Zoë Skoulding, A Revolutionary Calendar, Shearsman (2020): Alasdair Paterson, My My My Life, Shearsman (2021): Shara McCallum, No Ruined Stone, Peepal Tree Press (2021)
Reviewed by Lucy Sheerman
Zoë Skoulding’s , A Revolutionary Calendar, is based on the French Republican Calendar which was in use from 1793-1805. Skoulding uses the scheme devised by the poet Fabre d’Églantine who renamed the months after seasons and each day after a plant, animal, mineral or agricultural tool, displacing the old tradition of naming days for Saints. Accordingly, there are twelve sections, each containing thirty poems, each poem is five lines long. Within this systematic structure, therefore, Skoulding must find a way to make the set of constraints come alive.
The agricultural setting of the calendar was an attempt by French revolutionaries to secularise time and return symbolic power to the rural worker. The messy business of rural life and nature thus twines around and uproots the rigid bureaucracies of such an ordered setting. Equally, the structure and form of the work seems, initially, to resist any kind of narrative arc, character development or simple resolution of its many elements. It is fitting that a structure based upon a revolutionary calendar and a writer whose work has long explored experiment and resistance in both form and content should defy any casual attempts to make sense of this work and this world or to be limited by the simple categorisations of its formal arrangement.
The fifth section, Pluviôse, gives a sense of Skouldings’ schematics. Pluviôse taken from the Latin pluviosis, meaning rainy, was the fifth month of the French Republican Calendar and the second month of the winter quarter starting between 20th and 22nd January and ending between 18th and 20th February. Throughout the collection each stanza offers both the French and English word at its beginning and thus opens the text to the possibility of play with either meaning, as is seen in stanza 18, where Skoulding plays with the translation of yew/if, offering a double meaning in which she plays with the doubled sense of yew/you (both tree and person) and if/if (both proposition and tree). These stanzas also circle restlessly around the image and experience of time passing as it is figured in the natural world and the solipsistic landscape. These pieces, like the collection as a whole, feature recurring images and symbols that evidence the traces of time on the poet and on the poems: ‘the years radiate’, ‘shadow bites day to this black-out’, ‘your breath that slowed / a hope for tomorrow’ and ‘a curved blade / slicing back exterior time’.
18. If YEW
shadow bites day to this black-out
we never saw coming
call it a wound breaking the continuum
but is it yours or mine oozing
stickily: here’s the biggest if
Time features in the writing as a process both precise and strangely fluid, like the structure of the work itself, both brittle and elastic. Skoulding plays with this distorting sense of time and memory in these individual pieces and sections, each one measured precisely and yet syntactically resisting or semantically overflowing the carefully imposed limits. In her discussion of the book, printed on its cover, Lyn Hejinian points out the way in which the book maps out a ‘temporal intersection’ bringing together ‘historico-political time’ and ‘seasonal agricultural time’. The interconnection of disjunctive linear and cyclical time-frames brings a time which can be ordered, linear, managed together with one which can only be experienced as a recursive and organically renewing seasonal process. ‘Both are revolutionary’, she states, ‘though in different senses…’.
Organically interlacing fragments of memory, process, knowledge, Skoulding offers the glimpses of the natural world informed by a natural observer and intuitive poet of nature. Richness, diversity and range are all summoned by these miniature cameos of the individual subjects and categorised units of the natural world. Connection between these discrete elements that make up the bucolic landscape define the role of the rural labourer, in this case Skoulding, as she labours to set this world into language.
The schema has a visual quality, as if a series of prints of the objects had been summoned into mental view for the reader. The cover image, a watercolour and ink depiction of hemlock by Sharon Kivland is at once finely detailed and abstract. It has the qualities of the systematic sketches of nature conducted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, precise and meticulously observant but also richly suggestive of the emotional resonances of its subject. It seems to speak to Skoulding’s poem as here in the section titled Germinal:
18. Ciguë HEMLOCK
a drowsy numbness
(clustered umbels hollow
stem streaked red)
laces the spring’s
The short poem opens with a quote from Keats’ lines from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, then segues into a bracketed sequence of words which directly allude to the form of the plant, its parasols of white flowers and hollow stems with their distinctive red streaks. (Every poem in Germinal’s sequence includes a set of brackets that frames a phrase that can frequently be read as a commentary on the whole.) Outside the brackets, drowsy numbness is figured lacing the spring’s silence. Lace does double duty here to suggest scientific descriptions of the plant’s flowers and the tethering of numbness to spring. Most prolific in springtime and enormously toxic – just six leaves can kill an adult – hemlock has an effect upon the world of the poem, on the nightingales which, in spite of the springtime are, frustratingly, unheard here, the drowsy numbness seeping from a remembered fragment of poetry into the world of the onlooker and the plant. Kivland’s cover image echoes this blurring of the real and the imagined properties of the plant, its toxic properties made manifest in the red oozing from the cut stems and roots of hemlock.
Thought, playful puns and an unseating of expectation all make each small section work in its own terms and in relation to the wider whole of the year’s work – never done and never settled. Many of the stanzas end with a playful nod back to their opening title. They close with an open-ended phrase that leaves both the sentence, and the sense of the line hanging, as it were. ‘Chariot / HANDCART’ defers its obvious joke until the final line with the phrase ‘the day goes to hell in a’. Skoulding’s writing, like the world of nature it describes, is restless. The ivy of the poetry slips stealthily around a structure intended to be oak-steady, eternal. It is a metaphor that could extend to the whole project, as Skoulding’s titular poem suggests:
if it winds round is
glued enough but
also growing thought
becomes stone as stone
thought; a surface locks;
For the critic embarking on a discussion of My My My Life, Alasdair Paterson has generously drafted a series of ready-made reviews in ‘My life with the critics’. Like the work itself, these mock reviews are sardonic and self-mocking while at the same time both precise and acerbic. For example, the ‘Borders Balladeer’ asks: ‘Is it poetry? Is it prose? We asked around. Nobody knows!’ or ‘The stammering note sounded in the title is alas too predictive of the overflow of eager inability to articulate found within ‘from ‘Thurso Atom’.
The title suggests not just ‘eager inability to articulate’ but also a jostling for attention and ownership, with its repeated ‘my, my, my’. It is as if the book, its narrator, is divided into multiple selves through the process of breaking up the life into lives. Different stories, separate identities begin to proliferate and the sense of a stable, fixed point of view begins to teeter. The cover image by Alys Paterson also suggests instability. A pile of lushly executed abstract shapes which could be domestic objects (bowls, plates, cups) or fragments of landscape (rocks, sun, bridges) are balanced unsteadily and remarkably, defying gravity and simultaneously threatening imminent collapse.
Throughout the collection we glimpse the narrator in a series of imagined lives:
Pict is beyond you Pict is out of bounds Pict is back there in the fern-shadow daub in the blue-dapple pine waiting for a legion
This voice resists identification, lurking as it does ‘out of bounds’ or ‘back there’ or ‘waiting’ in the shade and dapple of the woods. The voice could be speaking to itself or addressing the reader. There is a sense in all of these poems that these could be real biographical moments in the poet’s life but also that they are none of them real, claimable worlds. The opening poem might reflect on the narrator’s childhood at a Scottish school, where the students’ house is named after Picts and their Scottish accent is trained out of them as they learn the Latin language that had previously expunged that of the Picts:
I was a Pict. I was there to be absorbed. I was there to disappear. I was there to lose my language. Not Leith but Lethe.
There are many wonders in this narrative of a life lived over and over as pirate, mad king, wordsmith, late Elizabethan. The poem ‘My life as a wordsmith’ plays deftly with the sense that runs through all these works of the unfathomability of the world in language. The tremulousness of the attempt to describe or relate words to experience, indeed to what the narrator frames as ‘my life’, is made manifest in these repeated attempts to construct a biography in language. The thought is that very moment framed, the right word only just found, when the writer and reader are restlessly moved on to the next idea. The relentless flow of ideas and experience impels the poems onward without settling upon a scene or image that is able to gainsay even a fraction of what it means to be living this, my, life:
not your ordinary word, not to me, an impact, immediate, felt it there and then, so I stunned it with a handy best of intentions, it went quieter, held it down, stay there, I tipped out the other words, boxed away for such moments, there they stood, trying to get ready for their close-up, blinking and startled, some manifestly, magnificently useless, some amazingly, impressively apt, I hummed and hawed and finicked, made my choices, offered them up, swapped them round, fixed them with a filigree, medusa coil behind the scenes, discreet clank of restraints, a chorus line, chain-gang of harmony and dissonance, smell of lightning strike, no loose ends, no leakages, and there it was, poem with the word embedded, no less than it deserved, the word reset, the word rebooted, burnished in certain of its meanings, disabled in certain of its former associations, a thing of shimmers and shadows only I’d spotted, yoked to its chosen company, I was pleased enough, studied it from all angles, needed to be sure,
Here the poet is presented in the act of writing, in the poetry atelier. His attention is fixed on the word which is the subject of this poem as if this intangible thing could be framed and fixed, jewel-like into a mount. In fact, all the poet can do is reset it and proffer it to the reader with all its polished meaning, ‘a thing of shimmers and shadows’. In a whimsical twist the word is the subject of the poem, addressed and imagined in all its iterations, from first encounter to this brutal scene of setting, writing and rewriting and caging within the frame of the poem, to the delirious final passage depicting a world tour. The poem is presented in the form of a single sentence which does not conclude, there is no full stop at the end of a line which simply runs and runs. Finally, as the poem closes the poet experiences the compulsion to return to the same word, the very poem he is writing, in order to ‘take another look’.
There are no fixed points to give bearing in this collection: the words, like the lives are restless and continually displace any sense of fixity. Paterson’s dry wit frames each poem, as for example ‘My life with the dead white males’ in which the narrator meets, not the poets whose influence frequently resonates here, but his dead father, father-in-law and brother. In a moving series of scenes these figures accompany the poet as he journeys through the places and locations he connects them to. In a separate, darkly comic, monologue the narrator lies in the forest of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (mistakenly attributed to Bruegel), a painted detail within a scene in which suffering goes unremarked by its other occupants, but it is not clear who the narrator is nor why they are there. Throughout ‘My life as a detail’ the writer and hence the reader are not sure whether this painted figure, just discernible in the woods at the painting’s corner, is alive, or was ever alive and thus could be said to be dead. Even such certainties as life and death are pushed to the edges of solidity and tangibility in these poems, to the ‘fern shadow daub in the blue-dapple pine’ with which the collection opened.
The poet imagines his own absence in these pieces, in stasis between the various possibilities that surround them and the fear of disappearing. In ‘My life au contraire’, we see the poet seek himself and repeatedly find a sense of anticipation and pleasure balanced with one of disappointment and loss as evidenced in the following propositions:
To stare into glass after filled glass hoping your face will eventually surface or slowly submerge. To reach out and touch life with your old confidence or be embarrassed by how cold your hands are these days.
Finally, at the close of these strange contrary works, the writer is stymied, at a point of both stasis and no return, with the compulsion: ‘To trudge head down onwards ever onwards or, you know what, just stop here.’
Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone is based on the premise that the poet Robert Burns followed up on his plans to travel to the Ayr Mount Springbank Plantation in Jamaica and work there as a bookkeeper in the employ of the Douglas brothers, who were, like Burns, from Ayrshire. It is a matter of historical record that, in an attempt to flee financial ruin and a series of failed love affairs, he accepted a job there and was booked onto three separate voyages to Jamaica which he never, finally, made. McCallum’s book takes its inspiration from the discovery of this aspect of Burns’ life; in her ‘Author’s Note’ she states that she found the idea became ‘like a sore in the mouth my tongue kept seeking’.
No Ruined Stone depicts Robert Burns’s life through what McCallum terms a ‘speculative history’ that flows from this imagined departure from his biography, one in which he travels to Jamaica and has a relationship with a slave, Nancy, who worked on the plantation, resulting in the birth of a daughter. The first half of the collection depicts his life in Jamaica and explores the disturbing blurring of values and ideas that co-exist in a writer who was ‘well-versed in international affairs and politics and influenced by Enlightenment thinking and the events of the French & American Revolutions. But on the subject of slavery, he remained largely silent.’
The opening, title poem, addressed to Burns explores the strange compulsion to interrogate his conflicted and conflicting beliefs:
And you, voice that stalks
my waking and dreaming,
you more myth than man,
cannot unmake history.
So why am I here
resurrecting you to speak
when your silence gulfs centuries?
Why do I find myself
on your doorstep, knocking,
when I know the dead
will never answer?
This collection is steeped in knowledge about the dual history of slave traders and radical abolitionists in Scotland, the biography of Burns and his life and work and, finally, the history of Jamaica, the country McCallum herself is from, and its manifold links to Scotland, connected by the bloody traces, maps and routes of the slave trade. McCallum skilfully incorporates this freight of knowledge. The collection is rigorous and curious about the poet’s ‘obsessions and vexations, including with Romantic poetry and the Enlightenment’s ideals and occlusions; with absent fathers, mothers, and countries; with migration, exile, and memory.’ The collection, in part, derives its richness from the complex relationship the poet has with Burns. She cannot simply condemn his prevarication and lack of solidarity with enslaved people. Neither can she protect him from judgement and blame.
The cover image, ‘Blind Ossian VII’ by Calum Colvin serves as a touchstone for this split sense of perspective and authority. Colvin’s work frequently explores the distinction between appearance and reality and these images combine ‘traditional photographic techniques with digital technology’ to create prints that ‘blur the distinctions between painting and poetry’. The sequence responds to the Scottish poet James Macpherson’s The Works of Ossian (1765) which purported to translate Scottish Gaelic from ancient sources and served to popularise Scottish history and mythology. Colvin’s work interrogates ideas of history and identity and, consequently, of authenticity. In her ‘Acknowledgements’ McCallum gives special thanks to Colvin for ‘his inimitable art, which informed and is part of this book’. The blurring of history and fiction, the exploration of identity which is either assumed or enforced echoes across these poems and images.
McCallum offers a sense of Burns’ anguish and conflict in an imagined letter to his brother, ‘DEAR GILBERT’:
Not you, brother, not anyone
could fathom the depths of my suffering,
the greater portion I’ve heaped
upon myself in this rash pursuit.
Of all that wrings the mind,
beyond compare the worst we owe
The interconnection between guilt and desire is compounded in the poem ‘FOR PROMISED JOY’ that gives an imagined account of his affair with Nancy, the enslaved woman he falls in love with:
to ask love to dwell
in a place not meant
for love’s habitation,
in vain to take
what is mine and not mine,
to theft from brutality beauty,
without hesitation, without
thought of consequence.
The poem’s heady atmosphere of desperate love, filled with ‘nothing but laughter’ and ‘suffused in scent of her’ suggests the emptied-out possibilities of a future that can house this pair in its ‘drafts and breathing hollows of my room’ and the attempt to ‘dwell / in a place not meant / for love’s habitation’. The poem ironically balances the introspective nature of Burns’ self-deception and self-absorption with its opposite, the terrible lack of voice, agency and interiority given to Nancy and their child born, inevitably, into slavery.
McCallum extends her speculative history at this point with an inventive and inspired narrative twist which is both compelling and believable. It is here that McCallum’s meticulous research about Plantation life and culture becomes central to the imagined plotting of this collection. McCallum speculates that the result of this imagined union is a child who is subsequently raped by the Plantation Master and dies giving birth to Isabella. Isabella is then sent to Scotland, with her grandmother, Nancy, posing as her slave. The alternate imaginative world of this collection is so thoroughly conceived that McCallum even presents an imagined family tree at the hinge point of the collection where Burns’ poems cease and Isabella’s begin. The ‘Timeline’ which features at the close of the book extends this blurring of the historically documented and this imagined history when it juxtaposes the real events of Burns’ life and the key dates and events of slavery in Jamaica and Scotland alongside the imagined episodes of this alternate history.
The final section of the collection, Isabella’s poems, describe her arrival in Scotland with her grandmother/slave and the discovery of her grandfather’s legacy everywhere she goes. Passing as a white woman, the daughter of her grandfather and an invented Spanish paramour, Isabella is tormented by the legacy of her split sense of herself – part Jamaican, part Scottish. In ‘THE BARD, EDINBURGH, 1825’ Isabella describes her haunting by Burns where ‘everywhere I turn, you ghost this city’. It is a poem that reveals Isabella to be the imaginative double of McCallum as she makes her own journey across Scotland, tracing the history and roots of Burns and of Scottish links to slavery:
library halls, frittering hours
in cloistered rooms, combing
scant recovered letters and your reclaimed
Springbank journal, I, your unclaimed kin,
asking words to perform the impossible:
to return the past whole. No,
truth be told, not whole but
the absence of you, that abscess in me.
This is a narrative which is riven by geography – the distance between Scotland and Jamaica, the distance between being enslaved and being free and the distance between Isabella and both her grandparents and between McCallum and the ghosts of past poets such as Burns who influence her work and context and for whom she must invent a history. This figures literally in a number of the poems which are bifurcated across the page. It is peculiarly potent in the account of Isabella’s relationship with her grandmother – ‘AE FOND KISS’; husband – ‘HUSBAND, THE TRUTH IS’ and heritage – ‘INHERITANCE’ and ‘THE CHOICE’. In this last, the terrible conflict Isabella experiences in passing, (living as a white woman once she arrives in Edinburgh), and acknowledging the truth of her heritage, are brilliantly conveyed in this splintered and splintering form:
forgive me my trespasses
my past this present
forgive me all my ancestors
our history forgive me
husband but love
is nothing if it is not
a mirror for us to gaze
into our razored selves
and I can be no longer
hushed nor still
keep ringing round
This remarkable imagined history sustains its fragmentary elements, pieces of the same whole in an artful and suspenseful equilibrium.
Each of these collections by Skoulding, Paterson and McCallum could be weighed down by their negotiation of history and by the ambitious premise of their projects. Instead, the structures, identities and ghosts of the past offer imaginative freedoms and structural cohesion. The long form permits a sustained encounter with poetic intention, with the possibilities of reviewing and revisiting past selves and lives. It offers a framework for poetry, which is both serious and necessary and whimsically playful. The poems are thus able to generate and sustain compelling worlds and environments in spite (and because) of their entanglement with the structures and voices of the past. The result is a sustained and in-depth series of investigations in which the reader alongside the writer searches for clues and hints, discovering for themselves summary and arbitrary connections without needing to be told, finally, how to read.