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Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

This 66 page collection of poems arrives with translations in Scots, Gaelic, Doric, Orcadian and a host of other Scots dialects – there’s Flemish and Dutch translations too. The main delivery comes from substantial poems written by Chris Powici which have been transcribed, essentially, by Scots poets into local speech. The result opens a rich soundscape of regional locution.

         Chris Powici’s poems find unity through a field of concerns that connect in time, space and locality. His poems put a finger on particular synchronicities of observations, memories and experience that manifest, mainly through acts of nature.

         ‘Lamlash Nights’ (p.52) begins with gulls settling for evening that, ‘put their faith in café roofs / and car park walls / even the little iron-coloured waves’, the observation broken by the playful thought of grabbing nearby anchoring chains and hauling in a small boat or even the local ferry, complete with a cargo of monks, before snapping back to observation of locality: ‘meanwhile the chitter of gull / the push of the tide’. The poem moves again and quickly to abstraction and reflective thought

                  everything’s as ordinary and holy as bread or rain

                  as the way I remember my mother’s hand on my sleeve

                  pale, liver-spotted, so thin

                  it seemed no more than the weight of a glove

and concludes in conflating observation of locality while thoughts stretch ever outward over the sea and higher into the night sky

                  beyond Holy Isle, the moon

                  – that shining, far-out buoy –

                  rides the black swell

                  making sense of the depths

         Cosmic allusions are apparent, the final verse places weight on all that has possibly occurred for millennia juxtaposed with the time, held within the poem. The word ‘depths’ reaches out not only to the deepness of a moon-governed sea but in every direction of time and space. What is arrived at is the subject of the poem is the poem itself and not any single part of it. Those elements stand as content.

         There is nothing cold or academic about the poems in Look, Breathe  – quite the opposite; warmth flows in appreciation of people

                  the passengers talk about grandchildren

                  and weather and who’s died

                  and who’s still with us by the grace of God

                                                                        ‘Happens’ (p.46)

         In the poem ‘Wild Summer’ (p.22), dedicated to the memory of nature poet Angus Dunn, Powici is walking the great outdoors, observing the quality of light on a late afternoon in Glen Tye. Recent weather has featured ‘blinding rain’ with ‘hills lost to thick noonday mist’, when

                  A raven lifts from a fencepost

                  and gives itself to the cold, marvellous air

                  pitching and wheeling

                  as if there’s no tomorrow, as if there’s

                  only ever hunger, longing, flight – here, now

He captures this moment then sets it free, turning to speak directly and in revelation to the absent Angus Dunn 

                  and this, as you know, is the real poem Angus –

                  a lone dark bird telling the truth about the world

                  telling it well –

                  not these words

Four lines to which aspiring poets and established poets alike should be directed. Powici uses that moment of change to usher in powerlessness of poetic words when faced with the very essence of poetry itself.

         There’s a Who’s Who of translators at the end of the book, along with several glossaries attending to words in dialect and, turning to the translations, the reader becomes aware of just how much local colour is poured into the rewritten poems. In the translations language becomes beautifully strange, often glancing off the English glyph but emitting an aural mystery from an age that seems almost lost.

         Side by side, the original poems and translations illustrate how ‘the mind of language’, distinct as it ever wants to be, races to embrace another. That spirit evident in Stephanie Van De Peer’s search for a suitable translation for ‘fox bark’ – see her note (p.61).

Ric Hool 12th February 2022

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