STEPHANIE GREEN’S ‘FLOUT’ AND THE PROCESS OF PRESENCE
Stephanie Green, Flout (HappenStance, 2015)
By Helen Murray
The further north I go, the more
I must face myself.
In Flout, Stephanie Green creates poems that celebrate and challenge forces of nature and the revelations made in forging a living relationship with the land. The collection is the fruit of Green’s immersion in the Shetland landscape and culture. Having received a grant from Creative Scotland, enabling her to visit Shetland during her writing process, Green’s lived experience on the island has generated a collection that abounds with close observation and sensual interactions with the land. Though following some well-trodden paths in ecopoetics, Flout’s hidden strength lies in the very idea of being present, and how that intersects with concepts of identity and creative praxis.
Green depicts the Shetland landscape with the fond familiarity of a romantic partner, even while her sometimes violent images of body parts create an ambivalent tone. In ‘My Love, the Shetland Trowie’, the island itself is given a masculine identity. Every line starts with a possessive pronoun; it is all ‘His’. But he is no romanticised vision of a rustic islander, this Shetland. A Trowie, Green tells us, is a ‘troll or goblin’. The land may be anthropomorphised, but it is also inhuman in its identity, a not entirely comfortable presence. The poem is a warts-and-all portrait of a man who embodies place (or perhaps place embodied in man). The Trowie is by turns beautiful, desirable and frankly gross. All of his parts are offered up to the reader: genitals, oxters, bodily fluids and farts nestle alongside the less scatological zones of landscape metaphor. It is interesting to draw an explicit masculine parallel in a poem that examines nature’s pollution and degradation as well as beauty and elemental force. The comparison with toxic masculinity – in this case, its causes, rather than its effects – cannot be ignored. With lines like, ‘His teeth smashed Blue Vodka bottles’; ‘His pubic hair is the hay-nets flung over plastic rubbish bags’, the Trowie’s parts are shown to be beautiful and threatening in equal measure, illustrations of pollutants which encroach upon the land. The spread of Shetland’s trades, fishing and tourism destroy, in ironic symbiosis, that which they preserve. Despite the specificity of place in Flout, this particular poem struggles with the problem of universalising landscape writing. It is overly tempting to draw overarching comparisons with any and all beautiful places. That which we yearn for, we also violate and destroy, rusting in on tourist ferries, tramping through with plastic bags, cigarette cartons and illicit bottles of cheap booze. Violable landscapes – coastline, sea, wildlife, and the decaying structures on the land, are made treacherous or threatening, by the very forces which invade them. It is a familiar story. The Trowie promises to bite us back, with his seaglass teeth. Was he always so, or have we made him thus? This is not a question with which Green baits or hammers us. In emphasising detail, the poet never presumes to pass judgement on those elements that make up the Trowie’s personhood. Rather, the Trowie, this avatar of the landscape, is comprised of elemental beauty and dangerous currents commingling, like trash in an eddy.
Positioned alongside ‘My Love, the Shetland Trowie’, is ‘The Njuggle’, a poem with similar dark romanticism at its heart. The two poems present alternate takes on troubling, exciting, pseudo-erotic experiences of place. Both emphasise the often hostile and unpredictable character of landscape through metaphors and imagery of longing. The Njuggle is the Shetlandic interpretation of the kelpie myth – a beautiful water horse that entices riders onto its back, only to rush them into the nearest body of water, to meet a lingering, drowned death. Green’s version of the tale hints at the undercurrents of uncanny desires that are so often found underlying such myths. The Woman-as-water-creature emblem is commonly seen in eco-literatures, and particularly the mythology of the North. It is therefore interesting to see Green’s Njuggle recast in the male form. The poem climaxes in the transformation of horse-beast into man-beast, with an aura of the orgasmic: ‘Belly flattening, spine / whip-lashing, he bucked and shrank into a man’. Rather than fearing the final immersion of the deep, wet, (little) death, the speaker positively longs for it. But then, alas ‘dawn broke and he poured through my arms / I was alone’. I code the speaker as a woman primarily because of the several images that connote female sexual pleasure: ‘I rode him through the night, gripping his back between my thighs’; ‘he turned to plunge me under’, etc. Green’s fantastical horse-creature cannot help but connote another vision of a spectral horse – the demonic presence which haunts the shadows of Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, a work which shares Green’s deft depiction of ambivalent eroticism. As with the painting, one might as easily read ‘The Njuggle’ as less a flight of supernatural eroticism and more one of all-consuming imaginative power that conjures the spirit. In the final line of the poem, the repeated structure of three-line stanzas is broken, forming a fracture between dreaming and conscious experience. Delivered with a starkness and finality that breaks the dreamlike narrative: ‘only the widening circles on the loch’ remain. Reader and speaker return to the physical space that has informed the creation of interior space. Ripples on the loch at moonlight, which have intrigued generations of Shetlanders, and which have generated many hundred nights of fanciful tales are, when the dawn breaks, only ripples after all.
‘The Njuggle’ and ‘My Love the Shetland Trowie’ are among the more arresting poems in Flout. Their personifications of the landscape as something with which one might have a fraught, human-like relationship, anchor the collection’s sometimes tenuous link between nature writing and the subjectivity of our identification with place. Those who are captivated by the quality of the nature writing in this collection might run the risk of ignoring or misunderstanding the significance of identity in Flout. To do so would be to overlook an important aspect of the work. There is a degree of pleasurable projection that springs from our relationships with landscape. Even those born and raised amidst concrete and cobblestone can be excited and awakened by the blasts of weather and the sublime force of landscape. Hence, when one reads a work of landscape literature, a familiarity and sense of belonging is generated – even if reading about these wild places is as far from the ‘burbs as you ever go. Conversely, there must also be a sense of unbelonging emergent from the outsider eye. As a figure, a poet is ideally placed to observe and capture what those who belong to any given place are too close to see. It is intriguing to read how Green chooses to marry these states.
Green is not a native Shetlander, nor, perhaps will be the majority of her readers. The poems in Flout are imbued with the affinity for landscape which one feels instinctively. Consequently, it might be easy to miss that element which speaks of dissonance and unbelonging, as the natural and necessary shadow of a visiting poet’s celebration of, and affinity with a place. Notice, for example, that the collection opens with the poem ‘Adolescent’. This poem is the most self-consciously observational of the works and is among the more formally constrained, comprising six tight stanzas of two lines. This is the piece whose title connotes immaturity. Its subject – the flight of a fledgling bird – illustrates the problem of being outside one’s element. Moving from the bird’s discomfort, ‘bursting out of his feathers’ to being able to ‘describe’ (a telling parallel in language) ‘an elegant arc / against the sky’, the poem maps onto a progression through the collection, from unwieldy observer to oneness with the landscape.
Ostensibly dedicated to the northernmost inhabited island in the Shetland Isles, the eight-part sequence of ‘Unst’ marks a crisis between subjectivity and the experience of landscape. Where Green has created an accomplished yet curiously detached observation of nature in ‘Adolescent’, these poems emphatically link identity to the land, through the device of a self-seeking pilgrimage. In the first poem in the ‘Unst’ sequence, Green presents two concepts to the reader: an abstract concept of place, and, subordinated by parenthesis, an actual place: ‘Ultima Thule (Hermaness)’. ‘Ultima Thule’ is defined as ‘the extreme limit of travel and discovery […] the highest or uttermost point or degree attained or attainable’ (OED). The term is derived from the ancients; Thule was, according to the Greek explorer Pytheas, the northernmost point of the world, a strange land which may or not have been Shetland (Iceland, Greenland and Norway are also in the frame). Ultima Thule is a place that originated in physical reality and came through repeated reinterpretation to represent more a subjective concept of northenness. Hermaness, by contrast, is real and concrete – a nature reserve one can visit. As the headland of Unst, it is the northernmost of the north island. Consequently, ‘Unst’ as a sequence of poems, addresses the significance of extremis, as much in an emotional register as a literal one.
Extremis necessitates confrontation with the self. In these poems, the speaker repeatedly challenges distance and remoteness in relation to their identity, and the north specifically. She asks: ‘How much further must I go[?]’ in ‘Ultima Thule’, only to answer herself in ‘Steekit Stimpa’, ‘The further north I go, the more / I must face myself’. ‘If I came for solitude, / this is not the place’, she concludes in ‘Muckle Flugga’, as the various natural presences of the island, which Green has given such personality, make themselves known with an irreverent baptism of guano. As with her Shetland myth poems, ‘Unst’ ascribes identities to natural surroundings, showing them explicitly at-odds with the self-seeking speaker. When in ‘A Visitation’, Green describes an encounter with an otter, the creature is reticent, concealing itself until ‘I had stopped searching’. Then, and only then, we are told, ‘he stared me out’. The speaker of ‘Unst’ is shown to be partly in error for their attempt to understand all nature and Shetland’s nature specifically, through the filtered lens of their own identity. Immersed in the northern lights, the speaker discovers ‘my compass is warped’, a line that demonstrates that whether empirical or emotive, the attempt to objectively measure sublime experiences in nature must fail. It is no coincidence that in the final line of ‘Unst’, Green draws a parallel of biblical doubt. ‘Like Thomas,’ she writes, ‘I put my hand in the cavity.’ The sequence pitches the subjective experience of landscape as almost a religious pilgrimage, where the divine is embodied not in human form, but in a torn sky and a dead porpoise’s skull. Landscape is not, as it is tempting to believe, an ideologically neutral space. Like religion, a degree of self-abnegation must take place in order to be present.
Given that Green shies away from empirical means of measuring the experience of landscape, we question whether even language offers adequate representation. That language is fraught is hinted at in ‘What Must Not Be Spoken on Water’, a poem which deals with the superstition against using direct language at sea, and revels in words whose sole purpose is misdirection. The idea of language as an imprecise tool – a troubling thought for any poet – may be one reason for Green’s careful use of Shetlandic and Scots. These are languages that are bound to the landscape and culture of Shetland, so their omission would be a strange thing indeed. Yet, rather than peppering the poems with occasional phrases for savour, Green’s every usage is well considered and inserted with evident relish. As a non-native speaker, Green must tread a careful line between participating in the language and mythologizing it. It is a difficult balance to strike. While the amalgamation of Shetlandic and English reads as well and appropriately, the glossary included at the end of the work has a curatorial zeal about it. These helpful definitions and notes will enhance the reader’s understanding. But does this enhance the poetry itself? Having made my way through it, I had to immediately reread the slim pamphlet, so as to soak up those nuances. However, it also adds an unfortunate tone of academic detachment which feels jarring. The force of the collection lies in reflection upon the immediacy of lived experience in a landscape. It is hard to fault Green on her commitment to promoting Shetlandic culture and Shaetlan as a language, yet one somehow wishes she had trusted her readers to do their own homework.
HappenStance Press promotes Flout by telling us that ‘Here is a poet whose work flouts all ordinary expectation’. I am prompted to wonder: what are these presumptive expectations, and how does Green ‘flout’ them? As far as ecocritical approaches go, this work should be textbook. Green tackles those features of landscape literature that have become traditional, almost tropeish. Green’s poetry meditates upon folk culture, and politicises physical space by interrogating notions of body and sensuality. Yet Green introduces something else. A meditation on self-identification and presence within a landscape, that is carefully contained within with the deft observations of nature in motion. Indeed, the very poem, ‘Flout’ from which the collection takes its title exemplifies something great contained within something small. ‘Flout’ depicts the speaker in the process of making ‘a square of wool prepared for spinning’. The apparent traditionalism and simplicity of this process – a craft technique that has been performed for generations – seem at first glance to be at odds with the other use of the word, as a term for disobedience. However, in this poem, this ancient craft process becomes an effective analogy for creativity and cultural assimilation. The speaker asks, ‘Why do I always expect it to be easy / to come out pure first time?’ At the end of the collection, we return to the idea of culture as a process. Flout has been worked and reworked in the same way as its namesake.
Green’s subtle exploration of identity has thus far relied on being present within the Shetland landscape. In this poem, the speaker is present in the interior space of creativity, but a creativity that is equally bound up in Shetlandic culture and history. There is a revolution in tiny things. The repetitions that are inherent to the task of shaping the flout bring the speaker into intimate, creative contact with the external world, ‘let [ting] loose / any dirt or flecks of peat’. In this final poem, Green does indeed flout our expectations, re-anchoring Flout as a collection by unifying subjective experience with the great, wide forces of nature, culture and elemental force.
Read some of Stephanie Green’s poems, first published with the GRB, here