The fifty-six poems that comprise The Steel Garden respond to the closure of the Glengarnock Steelworks. Lorna J Waite was brought up close to the steelworks and in the shadow of their closure in 1985. She evokes the sulphur of the furnaces and the comradeship of the workers, elegises the losses in human and community terms, and proposes strategies for compensation and transformation.
Potentially I seem to be a very good—but at the same time challenging—reader for The Steel Garden. Good because her theme of ‘male’ industrial dereliction and feminist resistance and rebirth is very congenial. Challenging because, whilst I want that rebirth, and whilst recognising that the process is necessarily ‘messy’, I want at times to see it body forth in yet more vibrant form. In The Steel Garden the wonderful bairn is breathing—we hear that breathing—though the individuality of its existence would grow with some swaddling removed.
Here is the main part of the sixteenth poem, one of the shortest:
|On Looking at a Drawing of the Raws|
A culture without a camera drew itself—
Simple graphite marks outline the imagination of home,
Name the streets now razed over, redefined—
Neither idealisation nor humility are present
In remembering the ironworks village.The Raws were in them,
The furnaces, close as a baby’s breath,
Lithuanian blinis and Ulster linen
On scarred box bed…
‘The Raws’ were the rows of steelworkers’ homes, poisonously adjacent to the works themselves. This fact has a poignancy which the poem prepares for slowly, then touches quite beautifully. It might well be that the poem would have benefited from cutting lines 4 and 5, as they deflect us into attempting the notorious impossibility of cancelling an image, ‘Neither idealisation nor humility are present’. Because the core cry, the direct juxtaposition of ‘furnaces’, ‘baby’s breath’, and’scarred box bed’, is very empathic, and bespeaks an intimate ‘imagination of home’.
If that is the core cry, what is the abiding passion? In the opening poem Lorna J Waite announces one of her mythic affiliations: she is ‘a woman of Hephaestos, my bones are metal’. That tough bodying forth of Jungian animus is balanced in the fourth poem, “A Lament for Red Frank”, by a direct and moving female persona: ‘Your heart so big it left a rent in me/I cover ower with finest Ayrshire lace’. A further declaration of purpose occurs in the next poem, to wit, ‘Retrievin oor history tae mak it shine’, and then “Sons of Hephaestos” makes it clear that this ‘making shine’ will have nothing to do with ‘making shiny’ or idealising heritage. Quite the reverse: ‘I will discharge the liquid metal o my soul/Oan land rusted wi the antipathy o yer politics.’
Thus does Thatcher get hers, for Glengarnock was closed bang in the middle of her misrule. And a resounding challenge to the destructive Prime Minister commences: ‘Were ye jealous o our love for each other?’ A quintessential chance to contrast the Iron Lady of official history with the real iron ladies of the steel village then presents itself. It very nearly comes off, but I feel becomes over-portentous, with both the mythic Hephaestos and an extra tale-telling Steel Woman blurring the contrast lines.
There then begins an Artemis-led hunt for origins and reference points for reorientation. A remarkable poem “Ben Ledi” is a hymn to Gaelic, buttercups and sex; ‘on the green high land expanse,/With sex and flower, inviting and warm flesh of light’. The compact “Water, Memory” urges us to ‘breathe free speech on the path of belonging’.The ‘Garden’ of the title is evoked across a current, and very present, landscape: ‘I scatter seeds of wild flowers in honour/Of the lost metal world’. Ambiguous emotion is vivid and excellent here.
Wry pun and mixter-maxter metaphor contend in “British Steel Blues” which opens: ‘A well-meaning Corus of indifference/Greets my eager eyes’. In “Clearing the Raws” we are offered the consolation, ‘Even/If only rosebay willow herb greens the toxic land,/Shards of pink blooms lessen the wound’. Such consolation may be reduced when one wonders whether shards of anything could ‘lessen’ a wound. At a point like this one feels more rigour with metaphor would not hurt.
Yet there is so much that is very fine, and mind-blowing. “The Tongue of the Gaelic Learner” concludes: ‘an auspicious symbol/Of sound compassion grows, duilleag-bhaite,/ A little paper-leaf boat of language’. Delicate. While, direct on the opposite page, the Bible gets a blasting: ‘There is not enough vagina in Genesis ye see’. I think we always knew that, but if didna, we ken noo!
Lorna J Waite references both Burns and MacDiarmid as her mentors, world poets both. Yet I would argue that the former’s noble sentiments can be too grand for contemporary sensibility, while the latter, after his searing surreal lyrics, can tend towards arrhythmic scissors-and-paste prophecy. Great poets may be avatars but at the same time tonal or technical cul-de-sacs. The central evidence of this volume is that Lorna J Waite is developing her own voice.
George Mackay Brown in Hamnavoe, his community-rooted elegy for his postman father, concludes:
|In the fire of images Gladly I put my hand To save that day for him.|
I would argue that The Steel Garden announces a Scottish poet who has a passionate need to celebrate the past and, at the same time, a radical power to put her hand in the fire of images to make the world new.
References & Further Information
The Steel Garden: Poems by Lorna J. Waite is published by Word Power Books, 2011.