Monday 24 April 2023

Review by Jane Simmons of "Kitchen Music" by Lesley Harrison

Lesley Harrison has published six collections of poetry, and now, in her first Carcanet collection, she turns her attention to the north and to the sea in poems which focus on northern lands and waters – to the Orkneys, and Iceland, their histories and stories, their flora and fauna, to northern seas, wild weather, whale-hunts.

In a foreword to the collection, Kirsty Gunn gives a powerful account of her own repeated and deepening encounters and engagements with these poems and tells the reader to expect "A book of poems, a book of voices. A book that is also a map, an almanac, a report – of histories, of stories, of lands and waters. A book of poems made and arranged in such a way as to create harbours and enclosures: the contained order of narrative brought to a wild scattering of events; a careful arrangement of whale bones on a gallery floor to tell the tale of that great singing creature now stilled to silence."

It is a book of poems which engage with other books, texts, poems – think Icelandic rune poems, sagas and folk-tales, the lives of Northumbrian saints, the personal diaries of sea-captains on whaling ships, glossaries of northern dialects. However, it is a book which also engages with music – with gaelic psalm, hymnals, and even the work of composer John Cage. There are poems which are songs – written in numbered parts, part songs – and the reader’s attention always being drawn to the musicality of even the smallest fragments of text. Sometimes, poems combine the two, books and music, to resemble the appearance and musicality of Anglo-Saxon verse – as illustrated in the opening poem:

Wou as in Wound 

WOU    as in wound
   HU    as in hunt
    AH    as in raft 
     LL   as in fall
      E    as in breech
WOU   as in bow
   HU    as in tump
    AH   as in slight
     LL   as in blink
      E    as in swell
WOU   as in fluke
   HU    as in tongue
    AH   as in ebb
     LL   as in oil
      E    as in jaw

WOU    as in run
   HU    as in calf
    AH   as in eye
     LL   as in blow
      E    as in breath 

WOU    as in sound
   HU     as in hull
    AH    as in wash
     LL    as in shelve
      E     as in dive

This is a collection to sit with.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher now PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for both the Mslexia Poetry Prize and The National Poetry Competition in 2022.

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