Thursday 30 June 2022

Review by Sally Evans of "The Last Days of Petrol" by Bridget Khursheed

This first poetry book by Bridget Khursheed, who lives in the Borders near Melrose, is full of powerful, distinctive poems, mostly about countryside phenomena, with a sense of continuity through ecological awareness and awareness of the present. Its seventy-eight pages, packed with poems, display a certainty of vocabulary, rhythm and phrase unusual in a first book of poems. There’s the same certainty about line ends in the poems, which vary from page width to a few having very short lines.

Some of these poems are essentially ‘nature’ poems, some imply family and children, a few are quietly polemic, like the poem about Helen Duncan, a well-researched and unusual take on the Scottish woman who became involved in Churchill’s war propaganda, or the title poem, about frantic car messages round the country, descending to

           empty journeys,
           fast except by speed cameras,

           and the trip to the shops
           things nobody needs packed
           by a teenager …

Whether these poems are set in her local Borders with their unknown lanes and riversides, Edinburgh’s Easter Road, Kelvingrove, the Eildons, or Darnick, Khursheed’s strong sense of place gives a background to the range of poems, in which there is always a link between the clearly pictured observations and the observer. In City wood above the bypass,

           I am walking through the machine-gun wood,
           looking for siskins.

and then we are told what she finds:

          the path is needled
          and high above the pitched notes of crossbill
          and goldcrest
          are the blown wires that tear up the sky

to the surprise conclusion:

         I am looking for siskins in the pinewood
         and instead I find only me.

All he vocabulary is precise and consistent. There are a few country words: cleavers, scroggs (perhaps the most obscure, meaning crabapples), technical words when wanted, freshly used words: 'Toys abraded  / into nightmare in the silence,' or 'Rucksacked, the baby cries for home.'  

With so many people publishing poems these days, and it’s a good feature of Scottish culture that poetry can thrive in this way, not too much is generally expected of a first book. But this one raises the game. It raises the hopes and discoveries of the poetry reader and shows us a live, properly managed, healthy, modern, country Scottish English. Not a line wrong, not a word out of place.

About the reviewer
Sally Evans edited Poetry Scotland from 1997-2018, and was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2022. 

You can read a review of Sally Evans's novel, Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets, on Everybody's Reviewing here

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