A Northerly Land, by George Gunn, seems, at first glance, to be an unprepossessing collection. The production of the book is not good – the text of the poems is badly centred, to the point where some of it is some of it is cut off at the edges; the copyright information, the acknowledgements and epigraphs are crammed into one page; the cover image is uncredited, and the many footnotes are intrusive and poorly placed. This sloppiness looks occasionally as if it extends to the poetry, which is printed without punctuation and with inconsistent capitalisation, and it is a poor introduction to the work itself, some of which is outstanding.
Gunn writes in a style reminiscent of Kenneth White, and there are echoes of his Walking the Coast in Gunn’s Winter Coast, but Gunn is an angrier and more political poet than White, more friendly towards myth and metaphor, and concerned as much about the humans living in the landscape as much as the coasts, wildlife and weather of Caithness. Gunn’s free-flowing, undirected style works well in some shorter poems, such as September, and We Are All in This Together and exceptionally well in the lovely Rain in August where the transformations and interpenetrations of rain and land and sky – and fact and symbol – are echoed in the unsignposted and ambiguous form:
the air thick with brine
this flat land is blown to the salt-lip
of its limitation
& there on a flagstone cliff
joins sky to ocean & land to sky
However, some of the poems feel unfinished, and in need of better editing. Even as little as paying more consistent attention to layout and formatting would have given the collection more heft and focus.
Patricia Ace’s Fabulous Beast suffers no such limitations. Immaculately presented, these poems shine out as finished and meticulous works. She has a distinctive and intelligent voice, sometimes hard-edged and angry, sometimes loving, often mournful.
I know this woman, whose empty arms press the sag
of her breasts, braced against the loss she enfolds.
Her flesh curled like a fern at the back of her legs
tells her everything she needs to learn;
(from Recovery Pose)
Fabulous Beast is a highly accomplished collection, but a cerebral one, embodying a bleak vision of lost, failed or embittered relationships, and often an atmosphere of decay and death. Patricia Ace writes about childbirth (An everyday act of genius, July 1969), sexuality, motherhood, (The women, Ruby in the thistledown), the body (Skin remembers and The secret life of hair), aging and the death of parents (The birches, Diary in old age). She is a more formal poet than most, experimenting widely and dexterously with form and occasionally, very successfully, with rhyme as in Comme Ci Comme Ça. There are sonnets such as the title poem, which carries echoes of Manley Hopkins, an ode to an avocado, a ballad. Unusually in my experience, it often seems that the more formal poems are the more successful. Fabulous Beast is a significant achievement.
A Northerly Land by George Gunn is published by Braevalla Press (60pp £7.99) Fabulous Beast by Patricia Ace is published by Freight Books (70pp £8.99)