This was a slightly unusual event for the Literary Festival in two respects. Firstly, it comprised two poets performing consecutively, with only a vague theme of “deliberations of home” to connect them, in the words of Peggy Hughes introducing. Secondly, there was no opportunity for questions after the readings, meaning the poets’ only interaction with their captive audience was through their works. Fortunately, they did not disappoint.
Colette Bryce, performing first, won the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2003, and was Dundee University’s Poet-in-Residence between 2003 and 2005. She read from her most recent collection The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, but opened with a separate poem entitled “Dundee”, describing the train journey up the east coast past Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy and onwards, and the hay bales in fields like playing pieces in a “golden board game”.
The collection speaks a lot of her life and experiences growing up in Northern Ireland; the long poem “Derry” opens, describing a city of “suicides and riptides”, and schoolchildren hand in hand “like paper dolls”. “Re-entering the Egg” is “playing with scale” amid “childhood landscapes”; “the smallest breath knits round her like a shell”. Growing up, “the Brits” refers to the Army, and a beautiful image in one poem sees the narrator imagine dressing toy soldiers in dolls’ clothes, clearly evocative of the hostile environment that was her home country during the Troubles, and the yearning for peace among her family, friends and neighbours.
Other poems explore more domestic memories – “a giant’s hands might practice origami” with a gigantic paper road map, while “Magi” constructs the poignant image of a “mantelpiece nativity”, assigning biblical characters to the different liquor bottles arranged above a hearth in an array of “whisky, liberty and prayer”. The collection strays out of Ireland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to lament the closure of half of the city’s libraries in “A Library Book”, and Bryce returns to Dundee again outside the collection, with memories of learning to drive in a piece entitled “Car Wash”. A vein of wry humour runs through many of the pieces too – “Derry” assures us that Jesus was a Derryman, given that He was unemployed and living with his mum at the age of 33.
After a warm round of applause following her performance at the “cabaret mic” (in her words), Bryce ceded the stage to Jen Hadfield. A winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2008, her collection’s title Byssus comes from the fibrous tissue that “connects mussels to rock”, and, as such, represents “how we make ourselves at home in the world – how we anchor ourselves”.
The coastal theme continues with the opening poem “Lichen” – their “black and golden ears” and bivalves and puffballs are all fruitful sources of inspiration for the Shetland-based Hadfield. One poem recalls taking children from a school in Birmingham on a trip to the Devonshire hills, and how, when their iPhones were returned to them in the evening, they were “cracked open like geodes” beneath the “hot perturbations of Sirius”.
Hadfield’s soft, dulcet tones were haunting as she presented remarkable pastoral images – “Hydra”, on planting a garden, talks of “spades hewn”, and “turned roots parching”. A daisy is “one little sun against the sky”, standing up to being pulled by the “thread of wind”; a mushroom resembles a “severed head”, the moon “a bashed swede”, and a gate swings “like the chapped mouth of the wind”. “Wind turns like a great water wheel”, and “these acts exceed themselves like trout mouthings”. Poems, she said, are “little machines to remember themselves” – “themselves” being “something precious”.
One of her strongest works is “The Plinky Boat”, containing striking lines like “the present is a fine line; a puff of air will destroy it”, “things meta-flower so readily into their present selves”, and it ends with the profound observation, true of every piece of art: “the poem wouldn’t exist, but we couldn’t stay”. She ended her reading with the collection’s final piece “The Moult” – addressed to the animal in question, it instructs to “shelter in the hoodoos and pluck your fur”, and “scratch off your dream coat of silver ”. Whilst Bryce’s verses tend to dwell in urban settings, and Hadfield’s in rural ones, they are united in their strength in capturing locations and their memories in words – a thoroughly entertaining revue.