Book review: Moder Dy (Mother Wave) by Roseanne Watt

Roseanne Watt
Roseanne Watt
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To some extent, a debut poetry collection will always be an act of navigation, with the poet as pathfinder. Moder Dy, however, the first book of poems from Shetlander Roseanne Watt, is an extraordinarily intricate and multi-layered exercise in literary triangulation.

At the most basic, physical level, Watt locates herself within the landscape of her native Shetland. In the first line of the opening poem, “Haegri” (Heron), dedicated to her partner, the musician Stuart Thomson, she writes of a time he mapped his “bonhogas” – the Shetland word for a spiritual or childhood place. Then, in the poems that follow, she introduces us to some bonhogas of her own: the “selkie steps” where she once found a dead seal; an abandoned building at Quoys on Unst, “a place of gaps”; and the Mareel arts centre in Lerwick, from which she and a friend emerged late one night to see “the other show… / the aurora, the dancers, unspooling / their reels of green across the sky.”

There’s also a sense of the poet locating herself within a literary tradition: the poem “Raga Tree” is dedicated to the great Shetland poet and novelist Robert Alan Jamieson, and in “Akker” (meaning fragments or ruin), she strolls fearlessly into Seamus Heaney territory, musing on “some ill-luckit / bog wife… so perfectly preserved / you could trace the taste / of her own last supper.”

At its core, however, Moder Dy is an exercise in linguistic navigation, one which involves plotting a careful course between two very different ways of speaking and thinking about the world. In an introductory note, Watt writes that, although she grew up speaking a fluid mixture of English and the Shetland dialect Shaetlan, once she started school “it was as though both English and dialect had bifurcated in my mind,” leaving her with the nagging, ever-present question: “which one?”

In Moder Dy, the answer seems to be, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at the same time. The poems in pure Shaetlan have facing translations and there’s a glossary at the back of the book to help with the hybrid poems, so those unfamiliar with the dialect can enjoy such expressions as “hushiebaa” (lullaby), “drush” (drizzle) and “wadderheads” (columns of cloud). And if the poem “Saat i de Blod” (Salt in the Blood”) suggests that the poet feels a certain responsibility to give voice to her linguistic inheritance (it ends with her grandmother telling her: “Dese wirds / ir my hansel [gift] tae dee. / Tak dem; gie dem / a pulse”) there is never a sense of the poet being constrained by duty. Unlike some of Hugh MacDiarmid’s experiments in “synthetic Scots,” in which it sometimes feels as if arcane Scots words are being shoehorned in for effect, here the flitting between English and Shaetlan never feels less than natural. Poetry books are rarely described as unputdownable. This one is. - Roger Cox

Moder Dy, (Mother Wave), by Roseanne Watt, Polygon, £8.99