The abysmally titled Air for Sleeping Fish is a fine collection,
all the more impressive for being the poet’s first, although Gillian
Ferguson has appeared previously in the Bloodaxe anthology Making
for Planet Alice. It is very much a volume, ordered and shaped
as a whole, with a richness of echo and intra-textual allusion;
colours and shapes recur – to give the volume the texture of landscape.
And landscape is Ferguson’s most distinctive mode of writing,
typically the landscapes of Scottish winter, life retreated into
seed, full of vivid potential. Ferguson’s voice is confident;
it is a measure of her confidence that that voice is in some ways
‘traditional’, formally unexperimental – nearly every poem here
is written in short stanzas of short unrhymed lines – unapologetically
adjectival, focussed on the natural, even bardic.
The poem ‘Reclaiming the Garden’ images the gradual encroachments
of natural rhythms after the death of the gardener:
we surface to labour
until air and blood
christen black soil –
we set tame green fires
to burn this wasteland down.
The gradual encroachment appears as a slow-motion rebellion which
is nonetheless ferocious in its conviction; the erasure of demarcating
boundaries, the poet’s sense of the richnesses which subsist in
marginal space, gives the poem a lightly-handled political resonance
of femaleness and Scottishness.
‘First Flat’ has the speaker setting up house and renovating
the flat of a woman who has died; it is one of a number of poems
in which space appears to be indelibly marked by the absence of
those who were once (evanescently) present:
Blood on my fingers,
I christen my home with sweat,
strip her cold cocoon…
Space is renewed, its new inhabitation inaugurated, again in terms
of birth and baptism and naming, in which the faded identity of
the previous resident will remain a lingering presence. ‘Each
Man Is an Island’ takes a simple fabular theme, in this case the
paradoxical separateness felt in a love relationship, and refracts
it through a knotty richness of symbolic landscape which leaves
the simplicity of thought beautifully in place, ending with the
classical image, ‘But love’s smile / is two-faced, four-lipped /
The classical resonance is again felt in ‘Perpetual Winter’,
which enacts a lovely recapture of the Proserpine myth, domesticated
and settled in the Scottish landscape. The second stanza below
has also a light and fruity echo of Keats:
Prising six ruby hearts
from the pomegranate’s bloody comb,
she burst them with guilt on her palate,
until her mouth ran like a wound
six months of shackled light;
seeds the prison of riotous flowers.
Ferguson casts familial, erotic and professional relationships
through the colours and textures of her landscapes. A forceful
poet of nature with a keen, though distant, political awareness
and a sense of classical resonance, Ferguson reminds me a lot
of (the unjustly neglected) Robert Wells. Her first collection
is mature and rewarding; we must expect her to develop fast.
I do hate that title, though.
Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw