From Glasgow to Yell: ‘Oo an Feddirs’ by Christie Williamson
Christie Williamson Oo an Feddirs (Luath Press, 2015)
by Stewart Sanderson
Oo an Feddirs is Christie Williamson’s first full-length collection of poems. It follows Arc o Möns, his 2010 pamphlet of Shetlandic Lorcas. At 100 pages or so, it’s a sizeable gathering of his work from the past ten years, with roughly a third of the poems written in English, the rest in Shetlandic. Oo is the Shetland word for wool; feddirs, inductively enough, are feathers. The title comes from the seventh line of the poem ‘Burns’:
Da sun shone trow
an da lang caald
bruised me taes
wi firgottin dreams.
Oo an feddirs
an boady haet
kept dat coarnir
o hoose at my heart
fae bein is caald
is da air.
The wool and feathers connect, I think, with the “firgottin dreams” of the preceding line. As well as the literal strands of wool tangled on fences throughout the insular landscape, the stray feathers caught in the grass and heather, the visitor to Shetland is aware of the detritus of history.
To paraphrase George Mackay Brown on the Orkney imagination, Shetland is haunted by time. The archipelago has been inhabited since the Mesolithic period. The remains of over a hundred Iron Age brochs have been identified in the islands. The stratigraphy of an archaeological site like Jarlshof reveals a continuity of human habitation in a single place from the Bronze Age to the sixteenth century. The current downturn in oil prices may ultimately bring an end to a more recent, equally dramatic phase in Shetland’s material story. Many of the poems in Oo an Feddirs examine, explicitly or implicitly, this rich inheritance of loss. This is most evident in the Shetlandic work, where the very decision to write in the tongue makes Williamson’s affinities and commitments clear. The aforementioned ‘Burns’ concludes with the poet reflecting that the fire his grandfather lit in a now roofless building continues to burn “athin me bons.”
Williamson is a writer in the tradition. This said, he eschews the regular iambics of distinguished twentieth-century Shetlanders like William J. Tait and Vagaland, employing a spare short line with few stanza breaks. His Shetlandic and English poems are alike in this respect. He’s got things to say in both languages, though – for me at least – it’s the former in which he shines. Perhaps that’s got something to do with the way Shetlandic sits in my Anglo-Scottish ear – as something other but also homely. The tongue excels in intimate registers, for instance in ‘Orange’:
I hae de
i me haunds,
dy saft, bricht
an I ken
The poet working in a non-standard language is often compelled to make their own orthography. Without wanting to criticise Williamson’s choices, I can imagine “de” and “haunds” spelt dee and hauns. I’m no scholar of Shetlandic historically and wouldn’t dream of being prescriptive here – it’s interesting, nevertheless, to find your own expectations of non-standard spelling resisted by a poem. Tongues like Scots and Shetlandic offer freedoms which official English has largely lost – freedoms Shetlandic poets share with their counterparts from India to the Caribbean, though not their Standard English-writing cousins. In this connection one of the most productive, poetically speaking, is the insular retention of a distinct second-person singular – du/de[e]/dy.
Many of the poems in Oo an Feddirs deal with family life – Williamson frequently returns to his relationships with his partner and children. In ‘Arc’, the first poem in the book (in English, for what it’s worth) the speaker juggles boats for “his eldest son” In ‘Muse’, his partner’s “body is poetry”. ‘Introduction’ describes the eyes of a new-born as “Apertures as wide/ as clydeside campsites”. I could go on citing instances. These are touching poems about home and home-making, which take their form in a humane, believable voice. As the citation from ‘Muse’ suggests, Williamson doesn’t shy away from overtly erotic material, memorably in ‘Troot’:
Wance I gjit
athin dy moo
I keen Ah’ll dø
aathin I kin
ta makk de mine.
And if any doubt remained, the poem’s objective correlative is made emphatically clear by the speaker’s statement, at the end, that he will soon “…fill/ dy cavity/ wi love,/ taest dy skin/ an flysh/ atween mi lips.” Clearly the Shetlandic range of poetic subject matter has come a long way since Vagaland.
An interesting poem, from the perspective of place and tradition within Scotland, is ‘Clachan’. A poem ‘after’ Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul’s ‘Ecclesiastes’, Williamson’s ‘Clachan’ is a rare Shetlandic text initiated by a Gaelic original. J. Derrick McClure’s 2011 translations of Sorley MacLean, Sangs tae Eimhir, were a notable contribution to the kind of Gaelic-Scots interchange championed in the nineteen forties by the likes of Douglas Young, Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay. I can’t help fantasising about a Shetlandic Dàin do Eimhir of comparable comprehensiveness.
At any rate, Williamson is an excellent translator, sensitive to the possibilities of the source text, but never overly precious in his modulation of it. In this connection, I should reveal a vested interest. Williamson is among the contributors to Scottish Spleen, a pamphlet I recently co-edited, comprising Baudelaire’s prose poems translated into Scots (and Shetlandic) by various hands. On the strength of his responses to Lorca, Baudelaire and Caimbeul – three very different poets in three very different languages – I hope Williamson is able to give more time and energy to translation in the future. Our literary culture doesn’t always give verse-translation its due. This is a shame, as making versions of other poets is a great way of extending the voice into new forms and areas of engagement. To take a well-known example, Edwin Morgan’s oeuvre wouldn’t have gained if he’d devoted more time to his ‘original’ poetry and less to his translations. Quite the reverse – his poetry gains greatly in authority and range as a result of habitual translation.
Shetlandic poetry isn’t particularly trendy. Its slim share of the hardly buoyant UK poetry market belies the quality of much writing in the tongue. Publishing it is, therefore, even more of a risk than is usually the case with verse – likely to lead to small returns and incomprehension on the part of most metropolitan readers. Those who persist in the composition and publication of good Shetlandic work are, therefore, to be praised. Williamson’s writing sits comfortably alongside that of better known Shetlanders like Christine De Luca and Robert Alan Jamieson. On the basis of the poems collected in Oo an Feddirs, I’d say he’s also a match for most of the younger Scottish poets now writing. With his first book Williamson has proved he can write strong, affecting poetry in a short free verse line. I’m looking forward to reading future work by him – and hope he won’t shy away from taking a few more risks.