SHEILA NICHOLS: THE IMPROVEMENTS
c/o Arts Department
ISBN 1 899503 71 4
visit the website of Mudfog
Web design by
This page last updated: 11th December 2007.
|SHEILA NICHOLS: THE IMPROVEMENTS|
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 doneunderscores 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 earlyto
A long way from our homethe 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 bumpyto the arrival at school along roads lined with
statues of our heroesThe 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 brickworkand the forbidden
kindling chopped with the old red axe burned ecstatically in its fire-basket of tin pramall 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|