The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Air for Sleeping Fish
Gillian Ferguson

Air for Sleeping Fish
Gillian Ferguson
Newcastle upon Tyne 1997

Merchandise Links

UK Edition:

US Edition:

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:

Basement moles,
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 / as Janus.’

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


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review