Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield. Bloodaxe Books, 2008
As Reviewed By: Hannah Brooks-Motl
How problematic is poetic description? Certain schools of poetic thought—perhaps inflected with post-modernism’s uneasiness about “claim-making”—regard description as dangerously akin to definition: a bundle of similes can harden into a claim about the way the world actually is, as opposed to remaining a tentative hypothesis about how it appears to be. Lyn Hejinian wants description that avoids “after-the-fact realism, with its emphasis on the world described (the objects of description) and the organizing subjectivity (that of the perceiver-describer)”; in other words, a description that is not coy (and also not Romantic). But language is a system of description, whatever the fashionable abyss between a signifier and its sign. And poems cannot help but pretend to place the reader in a context that has already been created. Language offers us the illusion of coincidence, but is itself a mediating influence, a distance. It is necessarily coy. And some would say, in 2009, necessarily Romantic too.
Jen Hadfield, a young Scottish poet, is interested in her world and the project of her second book is to describe it. Though her style is jazzy and contemporary, she essentially follows Hejinian’s anti-formula. The objects of her gaze, and what her mind does with those objects, how it turns them into other objects, are what these poems show us. Hadfield’s world consists of a series of places; often rugged and out-of-the-way locales like oil towns in Canada, or the Shetland Islands where she lives. Her method of description aims for a quirky kind of precision. Nigh-No-Place is full of peculiar—and often perfectly so—turns of phrase:
Mealy mash of appletrees, hacked
wet chunk of mountain (“The Mandolin of May”)
The fields wore cows like fuzzy Hombergs (“Kodachrome”)
I crackled in my waterproof
like a roasting rack of lamb (“Blashey-wadder”)
Hadfield’s description is almost always local and works at the level of neat simile or unexpected juxtaposition: there are many weird modifiers working over-time for their nouns here. These poems can seem a light-hearted take on Wordsworth’s attempt to show “ordinary things . . . presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” Hadfield’s aspect is nearly always unusual, but at times the bizarre brilliance can pile up a bit pointlessly. In “The Mandolin of May,” for example, “crumpled notes” which “would prang out of those paired strings” (of the eponymous mandolin) are also notes which “clip off the pick like grasshoppers” and, in their grace note form, are “like a rock-chip ticking off the windscreen.” All of these are neat ways of describing the tinny sound of mandolin music, and each is apt in its way, surprising and well-put, but they clump together in too few lines of a crowded poem about . . . the many off-beat ways the poet can describe the events of a particular May spent in a rugged, out-of-the-way place.
Hadfield’s integrity as a perceiver-describer is never in doubt, but she rarely allows herself a moment of high meaning. The poems do escape the tired “after-the-fact realism” that Hejinian sees plaguing so much poetry concerned with the natural world and its depiction perhaps because they adroitly gather but rarely order. They manage, through the sheer inventiveness of their language, to almost get away with being purely descriptive; at times they are even surrealistically realistic (that speaker in her waterproof like a roasting lamb, for example). But this, I think, may be the book’s main problem. Hadfield’s project is to render strange—unusual—the world that she sees around her, but her process of description strikes me as a bit off-hand. It is full of un-interrogative similes: things are like other things because it is the nature of humans to see them that way. Experience is essentially comparison. But Hadfield’s descriptions alone can’t quite carry the weight of that project. Things are like other things, the poems say, and it is neat how language can show us that: the augur making “a wormcast of ice,” for example, or how the speaker and fellow fishermen “bunch like bears” over a fishing hole (“A Bad Day for Icefishing”).
The poems in Nigh-No-Place jump and move—or, in more Hadfieldian terms, wriggle, cantor, and squirm. Hadfield comes from a tradition of Scottish poets interested in the natural world and the way language can be used to figure that world, how an arrangement of words or images can capture, or self-consciously fail to capture, a scene or landscape. Poets like George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, and, more recently, Kathleen Jamie are pretty obvious influences on Hadfield, both in subject matter and, at least partly, in style. But Hadfield is also a good observer of the extremities of rural life and the people who endure those extremities (bad weather features prominently in many poems). Her ear is often marvelous—all those descriptions work aurally as well as figuratively—and while her poems include Shetlandic words, these are not dialect poems in the traditional sense. Hadfield doesn’t write in Scots, but regular English that squirms around meter with a delightful assortment of words: scrounge, snottery, five-thirty-sixish, dogs “drilling pissholes in snow”. Hadfield’s interest in dialect comes from her interest in weird words in general and the Shetlandic usually figures as a title to a poem which then goes on to describe in English the state or phenomenon described by that title. The language, and so the world of that language, is still a novelty; it is suggestive rather than constitutive, and that may account for the failure of many of these poems to do much more than point at how interesting something (or someone) is. Take, for example, the small poem “Stumba” (Shetlandic for “a thick mist”):
A transit crawls up on stealthy tyres—
byres bump shore on breakers of fog,
gates pause on hinges of fog,
a cat is crayoned on a throne of fog,
and leaning from the cab in shirt-sleeves,
one elbow rowing the visible air,
it is so mild, he says, as fog
consolidates his stacked, white hair.
The poem manages to convey the estranging effect of thick Scottish fog—how it can make an aerated sea of everything—and achieves, through its repetitions and sound patterning (tyres/byres, the recycled prepositions, the fog-fog-fog teleutons), something of the phenomenon’s omniscience. I like the man “rowing the visible air” and the final verb nicely enacts the way fog can seem to be generative, so that the world itself seems to come out of its mist. But if that is part of the point Hadfield wants to make—if indeed Hadfield wants to make a point about fog as natural phenomenon, or what it means to be a person experiencing that fog, caught up in the natural world’s unworldly logic—she stops short of making it clearly. The poem is a moment captured, which is fine, but after a whole book of such moments I was anxious to be pushed into some deeper loch, onto some less-firm ground, away from simile and towards metaphor.
A few of Hadfield’s poems circle self-reflexively; that is, they are poems that are at least partially about being poems (some of “The Mandolin of May”; “Bladder-washy”). If there is an ars poetica in this book, though, it is “Glid” (Shetlandic for “sunshine between showers”). In that poem, the speaker turns “the camera on my dissolving self, / pale-tongued and rabbit-eyed” and in so doing turns “the camera on dazzled / Everything.” Hadfield is very much like her camera—see also the poem “Kodachrome”—and wants to convey just that “dazzled Everything” she herself has seen. But the poems in this second collection are perhaps less poems than verbal snapshots: pure artifacts meant to be lovely and looked at, seen but perhaps not perceived (to use Wordsworth’s distinction). Hadfield is not making broad claims about the world in these poems; she is offering her impressions, her record of things. And her impressions are neither dull nor disingenuous, but they seem, to me, to lack something. They describe and turn phrases but what they’re missing may be another Wordsworthian concept, perhaps not popular at the moment, but one that makes reading poetry a richer, more rewarding activity than flipping through a photo album: purpose, a reason or force motivating their presence on the page. Many of these poems seem merely to say: this happened here and it was great.