Grahaeme Barrasford Young, Routes of Uncertainty, (Original Plus, 2014), 88pp., £8, ISBN 978-0-9570197-5-1
Reviewed by Luigi Marchini
This collection of poems is founded on Young’s knowledge of, and passion for, Scotland; its landscape, its geology, its mathematics. And it is this science – an accessible, compassionate science – that sets this book apart. It really is a deep breath of fresh Highland air.
Divided into three parts, it is the first part (which bears the collection’s name) that is the strongest. The first poem, the marvellous ‘Absolutes’, has the feel of Stevens about it with the five central tercets focussing on separate images and the inversion of the first and last stanzas questioning our conception of the ‘idea’. The penultimate stanza is particularly beautiful:
a spider exploring my face by night
alive because for long enough
I think it is you
and it is this tenderness which permeates the book that gives the poems their charge.
The extended metaphors of the sonnet ‘Relationship’ (the third poem in the book) show a poet on top of his game with the poem resonating on more than one level. It explores the relationship between man and landscape, ‘Dusk fails perspective’ and ‘Hill becomes boulder’ by investigating the way we look at nature, or rather how it appears (or doesn’t appear) to us. In essence when ‘a full moon shrinks’ Young is saying that it is our perception of our natural environment that changes, the failing of ‘perspective’. Of course the title of the poem gives lie to another reading. The whole poem can be taken to be about human relationships, the ‘limestone’ morphing ‘to granite’ (the ‘soft’ person in the early stages of a relationship becoming as ‘hard’ as granite) and is indicative of the way we change as people and consequently how we appear to our partners. A ‘full moon’ is a beautiful thing and is less so when it ‘shrinks’, so the early stages of ‘head over heels’ love abates with time and ‘drifts off’. Young’s sensitive response to the landscape is perfectly demonstrated by the poem’s skilful and subtle ending – ’dusk becomes night’.
But he doesn’t stop here and the exploration of the relationship between man and landscape is what drives the whole book forward, with practically every poem touching on this subject, giving the collection its central theme. He uses metaphor skilfully throughout the book and his grasp of poetic techniques, especially sibilance, is both adroit and apt.
There are also moments when Young lets himself go and his poems become a sort of stream of consciousness; but all these poems have a common aim – to get to the truth of why we are. It’s this fusion of the physical landscape and the existential which gives his poems a nervous energy which is all too rare in contemporary poetry. He asks questions of the reader, of himself:
can an essence made of memory’s loss
ease this knowledge of extinction?
[from ‘Knowledge of perspective’]
and this questioning is evident even in his ‘childhood’ poems. Two of these, ‘Fear of flying, aged 8’ and ‘A second look at disaster, still aged 8’ explore the same incident in differing ways; the former by taking a third person, almost reportage viewpoint whereas the latter is very much in the first person with the author’s childhood memory simply evoking a sense of both wonder and horror. The fact that Young looks at the same incident in one way and then approaches it in another is evidence of his continual search to arrive at some sort of truth. In fact you could say the book itself is a search (and a journey which the reader is part of) and as such it succeeds in the most part.
The poems about his family are among the most successful, primarily because they are constructed more tightly. Each word seems to carry extra weight and the reader senses an undercurrent of sadness beneath the words. Take the following couplet for example, ‘When later your shadow waved / from a ridge we’ll never reach’ (‘Knowledge of perspective’). Or the heart wrenchingly beautiful
What now can I resurrect
to interrupt silence
as I once did with touch?
And speaking of beautiful, there are some lines throughout the book this writer would happily ‘borrow’: ‘Dead is many-boned’ (‘Hypothermia’), and ‘Space was broken’ (‘Moon Landing’), for instance, which is to say that it is a very fine collection indeed.
It could be stronger though. The poems towards the end of the book seem to ‘say’ the same thing in a round about way: ‘Transformation’ and ‘Pointless of Certainty’ for example both investigate ideas of past and future but in a similar verbose way (both poems stretch over 3 pages). Prudent editing would have helped here and in other poems, in terms of the poems themselves, but also over the collection as a whole. The book consists of 53 poems so a crisscrossing of ideas is inevitable but it does also muddy the waters to some degree for the reader. When confronted with a poetry collection the reader is looking for each poem to speak to them differently and if they do not then perhaps some should be omitted. But these details do not detract from the collection too much. It is still an exciting read and it does delve into the author’s (and the reader’s) past and future. Happily, as in the best art, Young never provides answers:
…how we’d know
what each answer meant,
if it made sense,
connected with any reality?