Red Squirrel Press 2010, £4.00
Reviewed by Helena Nelson, Matt Stewart and Charlotte Gann
What a wonderful opportunity – to spent a year as the George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow in Orkney! Nalini Paul brings to that extraordinary place her own rich heritage. Born in India, the poet grew up in Vancouver and has been living in Scotland since 1994. A brief glance at the notes at the back of this publication shows the glorious mixture:
acha – (Hindi) okay, all right
durg – (Scots) a day’s work
lift – (Orcadian and Scots) the sky
slok – (Scots; Orcadian and Shetland dialects, also spelled ‘slock’) to slake, drench; to extinguish a fire; to go out, as a fire.
This linguistic mix feeds into the title, a phrase from ‘The Old Man’, a poem about the extraordinary ‘Old Man’ on the Orkney Island of Hoy. Paul sums the rock stack up as “barren beauty slokt by sea”, and it’s a good phrase, hard and uncompromising as the feature itself.
I particularly liked ‘Lerwick’, the brief glimpse of “gannets—scissors fold shut/ before the plunge” and then the swift transposition to the wide streets, the writers who “speak their wares” and the lovely final two lines recalling how “liaisons lurk/ in the margins of books.” So the poet must have traveled a bit – perhaps a plane or boat trip north to the Shetland mainland.
But as the pamphlet progresses, places mingle. Under a Sitka spruce on the island of Hoy, Paul recalls Squamish, British Columbia. She is a child again in her “orange kurta, trimmed with silver”. She is good at capturing the sensual character of a moment, often attached to an unexpected feature, or a garment, or a scrap of visual detail.
The mixture of associations, the visual detail and excitement with language—all of this is attractive, if also, in places a little disorienting. I liked the characters in the final poem, ‘Not Quite Flying’ but I wasn’t sure whether by this time we were in Orkney or just any place at all, though I loved the emotive “Burra mummy” who “looks so small in her brown sari”.
The poet has strengths in her impressionist fragments, the way she captures little glimpses, mixing association and language. Sometimes the method – the short lines, the ubiquitous present tense, the listing of verbless visual detail – wearies a little bit, though the fragments glitter, like the boats of Lerwick, “as if embedded in glass”.
The front and back covers of Nalini Paul’s Red Squirrel pamphlet, Slokt by Sea, boast gorgeous photos of Orkney scenes, leading us into a landscape that doesn’t adorn this book but lives within it.
Paul’s collection revolves mainly around a year spent on Orkney. It reflects her love of nature and birds, but also evokes the sometimes menacing aspects of her surroundings, particularly when describing the sea, which appears in many poems with references to its “ghosts”, “the dead” and “a salt finality”.
When dealing with specifics, Paul is strong, her lyric first person observations drawing out the harsh beauty of Orkney life. Where she sometimes comes unstuck is in her use of abstract, overly poetic language in its received sense, without any renewal to bring it to life. By this I’m referring to lines such as the following:
Textures stick to walls of thought.
Colours paint covers
of memory . . .
These images don’t arrest or move me. They don’t seem specific to Paul.
She is also fond of similes, but they often fail for similar reasons. I believe similes work best when they join words in unexpected ways that surprise and illuminate with their ‘rightness’. Paul, however, seldom manages to cast that desired new light. Two such examples are:
Rain [. . . ]
darts into the Peerie sea
like pennies falling.
A rock formation jutting from the coastline
like a phallic overstatement.
..............(‘The Old Man’)
In the first case I’m immediately thinking of “Pennies from Heaven”, while in the second, rocks all over the world have been labelled as ‘phallic’. In other words, the similes are unable to show me what makes this Orkney landscape unique.
Slokt by Sea does possess the spark of a personal view of Orkney, but too often this is obscured by a collage of received, general images. Paul achieves a well-expressed portrayal of her time on the island, yet so much more would have been possible if only she’d transcended the linguistic difficulties of covering previously trodden ground. In other words, this pamphlet is a partial success, enjoyable yet not fully convincing.
Slokt by Sea has its own definite, very Orcadian character, much of it written in fragments, not unlike the snatches of wind it describes, waves breaking, fissures in rock: “Breakers send messages”, Nalini Paul writes in ‘SOS’; “waves murmur lament”.
Figures seem to exist almost only to reinforce these strong impressions of an extreme and evocative landscape and climate. “My seal wife/ she was all fishy-lovey/ and I begged her blubber/ to stay”, she writes in ‘Selkie’. “Brine coats my lungs,/ salts my teeth and lips”; “Her feet and hands cling to rock/ in no human way.” We don’t often glimpse the poet behind the words – and, when we do, we’re shown her only in relation to landscape. In ‘The Walk Returns’, for instance, she writes: “I let down my hair/ and the walk returns.// The smell of heather and earth...”
The collection conjures some great atmosphere, and has real charm. “Cloaked in a curtain of cloud”, begins the poem ‘Portentous’, “the sun burns/ through black fabric/ glares like an old woman/ in a shroud.” And, in ‘October Greeting’, Paul writes:
We are blown across tarmac by ghosts.
Rain fills the cracks
dances on sidewalks
darts into the Peerie Sea
like pennies falling.
But, at times, the writing struck me as tautological. The previous extract, for instance, is followed by: “The heavens open wide/ drenching to the bone.” It’s also rather note-like – perhaps not unlike snapshots caught by a visiting photographer. As Paul herself puts it, in ‘The Wind’s Song’, “I snap a few moments in my camera.”
I’d have liked to see more of Nalini Paul. The bulk of the poems do seem essentially impersonal – largely, simply documentation of a year spent in Orkney – though some do have a pleasing edge, the shadow perhaps of our passing commentator. “The air is not so empty,” reads ‘SOS’; “streets and sky rewrite history/ with grey and lilac pencils,/ that colour dark dreams.”
It’s only towards the end of the pamphlet that Paul really begins to share her interesting mixed-heritage history, bringing in specific memories of Canada and India. These later poems certainly have the potential to really engage – the contrasts and similarities between those and this vivid landscape providing a rich seam. But in their context here it felt, arguably, not quite enough to tell me, as Paul does in ‘All of the Above’,
Inside the house,
the miaowing guitar
turned to candlelight
and your song:
all of the above.