Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby have achieved a fascinating read. I hesitate to assign this volume to the nomenclature of “poetry collection”, because these poems are so much more than that. Folklore, legend, history and social commentary interweave, and, like all good poetry, the more you pick at the threads, the more colour you find.
You don’t need to know about the Finnish epic poem Kalevala to enjoy the poetry – the imagery is bright and immediate, such as in Bath Time where “the gurgle of the plumbing”, “the sea’s muffled voice” and “beady black eye in the spider plant” summon the imagination. However, the useful notes both in the Forward and in a glossary at the back help to draw the uninitiated into an entire world. Rightly so; these words are based upon a creation myth. We’re talking big ideas here.
The main thread of the story follows Vainamoinen, the so-called Old Man of Wainola, a shaman-style figure who was born of the ocean after seven years in the womb (by sheer coincidence, or, more likely, the magic of poetry, this resonates with my own poem Seal Man*). The search for Sampo is on; a magical artefact which will bring healing in the same vein as the Holy Grail and other epic-story quests. The voices vary from the Old Man himself, through the young and luckless girl, Aino (to whom the Old Man is pledged and who runs away and drowns), to the hornet who poisons the iron at the forge, ensuring iron ever after would be thirsty for blood.
But this isn’t some old fairy tale to consign to history; the modern day is here every step of the way, from iron mining’s legacy of ill-health and death for its workers (“you hear the voices of crushed miners”) in The Quest through to car theft and vandalism in Walking in Circles. This is the voice of the North, sung in varying rhythms and forms, from sestina in Battle Rune to the delightful loose poems of Flotsam and Jetsam which float in and out of the series, just as their name suggests.
The style, too, is eclectic. You may wonder how such lines such as “an eagle’s flight among the clouds” can sit comfortably with “Nice One!/So muggings here says just show me to the anvil.” Somehow the reader has to allow it to work, just as, at times, the Kalevalan metre seems to jar with an English ear more easily attuned to iambic pentameter. The poems are full of wit, with lovely accessible titles, such as “The Trouble with Wizards” and “Be Careful What You Fish for”, with a constant theme that dips in and out of time, leaving the reader feeling kind of timeless, kind of afloat. Very apt for a work inspired by the creation myths.
And just as in the tradition of the Finnish stories, these poems are to be celebrated orally, with a feel for depth, whilst managing to avoid elitism. If you haven’t already, see if you can catch Bob and/or Andy in one of their live readings.
Another triumph for Northern writers. This is definitely a book that promises to make a mark!
Sampo : Heading Further North is available from Red Squirrel Press
*Silcock A.J (2014) Seal Man in Taking Responsibility for the Moon. Teesside:Mudfog