On Elaine Gaston’s The Lie of the Land

In ‘North Wind: Portrush’, a poem written whilst he was writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster in Coleraine (UUC) in the early ’80s, Derek Mahon memorably took the existential measure of the North Antrim seaboard:

I shall never forget the wind
On this benighted coast.
It works itself into the mind
Like the high keen of a lost
Lear-spirit in agony
Condemned for eternity
To wander cliff and cove
Without comfort, without love.[1]

Having been born and bred in the area, Elaine Gaston, from Ballycastle, east of Portrush, (and, incidentally, also an ex-UUC creative writing lecturer), knows this coast and its rural hinterland in a more down-to-earth manner than Mahon, and that knowledge imbues her debut collection with an old-fashioned but, to me, highly welcome love of landscape. (I should at this point state that I spent six years in Portrush from 1985, so Gaston writes of a part of the world that I’m familiar with, albeit as an outsider.) Right from the off, taking her cue from another fine poet from the North of Ireland, John Hewitt, Gaston charts the land as her own:

I know my way by the mossy stone,
the boggy field, the fairy thorn,
the house with the old milk churn stand,
the house which hides the bogeyman

(from ‘Early Map’)

From lines like these, which stake out an indelible sense of place, comparison could easily be drawn with Kavanagh or with Heaney (whose influence Gaston acknowledges in her notes), a feeling compounded by the poem’s beautifully-turned ending:

                    Townlands stretch to the east
and the west, the north and the south of us,

shining basalt in my mind,
falling water through my hands,
ripe blackberries on my tongue:
Drumtullagh, Dunseverick, Lisnagunogue.

The Lie of the Land moves, it seems, in a roughly chronological order, an autobiography of sorts, like many a first collection, but that works well, as it gives the collection a natural coherence. ‘Early Map’ is followed by three charming poems of childhood, in which her mother, with “her constant back”, features as a gently guiding influence. I recently saw and heard Gaston read her lovely sonnet, ‘Dunseverick’, at one of the wonderful Coffee-House Poetry evenings at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court and I was struck by the precise quality of her recall:

We splashed and charged and roared into the water,
came out mottled, numb; she squeezed dry our hair,
wrapped us in towels, shoved on windcheaters,
gave us hunks of wheaten slapped together
with a wedge of Edmund Black’s good cheddar
gone sweaty in the sun.

This is, of course, a scene that many people, myself included, could relate to, but Gaston invigorates the memory by the appropriately galloping rhythm created by the extra ‘and’ and by those perfect, musical participles – ‘mottled’, ‘shoved’, ‘slapped’, ‘gone sweaty’. These are words which both read well on the page and resound magically on the ear.

Gaston goes on to delineate for posterity, and without condescension, the ‘characters’ of her early years – ‘The Bread Man’ “who wore a winter hat / shaped like a Brown Batch”, and ‘The Vegetable Man’ who “held trays of freshly dug Queen’s, / Magilligan carrots, broad beans, turnips, parsnips, sprouts” – and the excitement (“I did anything for a book”) of ‘The Library Van’ “that called to ours every other Tuesday / about four o’clock”.

Equally excellent are some poems about/featuring her father, especially ‘Letting it Draw’:

My father taught me to make tea,
the tea only North Antrim farmers know,
in the dented metal pot where I hoked deep
for swollen leaves to spatter on the china sink.

Paradoxically, this is economical writing which says and implies so much: the respect for traditions and old ways handed down. That phrase “where I hoked deep” somehow takes on a metaphorical facet, as though, from a young age, Gaston was curious about the world and how it operates, even down to the alchemy of tea-making. Gaston’s narrative persona varies little from a straightforward depiction of events, slightly nostalgically, yet always to a point and purpose that the reader can discern. Most of the poems are written with the emotional distance that the third person brings. Sometimes, though, such as in ‘Keeping in Touch’ and ‘New Year’s Day’, an unflinching account (“Muck all over the windscreen, / cabbage and cream all over the car, / you against the steering wheel”) of the fatal car crash down a North Antrim lane of (presumably) an older sibling, Gaston uses the direct address of the second person to excellent effect.

As a woman who grew up in a Catholic family in the North of Ireland, it’s inevitable that Gaston has written several poems which relate directly or indirectly to the Troubles. In ‘Storm Damage’, she cleverly juxtaposes media coverage of the Great Storm of October 1987 with hoped-for news of the Birmingham Six; ‘Plastic Bullet’ relates – as a representative of all those who suffered from the effects of the security forces’ over-fond usage of firing plastic bullets – the phlegmatic attitude of a friend who was shot in the head (“she was just fifteen / a three-inch plate / where part of her skull used to be”); and elsewhere there are mentions of army checkpoints, of the casual use of violence (“a joyrider shot dead”), of a kneecapping victim, of the shootings in 2009 of two off-duty soldiers outside the Massereene Barracks in Belfast (the specular poem ‘Flashback’) and, with a large nod to Heaney, of the Disappeared. It’s in her outstanding poem ‘Rare Grooves’, though, that Gaston most effectively and movingly addresses the futility and absurdity of the military presence: it tells a superficially simple tale of Gaston (or a first-person persona) being stopped, as she drives along a quiet road through the Glens, by two soldiers, of whom one is Scottish and the other a Black Londoner:

he wants to check why
in the wilds of North Antrim
this Irish girl is blasting out
reggae records so rare
even he can’t get them

[…]

The Scottish one disnae have a baldy,
but I tell him, dinnae worrae,

on a good day from the mountain
I can see across the sea
to where he comes from.
He laughs

and suddenly we all wonder
where this scenario comes from,
so much removed from everything
this stop and search is meant to be,

so much like the film we’d rather star in.

(The film in question appears to be Terms of Endearment, as the poem makes references to Debra Winger and the moon.) The unlikely, yet natural humour of the scene is superbly brought out by Gaston’s perfectly paced unfolding of the story over 22 quatrains and is expertly reinforced by the use of colloquialisms (e.g. “disnae have a baldy”), as is the case in many of the other poems in the book. It’s a multi-layered poem, with the ‘sub-plot’ of another direct address, (seemingly) to a distant lover, and one which amply demonstrates what a skilful poet Gaston is. The variable lengths of the lines add to the tension of the situation, not just of the conflict but also of the narrator’s vulnerability, as “a woman alone, / and them not busy” on an isolated back-road. The poetic voice of women in the Troubles has perhaps been heard less over the years than those of their male counterparts, despite the excellence of poets like Colette Bryce and Sinéad Morrissey, and it’s good to see Gaston redressing the balance.

Most of all, Gaston writes particularly well of what Anne-Marie Fyfe, another tremendous Glens of Antrim poet, perceptively calls in her endorsement “the everyday complexities of north-of-Ireland life, the unrootedness of contemporary experience with its leavings and returnings, and the ineluctable shifts of the heart”: the lure of homecoming after university education in Oxford, the joy of watching her children, especially in the wonderful sonnet ‘Crows Glen, Belfast Hills’, echoing the earlier poems of her own childhood, and, of course, the beauty of the North Antrim landscape (“where land gives way / to the Atlantic”), with its fields, bracken, gorse, blackthorn, hazel, heather, downpours, “old tracks” and rugged wildness. This a rich and unmissable collection which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s worth reading it slowly, as each poem, always and expertly in apposite forms, is to be savoured. Great stuff.

Elaine Gaston, The Lie of the Land, Doire Press, 80pp., £9.

[1] From The Hunt by Night, Oxford University Press, 1982.

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