Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield
Jen Hadfield's winning the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize for this collection seems truly sensational. Since the UK's most prestigious poetry prize is usually given to older male poets, the 30 year-old woman poet's success could be seen as a radical event. Furthermore, the ecologically conscious discourse of Nigh-No-Place can also be seen as a new, exciting development in the context of mainstream English poetry. Little wonder that this book being awarded the lucrative prize indicates, according to The Independent, ‘that British Poetry has entered remarkable new territory'.
Upon my first encounter with Nigh-No-Place, however, I found little in it that could be considered new. As someone with a keen interest in any post-modernist and/or avant-garde movement away from the centres of poetic tradition, I was disappointed to find nothing in Hadfiled's treatment of the ecological world that could be called progressive or ecopoetic. Her depictions of rural Scottish and Canadian scenery and fauna seem to belong to the old pastoral traditions that today's radical ecopoetry rejects.
In ‘Hedgehog, Hamnavoe', for example, Hadfield's speaker has absolute power over the animal, and treats the powerless mammal like a plaything:
Drunk, I coddle it like a crystal ball
hellbent the realistic mysteries
should amount to more than guesswork
The first line alone is enough to make anyone remotely sympathetic to animal rights cringe. The speaker's apprehension of the animal in a moment of drunkenness; her ‘coddling' it as though the hedgehog is an utterly pathetic and incapacitated being; and her assigning it the identity of a manmade object via a simile – perhaps indicating that the animal as it is does not really warrant our interest – all make for, at the very best, conventional nature poetry in the tradition of previous T. S. Eliot Prize winner Ted Hughes. As such, the many animals represented in Hadfield's poetry are just that: representations of the poet's desire to capture, own and control the wildlife for her, and her reader's, amusement.
The most cringe-inducing poem of this acclaimed collection has to be ‘Paternoster', which, according to The Guardian, presents ‘the Lord's Prayer as spoken by a draught horse'. This may sound like an anodyne attempt at comically merging Christianity with Mr. Ed; but, perhaps more problematically, here the poet erases the horse's reality and subjectivity, reducing the animal to something for the human author to have fun with, a voiceless puppet for the poet's voice-giving ego. If this is ‘remarkable new territory' for British poetry, I fear to think what the unremarkable, old territory may have been like.
But this is perhaps precisely why of all the young poets working in Britain today, it is Hadfield that should be recognised and celebrated by the poetic establishment: hers is not at all a ‘new' – remarkable or otherwise – poetics, but a loyal continuation of stubbornly unchangeable traditions. For better or for worse, her horse and hedgehog belong to the same literary menagerie as Hughes's crow and Eliot's cats.
On the basis of these poems, there can be no doubt that, as Hadfield herself mentioned in an interview with AbeBooks.com, she has ‘a fascination with the wildlife, or a hunger for big skies'; but this ‘fascination' is not similar to what an ecopoet like Gary Snyder would describe (in Earth House Hold) as ‘a trembling awe, leaving one grateful and humble'. Her ‘hunger' is instead an expression of human supremacy and is geared towards taking possession of the natural world. In ‘The Mandolin of May', for example:
My river – warm shallows – rocks and gumbo mud, fish-soup and dumpling. The glacial rapids – mine, mine like an ice-cream headache.
One reason for my initial misgivings regarding this collection is that, in this age of manmade ecological crises and an impending environmental Armageddon, I believe the least one can expect of young intelligent poets is to question the basic assumption of human superiority over the natural world; yet the above quotation conveys nothing other than a truculent desire to own nature – through the repetition of the first person possessive pronouns – as well as a reduction of the ecological to food motifs – ‘fish-soup', ‘dumpling' and ‘ice-cream' – there for human consumption.
Upon my second reading of Nigh-No-Place, however, I was so impressed with Hadfield's command of lyrical devices and her ear for the sonic intricacies of contemporary British English that I am now prepared to – somewhat – overlook her anthropocentrism and praise her ability to write some of the most vibrant lyric poetry around. Hence, if the overall argument of these poems is, in my view, deeply retrograde, their style is energetic, resourceful, and conveys a connoisseur's awareness of how the phonetics of words and sentences can be distilled (via all available poetic devices as well as a playful application of the rhythms and idioms of Shetland dialect) to the point that her words' discourse and meaning become almost entirely secondary to their sound and imagery.
The subject matter of ‘Still Life with the Very Devil', for example, is a rather mundane scene: a kitchen. But Hadfield's ‘still life', verbal picture is full of surprise and unexpected energy, e.g., ‘The last clove of garlic spouts a yellow talon'. What makes this line work is its use of a compound metaphor that suggests something metamorphic and perhaps monstrous taking place, alongside the consonance in ‘last', ‘clove', ‘garlic', etc., as well as assonance in ‘clove', ‘yellow' and ‘talon': a superb, and superbly compact, blend of rhetorical and prosodic devices. This poem ends with the kitchen almost literally coming to life in the poet's vigorous linguistic simulation:
The sink is plugged with duckstock.
Dishes stacked like vertebra.
Under the broiler,
turned sausages ejaculate.
Another poem in Nigh-No-Place that makes very effective use of poetic devices is ‘Teatros', in which a simple description of creatures inhabiting a rockpool is made funky and musical. Even the aforementioned ‘Paternoster' includes some clever rhymes and alliterations to bring some charm to the author pretending to be a horse pretending to be a human pretending to be speaking to the Christian god: ‘Give our daily wheat, wet / Whiskers in the sonorous bucket'.
All in all, Jen Hadfield's linguistic competence and poetic gifts, whilst not entirely compensating for the unsatisfying content of her poems, mark her as a bright and significant newcomer in contemporary British poetry. One can hope that as she develops her oeuvre and continues to collect prizes – to follow, perhaps, in the footsteps of another Scottish woman poet, Carol Ann Duffy, the first female Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom – she may also acquire some of Duffy's political and ethical convictions. Poetry devoid of something new and pertinent to communicate, no matter how stylistically accomplished, is unlikely to stand the test of time.