Book review: Poyums, by Len Pennie

Written in Scots and English, Len Pennie’s debut collection marks her out as a poetic voice to be reckoned with, writes Joyce McMillan

There are not many writers with the power to enrage their critics simply by giving a title to their first book of poems.

But Len Pennie is that woman. Raised in Airdrie around the turn of the millennium, in a family where everyone spoke Scots, Pennie emerged into a kind of fame in the early months of the pandemic, when she began to publish a Scots Word Of The Day via her Twitter account, immediately attracting many fans, and also a fierce army of male detractors who found something about her youthful, glamorous, female and Scots-speaking persona simply intolerable.

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Perhaps it was the fact that Pennie refuses to conform to the disempowering idea that the Scots language, and its literature, are essentially things of the past; comforting, couthy, comic or cheeky, hopelessly dowdy, and pretty much sexless. At any rate, the avalanches of filth and vituperation piled on Pennie via social media were such that, although she continued with her Word of the Day project, she had to strictly limit her social media presence; and a tiny sample of that response, in all its raw obscenity and hatred, features in one of the poems in this collection, titled simply “In Their Own Words.”

The collection also contains a particularly robust response to these rows in the shape of an update of Robert Burns’s Address To The Haggis, retitled Address Tae The Leid, in which Pennie defends her language as vigorously as Burns defends Scotland’s often despised national dish. Away from the culture war over the Scots tongue, though, most of Pennie’s collection explores what she describes – in a postscript interview – as “an attempt at healing”, after she left behind an abusive relationship.

Written about half in English and half in Scots, and always in rhyme, the poems therefore embody a raging third-wave feminism that can hardly contain its cold fury at the abuse and outright violence women still often suffer in intimate relationships with men; and she returns again and again to the way in which the “not all men” argument is used to silence women’s pain, and to minimise the emotional and physical violence they experience. “If perpetual vigilance fails me, what then?” she writes in her poem The Fear. “You won’t hear our screams while you shout, Not all men.”

Lennie’s style is more discursive than lyrical – although she does produce some stunning images, as in the collection’s opening poem, Honey – and she certainly returns often to the same ideas, dwelling on the temptations of suicide (which she firmly rejects), her feelings of guilt towards men she has failed to love, and the idea of woman as muse to the male artist, rather than creator in her own right, which rouses her to fury. “This story is mine, from the cover to spine,” she writes in the poem Narrative, “and the narrative I will control.”

Just occasionally, though, she turns her eyes to the wider scene, touching on the politics of gay rights and abortion, and nailing male politicians’ repellent habit of deploring violence against women “as the father of a daughter”, as if they saw no problem until their daughters were born; and it’s tempting to speculate that future collections of Pennie poems might contain more of this sharp political intelligence, both in elegant English couplets, and in Scots that ranges from sharp wit, to deep and loving appreciation of all that supports her.

Len PennieLen Pennie
Len Pennie

And always, Pennie already – in this first collection – shows an impressive command of poetic technique, mainly dodging the doggerel risks of strongly rhyming verse, and sometimes showing an almost Shakespearean command of how to make a sentence flow through a complex rhythmic structure. As a professional writer, Pennie has undergone a baptism of fire; but this intense and remarkable collection now marks her out as a poetic voice to be reckoned with – strong, tested, skilful, driven, and facing firmly towards the future.