Waters’? Maybe. Maybe not.
Nature poetry is a well-trodden path and Nalini Paul walks it with confidence. But I’d have liked to have seen more of her. I’d like to have had her as a companion, shared the landscape with her, as maybe on a windswept hill, we watched “morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” hunting along the hedgerows, or followed the thought-fox’s prints through snow.
I struggled to find a way into this collection, often feeling some editing might bring it into sharper focus. For example, the opening poem closes with the lines:
But the brown bird without a name
sews the landscape shut
in silent flight.
I loved the image of sewing the landscape shut, but wanted to lose the “without a name” already suggested in the title, and the “silent” which seemed an adjective not completely pulling its weight. This set me off on a slightly grumpy footing, mentally scoring out various adjectives that I felt weren’t adding enough to their lines: “sandstone glows a pink, fuzzy light”, “the moon, like a faux pearl,/ emits a brash light, a cosmetic brooch/ sitting snug in a candy blue sky.”
But it often just takes one moment to unlock a collection and throw everything else into a different light. For me, it was this image (from ‘Dream-like’):
drop dream shapes
into the mind’s cubbyholes.
That’s beautiful. It plants an image in the mind that is at once surreal and somehow instantly recognisable. And it reminds me what a great word “cubbyholes” is.
It also acts as a metaphor for the way the poems gradually found their way into my head, now the door had been opened.
Going back to the first poem, there was the simple line “dogs disrupt”. That’s exactly what dogs do. The perfect verb for a dog. In the next poem (‘Twitching’) “a robin ripens on a branch of hazel”. Again, a lovely image that feels just right.
This is a collection firmly in the ‘nature poetry’ genre, with its familiar concern for the meeting point between language and the natural world (neatly summed up in the word ‘skirlag’ itself, which refers to a long, thin leaf that, when blown upon, emits a musical sound). I was left with a nagging feeling that some poems weren’t quite ‘finished’, but I also took away something much more important—a series of memorable images and musical turns of phrase, filling mental cubbyholes I never knew I had.