For the Hills I Sing—Pam Russell
Something in the Blood—Vivien Jones
Milne Graden Poems—Laurna Robertson

Selkirk Lapwing Press, 2008  £2.50 + 0.50p postage -

These unpretentiously produced chapbooks from Selkirk Lapwing Press take subtly different approaches to largely familiar subject matter and succeed, to varying degrees, in making it new and fresh.

Pam Russell’s real strengths are an affinity for the natural world and the threatened wild places, but she does tend to diminish her impact somewhat by being a little too self-consciously poetic, too keen to deal in abstracts. ‘Show, don’t tell’ might be a hoary old poetry chestnut, but here it is an appropriate caveat for the poet.

Several of the poems are ‘after’ masters like Hardy and Edward Thomas, which is perhaps a case of making life hard for herself—Russell is much better on the shorter pieces such as ‘Midnight’ or ‘January Dusk’, where she lets understated images (“a Christmas rose,/ amazed to find itself/ in bloom among the snow”) do all the hard work, and genuine poetry shines through.

There’s an Italian flavour to many of the early poems in Vivien Jones’ book, plus several haiku and one wince-inducing line in ‘The Mermaid’s Song’, but the collection really hits its stride later on, when she gets much closer to home.

‘Best Medicine’, ‘Belated’ and ‘Chambers Street Museum, Edinburgh’, deal with motherhood and family relationships with a nice balance of gentle humour and poignancy, while ‘After The Music’ and ‘A New Viol’ build on that, with the former making good use of form and repetition, and the latter boasting the splendid line “How I love yew”.  When Jones sets about disputing her own line “as if life itself could be silenced”, she’s at her best, a poet engaging with vitality and honest passion.

I thought Laurna Robertson’s book was the best put together of the three, with many of the poems working well with each other to give the collection genuine cohesion and unity.

She mixes the everyday with troubling historical undercurrents, most notably in ‘Homeland’, which has tense but jaded demonstrators in support of Latvian independence in 1991 looking forward hopefully to their brave new world in which “nothing will happen/ again and again”, and in ‘Archive: Budapest’, where a simple, almost nursery-rhyme form builds a tragic story bit by bit to heighten the drama.

The excellent ‘Cairn’ has mystery and menace, and ‘Calendar’ uses simple, haiku-style imagery to evoke the passing seasons well. Robertson does falter once or twice, generally where she gets a bit carried away by slightly convoluted or tenuous conceits (such as ‘The Mountains Of Europe’, an extended metaphor for a class of schoolchildren) but generally this is a sure-footed collection, finishing with two straight-talking statements of intent (in ‘Zero’ and ‘Causeway’) that promise plenty of good things to come.

Matt Merritt