An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
c/o Arts Department
The Stables
Stewart Park
ISBN 1 899503 71 4

visit the website of Mudfog

NHI review home page
FAQ page
Notes for Publishers

book reviews
other media

Web design by Gerald England
This page last updated: 11th December 2007.

In THE IMPROVEMENTS Sheila Nichols writes about the Scotland of her childhood and youth before she moved to England. These are high energy poems of great inventiveness and humour: her memories of life in Scotland still as vital today as when she lived there.

This approach to her poetry is highlighted by poems such as HIGHLAND GATHERING, BROXBURN, ABERDEEN, 1944 and DREAMING. In the last the unpredictable sentiment of lines like

	There you are with the First Prize Cup
	clad in a long gown with a Puritan collar
	like your mother's white satin blouse
	that meant the dinner dishes were done
underscores the memories of time past when mothers dressed up after the household chores were done. Carefully written, in the right tones for such images, it winds down to the final image of the child whose mother sternly reminds her,
	Time for the bus, you'll get no prizes lying there.
The use of the vernacular adds to the sense of the heightened sentiments and insights that are heartfelt to the writer, and that will be commonplace for some of her readers.

TAR BABIES is a moving portrait of street life during the Second World War, when the tar-spreaders (Tarry Biler) arrived to shovel

	heaps of granite chips, silver in the black
	liquid treacle.
The street urchins don't seem overly scarred by the trauma of war and Nichols opts for the far safer surface of the story. She remains always the narrator, in the end not taking the reader much beyond where a prose version would have taken them. Nevertheless TAR BABIES is skilfully written on its own terms and the emotions come through clearly enough. Doubtless many readers will be able to relate to it.

The title poem, THE IMPROVEMENTS, recounts the story of what happened when people had to leave their homes when The Glen became due for The Improvement:

	That afternoon we cooried under plaids 
	in caves above the clachan. 
	Watched flames leap yellow against white snow, 
	byres that stood dark and solid 
	crumple into an ashy heap. 
	Seventy years, yet still I see my father's face 
	set like the rocks around us.
Between commitment to the story and its presentation, the poem is a satisfying tale. From the opening line,
	The factor came early
	A long way from our home
the poem pushes the reader from shock to empathy and then to sympathy for the plight of those hounded from their homes. It is a shared public world of earnest discourse and newspaper reportage; a poem wrung out of the author's being.

Nichols' poetry shines most strongly when her vision is on the immediate, the natural, the personal, even the ugly, and when an impulsive imaginative energy has scope to play poems as clear and fully realised as BROXBURN, THE TRAVELLERS, COMING APART and ARSONISTS or the opening poem of the collection HIGHLAND GATHERING. Perhaps what stands out with a poem like HIGHLAND GATHERING is its openness, the sense that the poem bends and twists spontaneously:

	Dream sunny uplands 
	bagpipes skirl, cabers thud 
	stones hurt your feet 
	through thin soles of laced pumps 
	long grass prickles your legs 
	when you climb onto the stage 
	you set out the swords 
	bow to the crowd, and dance.
The rhythm of the voice is childlike, innocent, always engaged in seeing more, unable to stop itself. The poem carries the joy of the dance. The exuberance of what is seen and experienced, caught in fresh images, rising and moving forward, finds a convincing idiom and cadence:
	The taste of blaeberries explodes 
	in a wild sweetness 
	prints carbon paper purple 
	on your lips 
	ecstatic as acid drops 
	when honey dissolves to tartness 
	sharp as a spike.
Even the small matters of each day can become transformed into a journey that probes, questions, takes the reader somewhere different. SCOTTISH TRAVELLERS is one such poem with its delightful sense of specific realities:
	A cart clatters along the lane, 
	pots and pans tied to the spars, 
	with bairns in cotton frocks from ragbags 
	collected round the doors 
	worn over dark jerseys, so wool-clad arms 
	spring like stalks from pale puff sleeves.
Sights and sounds shift and eddy around the reader. Beyond any messages, any desire to speak a worthy theme, the poem lives its own dynamics of a past life gone but not forgotten. Nichols has the gift of being able to channel her energies into these stories of long ago with great precision and recall.

A poem like ABERDEEN, 1944, recounts a journey through landscape varying from

	The road grows bumpy
to the arrival at school along roads lined with
	statues of our heroes
The flexible rhythms of the poem, its fidelity to experience and its inventive use of unfamiliar words such as "cassies", "setts", "roddens" and "dockens", carry the reader along with it, without any sense of the message being overstated.

The poem ARSONISTS recounts Nichols' childhood. It's a memory poem, a poem that unequivocally takes as its task the recreation of a significant childhood event. Nichols' imagination and gift for shifting tones and nuances effectively reinvents a lost world. Humour and precise detail

				... rusty key
	slung on a nail battered into the brickwork
and the forbidden
	kindling chopped with the old red axe
	burned ecstatically in its fire-basket of tin pram
all find a place here.

I particularly admire Nichols' medley of perceptions, encounters and memories that she uses to guide us to the edge of a world many of us have forgotten or never knew. All that has gone before in the poems is given special poignancy in the last poem THE CYCLISTS:

	This is the last time we will hurl our song 
	careless into the ether; 
	but we don't know this now.
Whatever she writes about, Nichols always remains connected with the natural world and is sustained by it and even when she probes darker subjects, the sense of wonder it inspires shines through. She uses language and dialect powerfully to make us experience the past as she does, to hear the same sounds, to feel the same air, to see with her eyes those details, customs and traditions she sees, that have long faded and disappeared. Her poems shine with light, movement, colour and image that stay in the mind long after the book is closed.

reviewer: Patricia Prime