Thursday, June 26, 2014

Byssus - Jen Hadfield

Back in my student days, so basically pre amazon, I worked in one of those discount bookshops which specialised in publishers over runs and slightly damaged books. With the exception of The Works which was never really the same kind of thing those shops don't seem to exist anymore which is a shame. The shop I worked in had what I now realise was a really impressive poetry section - hundreds of slim volumes that inevitably got in a hopeless mess, so one day I decided I was going to sort them out. It took hours but eventually everything was alphabetised and perfect. Perfect that is until the next day, putting new stock away we realised that somebody had come in and reorganised the whole lot according to some system that clearly had a logic but one that baffled us. I was not pleased.

Years down the line I have some sympathy for that mystery book fiddler, it seems more likely that what they did came from a passion for poetry rather than a desire to annoy booksellers (it could have been both) which is somehow encouraging. At school I dutifully studied the Romantics (well suited to my 17 year old self) and at university I read quite a lot of Victorian poetry for background to the Victorian art I was studying. I have a slight acquaintance with some 20th century poets, and in theory I'm aware of how big a part of popular culture poets and their work have been - but it's somehow hard to realise that it's something that people make a living out of - that it's their actual profession (this is coming from an avid radio 4 listener).

I'm attracted to poetry for the same reason I love short stories and novellas, there's something positively intoxicating about an idea or an image distilled down into a handful of lines and a good poem (a good short poem) is the ultimate expression of that. I was attracted to Jen Hadfield's work when I heard she lived in Shetland and that 'Byssus' deals first and foremost with what it takes to find and forge a home (there was a radio 4 programme about her a couple of months ago which I thought was particularly good on dialect).

I've been carrying 'Byssus' around with me for weeks now, reading and rereading bits in both concentrated bursts and odd moments which has made it a companion read for the last 3 Peirene books I've read. All of them have demanded real effort from me as a reader (there have been corresponding rewards) but with 'Byssus' it has at least been possible to read things over and over again and find new things every time. Honestly I feel like I want someone to teach me this book, I want to be in a classroom arguing over what it might mean, and what it does mean to each person there. As it is - just me and the book - I find myself delighting over particular images and quietly in awe of how certain poems have been put together. The use of dialect words (there is a glossary at the back) anchors the collection to a specific place and they're just frequent enough to occasionally trip the reader up, but not so much as to seriously get in the way. In my case it meant enjoying the sound and feel of an unfamiliar of half forgotten word and then going back to properly test it and consider it's place in the poem. The arrangement of the words on the page does the same thing - forcing me to spend proper time on piecing out how they fit together.

In the end the only insight I feel I have to share is that reading this, and I'm still reading it, has been essentially rewarding - exciting even, but I'm stuck when it comes to writing about reading it. If I ever sort them out more thought may follow. Byssus, by the way, turns out to be the fibrous stuff that mussels use to anchor themselves to their surroundings.

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