‘A hauntingly beautiful, moving and imaginative poem about the first day of the afterlife, it comes after the glossary because by then readers should already have learnt enough to navigate their way across this new, old, and sometimes half-remembered language.’
By Roseanne Watt
Published by Polygon
In the old, sprawling Arthur Anderson High School in Lerwick, overlooking the Sound of Bressay, the S5 English class was getting grips with Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets. They’d already studied what Shakespeare had done with the form, so they could see how Morgan had updated it, how he’d used a flurry of images in the first one
A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash.
Hackles on puddles rise, old mattresses
puff briefly and subside. Play-fortresses
of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash
to drag out the decorous octet template to cover the indecorous – in this case a dilapidated tenement block
Four storeys have no windows left to smash,
but in the fifth a chipped sill buttresses
mother and daughter the last mistresses
of that black block condemned to stand, not crash.
That was the main point of the lesson: how Morgan had made a form invariably associated with love and romance describe a spreading indifference and decay
Around them the cracks deepen, the rats crawl.
The kettle whimpers on a crazy hob.
Roses of mould grow from ceiling to wall
before finally zeroing in on the human cost of such neglect
The man lies late since he has lost his job,
smokes on one elbow, letting his coughs fall
thinly into an air too poor to rob.
More than a decade after that Lerwick lesson, Roseanne Watt can still recite Morgan’s poem off by heart. Studying it, along with Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was, she says, when something ‘clicked’ and she first understood what poetry could do. Something else clicked when Kevin MacNeil, who was then Shetland’s writer in residence, gave a talk in her final year at school. ‘He was the first writer I’d seen, and because he’d come from an island [Lewis] too, he was a role model. He said “Well, if I can be a writer, you can be too.” That was such a pivotal moment.’
Three years later, when she had left Shetland to study film and English at Stirling University, MacNeil included her work in These Islands We Sing, his anthology of island poetry. By this time, she was already reading Shetland writers such as Robert Alan Jamieson and Christine de Luca. ‘That again was exciting, because at the time I still thought that I was not allowed to write in the dialect I had locked away inside myself.’
In the introduction to her acclaimed debut collection Moder Dy, which is shortlisted for next month’s Highland Prize, she explains when that locking away first happened. Growing up in Sandwick, on the south-east of Mainland Shetland, she only realised she was speaking Shaetlan after she started school. On the phone to her grandmother in Scalloway, she suddenly noticed that that her grandmother said ‘du’ instead of ‘you’, and ‘de’ instead of ‘the’. ‘From that point forward,’ Watt writes, ‘it was as though both English and dialect had bifurcated in my mind. And with this a choice seemed to present itself: which one?’
The question haunts her poetry, from ‘Salt I de blöd’, the earliest poem in the collection, onwards. In the poem, she reproaches herself for neglecting Shaetlan, for being blind to the allure of its vocabulary: shoormal, for example, or mareel, or bonhoga. Look them up in the glossary, and her case is made instantly: ‘the shoreline mark on a beach’, ‘phosphorescence on the water, especially in autumn’, ‘a spiritual or childhood place’. There’s a beauty in those words that absence from Shetland surely intensifies, and indeed Watt admits that’s exactly what happened when she left the island. ‘When I was writing poems in Stirling,’ she says, ‘I was feeling that pull and able to express it in poetry like a kind of very profound homesickness.’
But there is, she explains, a sense of loss within Shaetlan itself. ‘The old language of Norn that used to be spoken on the islands died out at the end of the 18th century. Fragments have survived, but nothing you could take to get an overall idea of what the syntax was like. So there is a starting point of absence. And in Shaetlan there’s a substratum of that Norn language that still exists in words that have been incorporated into the dialect. It’s like there’s a dead language that haunts the modern language, and that’s an interesting dynamic – you’re working in a language that has a memory of this older language within it.’
Her book’s cover expresses this perfectly: shaded just behind its title Moder Dy is its English translation ‘Mother Wave’. The Norn term was used by the haafmen, the island’s deep sea fishermen, to an undercurrent believed to run east from Foula, taking them back to their home. No islander today would know how to ‘read’ the sea surface in oder to latch onto it, and despite the testimony of past generations of fisherfolk, there is no conclusive scientific proof that it exists.
Yet there is no better metaphor than this – a half-remembered undercurrent pulling one back home – for the impulse behind Watt’s poetry. To make her work clearer to the linguistically lazy (which, let’s face is, is most of us), she provides what she calls ‘uneasy translations’ to most of the poems written in Shaetlan. Though well crafted, they are not always literal versions – deliberately so, as Watt wants her readers to use the glossary at the back of the book and engage with the Shaetlan words themselves. When they do, they’ll marvel at the precision of ‘goonieman’s candles’, for example (‘small scrolls of birch bark washed ashore’) or ‘lomm’ ( an old Norn word meaning ‘when the surface of the sea would grow light in colour as fish swam beneath it’). The Norn words, she points out, often survived in Shaetlan, because fishermen needed alternatives to words they might normally use on land but which they believed brought bad luck when out at sea.
In ‘Salt I de blöd’, the speaker tells her ‘Dese wirds/ir my hansel tae dee.’ A gift, in other words. Not an oddity, not something to ashamed of, not something to be quietly dropped. And that’s what this book is too: a gift that opens up another language so that by its end, when you read the title poem, the two languages are side by side. ‘Moder Dy’ is actually two poems that can be read as one, consisting of a series of two short lines in English down one side of the page running onto another two in Shaetlan down the other, neither of them a translation, and both given the same weight. A hauntingly beautiful, moving and imaginative poem about the first day of the afterlife, it comes after the glossary because by then readers should already have learnt enough to navigate their way across this new, old, and sometimes half-remembered language.
And if most of Moder Dy’s poetry is drawn from Shetland itself, there’s an input from further south too, not least from Kathleen Jamie, who taught Watt at Stirling, encouraged her superlative film-poetry (check it out on https://vimeo.com/roseannewatt) and who supervised her PhD. Another poet should be mentioned too. They never met, but poetry unlocked a door in her mind when she first read ‘Glasgow Sonnet’ in S5.
Winning the £20,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2018 changed Roseanne Watt’s life. ‘It was overwhelming,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether it really happened or whether I dreamed it.’ Not only did it provide me a financial safety net but it solidified the publishing deal, and took her to book festivals all over the world, from Indonesia to Brussels, Latvia to Berlin – as well as Ullapool last year, which is where the book was launched (and where I first met her).
Before the Ullapool book festival was cancelled last month, she’d been invited back there this year as one of the four authors shortlisted (along with Ali Smith, Kathleen Jamie and David Gange) for the Highland Book Prize. And even on a list of that quality, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if she wins.
Moder Dy by Roseanne Watt is published by Polygon, priced £8.99