Praise for Roseanne Watt’s new poetry collection

by Alastair Hamilton -

Roseanne Watt recently launched her new collection of poetry at a well-attended event in Mareel, the arts centre in Lerwick. It has already won praise from many reviewers.

These days, Roseanne lives and works in Edinburgh and she’ll be appearing alongside South Uist poet Niall Campbell at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, just under a year after she picked up the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize at the same event. Nor was that the first recognition of her work: she won the 2015 Outspoken Poetry Prize (Poetry in Film) and was runner-up for the 2018 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. After she had won the Edwin Morgan prize, Louise Thomason spoke with her and you can read that article here.

Moder Dy, published by Polygon at £8.99, is written partly in English and partly in Shetland dialect – or Shaetlan – which, as Roseanne puts it in her preface, is “a form of Scots shaped by sea roads…something of a fraught coalition between English, Scots and old Norn: the extinct Scandinavian language of the Northern Isles”. The title springs from the islands’ maritime tradition:

‘The old Shetland fishermen still speak with something like reverence of the forgotten art of steering by the moder dy (mother wave), the name given to an underswell which it is said always travels in the direction of home’.

The book falls into three parts, each encompassing a dozen or so poems, and there’s a glossary of Shaetlan that’s a delight in itself: blinnd-moorie (a zero-visibility snowstorm); hushiebaa (a lullaby); lukkie minnie’s oo (bog cotton); tattiebokey (a scarecrow); and many, many more. There’s advice, too, in speaking Shaetlan in one of the poems, which (to the amusement of the Mareel audience that evening) begins:

Here’s the trick:

pretend your mouth is full

of stones

a fraught coalition between English, Scots and old Norn

Vivid, direct and strikingly concise, the poems evoke Shetland past and present in landscape, custom and thought. The sea and the shore are, of course, never far away, and Roseanne reminds us of the traditional use by fishermen of the “haaf-language”, As she says:

“…it was believed by some that speaking words associated with the land would tempt severe misfortune; as such, certain words were swapped for ones deemed safe, usually drawn from the old Norn vocabulary.”

“Haafman” – referring to those who fished the deep-sea grounds, or “haaf” – is an example:

Him, the keeper of language, holds

up the blue harp of a porpoise jaw

for the wind to pluck at.

In the light of the lomm,

the mackerelled marble of his eye

glinks

“Lomm”, the glossary tells us, means the time “when the surface of the sea would grow light in colour as fish came below it”. Such a word would only be used at sea. “Glinks” means “glints”.

certain words were swapped for ones deemed safe

There are glimpses of life outwith Shetland, too, as in Fox, beginning:

She sat so brazen

in the lovely blood

of the streetlamps….

There are personal poems, like the touching Fledgling, in which she and a friend find a sparrow on the path to school, fledged too early:

…You stopped and stooped

and cupped it in your palms

with such a gentleness

I’d not seen in you before….

And there’s the exuberance of Mareel, recalling how, “bursting from Mareel” on a November night, she and a friend nearly missed

…the other show

that night: the aurora, the dancers, unspooling

their reels of green across the sky, despite

a bone-bright moon in the south.

So much conveyed, so effectively, in so few words: it’s impossible not to be captivated by Roseanne’s poetry, as indeed reviewers have been.

it’s impossible not to be captivated by Roseanne’s poetry

Roger Cox, in The Scotsman, described Moder Dy as “an extraordinarily intricate and multi-layered exercise in literary triangulation” and continued:

Unlike some of Hugh MacDiarmid’s experiments in “synthetic Scots,” in which it sometimes feels as if arcane Scots words are being shoehorned in for effect, here the flitting between English and Shaetlan never feels less than natural. Poetry books are rarely described as unputdownable. This one is.

the flitting between English and Shaetlan never feels less than natural

James Fountain, reviewing Moder Dy for The Culture Vulture website (where there’s also another interesting interview with Roseanne) said:

There is a brevity to the language and careful placing of vocabulary reminiscent of the great W. S. Graham, the Greenock-born poet who made his way to Cornwall and won the admiration of T. S. Eliot in the 1940s.

Watt displays pride in the ‘strangeness’ and otherness of Shetland existence, harnessing the thousand-year-old Scandinavian elements of Shetland dialect in her descriptions of landscape and people.

There is a brevity to the language and careful placing of vocabulary

Roseanne Watt isn’t simply a remarkable poet. Her talents extend into film-making and music and you can find many examples of her filmed poetry online. I can only agree with Roger Cox: Moder Dy is unputdownable. Roseanne’s writing is a delight.

Moder Dy is unputdownable

Posted in: Creative Scene

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