The Firth, John Glenday
Mariscat Press, 2020 £6.00
Contemplation amongst wild native things
It’s an honour to write a review of John Glenday’s pamphlet. His work is imbued with fluidity and sensitivity, qualities which make The Firth special. Wildflowers too.
Like a mature grain whisky, laced with peat and complex notes, the poems exhibit depth of flavour and quality. They contemplate elements of the natural world by the Firth of Tay where the poet grew up, widening to an exploration of family (‘the living and the lived’), memory and connection. Reading the poems, I felt entranced, alongside the poet, by beauty in the smallest things, often wildflowers: the essence of being alive.
‘buddon point’ is a poem specific to the view across the ‘ashy/olive/dapple-grey’ firth towards Tentsmuir Forest, a place I know. The narrator offers his reader an understated sense of searching for a true self in ‘that dark wood’ across the shoreline’s ‘seam of bitterness’, at the river’s ebb — the ebb of life, perhaps? Life with all its bitter-sweet experience ‘rests under the shade of the trees’.
if only we had faith enough
we could walk there now.
The four couplets of ‘at barry links’ place us at a forlorn railway station, at the start of an imagined journey. The images remind me of Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Adlestrop’. There’s a stillness, encapsulated in the quiet abundance of plant life, ‘commuting vetch’, ‘jostling daisies’ and ‘a thousand skylarks’. I hear a Vaughan-Williams crescendo with a nod to endangered bird species.
The narrator’s late father ‘is walking the shore path’ with him in the prose poem ‘at the mouth of the dighty’. The latter is a local burn — beautiful, filled with kingfisher, sycamore, butterflies. The lines of the poem are intimate, respectful and rich in subtlety. They slip between the past, present and future of three generations as ‘blether’ takes place on the walk — and end on this philosophical note:
the whole grey/white/grey invisible depth of
whatever lies beyond, weightless and listening and
next to nothing
The Firth is an elegant set of poems, a fresh sea-air homage to every part of a connected life, and a delicate celebration of continuity.
‘most ordinary and commonplace’
The Firth is the Firth of Tay, half-land and half-water, with its own people, birds and plant life. John Glenday’s poems are quiet in tone, as though listening to every change in the natural world and in everyday lives. I could say that they are about small things, or that they are inward-looking — and they are, except that these small things are universally worth attention.
Weeds and wild flowers, those un-showy underfoot plants — there are five poems with the simple title ‘wild flower’. The first (a prose poem) doesn’t even name the flower (‘happed in the shabbiest of Scotland’s colours; built to be often stepped on, never picked’). But it is unique, a small marvel in itself: ‘and yet those roots — how widely they spread, how deeply they run — now there’s a thing no one will ever understand.’
The bird’s foot trefoil is named, and pleads for our attention. Although these plants are ‘most ordinary and commonplace’ and ‘all seem quite alike’, they have a deep sense of their own reality, their own value. The poem ends: ‘look at us as we deserve to be seen; it won’t be a waste of time; in fact, it might just change your life.’
People, too, can be ignored. The fifth ‘wild flower’, is written in the voice of the rayless mayweed, describing Glenday’s father, moving from job to job as the factories close —
each time he was rooted out from his workplace
in his flat cap and tweed coat, laid off from the warehouse
or the factory going under
There’s a sense of inevitability as industries decline, and the human waste that goes with it. Just behind Glenday’s father is the undistinguished mayweed, at home in ‘the cleared // concrete forecourts and bulldozed yards […] like him, so ordinary and despised’:
both of us nothing much to look at,
though we held our heads up as best we could despite it all,
him in his particular way and me in mine.
The ordinary is never commonplace in these poems; it is as rooted as plants and people in their own place and with their own kind. The tenderness and love for the natural world shown in these poems might, like the bird’s foot trefoil, change your life.