Review of Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Short Days, Long Shadows’

Sheenagh Pugh’s Short Days, Long Shadows strongly bears the mark of her re-location in recent years from Cardiff to the Shetland Islands. There are a couple of leaving-taking pieces here with ‘How to Leave’ re-enacting the slow, even painful, notation of local details and the levels of self-deception often accompanying what looks like a partly reluctant move. ‘Ghosts of Cardiff’ more reflectively argues that it is less the “now” that proves so hard to turn away from, it is “all the thens” which, even walking down St Mary Street or through Victoria Park, remain at least as vivid as any present moment. These hauntings form just one of the many sub-sets of ‘Long Shadows’ in this collection and Pugh’s much-remarked sense of history is a further important manifestation of this too.

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Victoria Park, Cardiff

But it is the northern landscapes that dominate the book, the Shetlands and Scandinavia. ‘Big Sky’ makes the scenic novelty clear when the gaze from a window meets “no branch, no office block”, but “overflows with sky”. The breadth and variety of cloudscape and the bright night’s “cluster and prickle” of stars are vividly evoked yet the individual’s humility before such a natural scene is undermined by a final line suggesting a yearning for “the way out”. There is something of this reflected in the book’s structuring where, instead of blockish sequences of related poems, individual pieces tend to bounce and ricochet off each other. Pugh’s language risks becoming a little dull but I find this quality of restlessness in her work very engaging. It is a determination not to accept limits as in ‘Living in a Snow Globe’ where a northern blizzard again concludes with a small figure “fixed in a shaking flux and unsure / where here is, or how to get out”.

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View of the Shetlands

It must be just such an isolated figure who, in one of the best poems here, talks to the ocean and asks why our figures and metaphors for it – though accurate in some ways – are always inadequate: “you / swallow each likeness, each true word / and spit it out, rejected” (‘Sea’s Answer’). I’m not sure I quite follow the sea’s reply, but it seems to imply that our endless figuring is really driven by our own desire “to be like” the sea, implying perhaps our existential uncertainties, at least when confronted with the sea’s Olympian-seeming, seeming unconditional, independent life, reminding me of Whitman’s 1871 ‘Song of the Exposition’ (as used by Vaughan Williams in ‘A Sea Symphony’) where he declares the sea remains always and only “the sea itself”.

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But such metaphysical themes are infrequent in Pugh’s work (or at least they remain well-buried) and she focuses usually on the more common personal experience. She often approaches this through historical time in, for example, a sequence on sixteenth century spies in ‘Walsingham’s Men’ and several later pieces clearly based on encounters with museum exhibits. There are also poems here about the approach (for a father?) of cancer and death, reminisces about wartime experiences and several touching poems about the author’s mother: “I shall look back at her from my seventies // before long, saying this is how it is, / the age you never reached” (‘Catching Up’). As this suggests, Pugh’s over-riding obsession is the passage of time, both in the shadows it casts back and forth and in the sense of transience implied in the phrase ‘Short Days’. ‘Wasting Time’ is a fine poem opening with the narrator watching the sea’s actions of building and destroying along the coastline. Quoting “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” from Shakespeare’s Richard II, the poem goes beyond this, acknowledging “the one thing / you cannot do is keep it”. Here also, Pugh resists the lure of a neatly tied up conclusion, merely suggesting that the sequential linearity of time must mean that in focusing on – or even in loving and appreciating – one thing, we must be missing out on another or absently on the look-out for something better. That restlessness again.

Since she gave out the hostage to fortune that being judged “too accessible” as a poet was the best sort of compliment, there has been much discussion of Pugh’s plainness, simplicity, even her unchallenging art. It’s true there are poems here that do little more than make a few well-turned observations in plain language in skilfully handled, mostly free verse. But I think – in the face of a pretty bleak view of temporal change – the stoicism which underlies much of her thought manifests itself in lexical and formal choices as the desire to communicate truth as plainly as possible. There is surely something of this in the astutely placed opening poem, ‘Extremophile’. The title refers to those life forms which, against all the odds, manage to carve out a life in extreme conditions around hydrothermal vents, in permanently darkened caves, in Antarctic valleys. It is this determination that Pugh finds inspiring: “There is nowhere / life cannot take hold, nowhere so salt, / so cold, so acid, but some chancer / will be there”. Look at that brilliantly chosen colloquialism “chancer” to suggest the risk-taking, against-the-odds, stubborn resilience of life itself that Pugh’s human subjects more often than not also share.

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Even so, it’s a very long way from this Hughesian Crow-like affirmation of life against the odds to another poem later in the collection which confirms that, whatever the questions over accessibility, Pugh remains a poet capable of facing up to the terrifying brevity of life. ‘The Vanishing Bishop’ is one of the museum-inspired pieces, I think, but we are taken to the moment when a coffin is unearthed and opened and news is sent to the archaeologists while the digger/narrator remains waiting, observing the corpse: “face, full lips, firm lines, / furrowed brow”. But suddenly, as the narrator sits in imagined silent dialogue with the dead bishop’s body, the air attacks the long-preserved face:

[as] when a big log

has burned so long, it’s ash

in the shape of wood, nothing

holding it together

but habit. His whole face

suddenly settled, fell in on itself,

letting go its last memory

of who he’d been.

Though uneven, Short Days, Long Shadows is a highly readable collection with perhaps half a dozen of the best poems Pugh has written and these wear their profundity so lightly that you will want to go back and re-read them to find out with what cunning, near-invisible skill they have been composed.

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