Afternoons Go Nowhere

Sheenagh Pugh
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 9, 2019
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A fascination for history, both as a source of human drama and a field for artful speculation, characterises this collection of poems by Sheenagh Pugh from Seren press. Here we are with the rebels who sack the Palace of Savoy or inside the head of the disturbed King of France, who was convinced he was made of glass, or with the Bishop Thorlack, blessing a demon-haunted cliff. 

We are as much taken with the gaps in the chronicles, the elisions, the rumours, as we are with the relics: stone ruins, statues plagued by seagulls, the Maid of Norway in a stained-glass window. The marginalia in illuminated manuscripts inspires a poem with ‘asides’ by the Monk in a medieval scriptorium. There is a heartbreakingly lovely poem ‘The Centenaries’ that vividly evokes the battles of World War One as their anniversaries arrive in sequence. There is a thoughtful series evoking a trip to Canada by a ‘tour’ through its time zones.  

Primarily about people, this collection is also steeped in northern weathers and waters of the Scottish Isles, where Pugh now lives. The title poem refers to the abrupt darkness in winter afternoons, but also to a theme of timelessness running through the collection as in ‘Visitor’ where the protagonist is a skull that emerges from an eroded cliff only to lurch back and disappear with it, “like a neighbour who called in/ just once, and whom we never got to know” a both stern and lovely evocation, a memento mori.  

In Afternoons Go Nowhere the past seems more relevant to the present than ever, human nature never entirely predictable and often non-sensical, the natural world seeming full of a paradoxical beauty. There is also a piece entirely sympathetic to the digital new age where people in a ‘Bus Station’ are seen staring at their phones, the poem sings praises of connectivity in an otherwise dull context. Complex but with clear themes and lucid, musical language, Sheenagh Pugh’s tenth collection will delight discriminating readers. 

"Pugh's lyrical, time-travelling narratives, full of wit and pathos, put the human condition in its place. Here characters and landscapes hauntingly evoke the 'space where someone was'." – Paul Henry

"These poems are richly ambitious, but unfailingly humane." – Matthew Francis


Review by Fiona Owen, Gwales

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

This immensely enjoyable collection, the poet’s tenth, ranges through a cast of characters from different periods, travels across Canada’s time zones, brings us Shetland, the poet’s home turf, and reminds us humans, with our hubris and divisive tendencies, of our very temporary tenure, set against nature’s deeper time-scales: ‘The border / is reshaping itself, unseen, as it has / since earth hardened’, while ‘the short-term tenants, / guarding the ground they call their own, / scowl across the wire, measuring / the distance a bullet need go / to end a brief stay sooner’. Such sad folly in the on-going human story is a theme that trickles through this collection, but there is also a humane humour at work, and a deeply observant eye.

What we get are choice moments from the annals of history, along with glimpses into ordinary human lives, most of which are destined to become forgotten. There is a tenderness shown towards being here, with a concern that lives, with their sometimes simple qualities, should matter, even though they be ‘no more / than a neighbour’s good nature, / a workman’s craft, a joker’s quick wit’. Those attributes ‘are soon gone’ and yet, ‘they were, as surely as cliff and leaf’.

History is one of this poet’s interests and runs as a rich seam through the poems. The book starts with a vivid poem that transports the reader to 1381, as John of Gaunt’s London residence, the Palace of Savoy, is ransacked by the peasants in their revolt against the introduction of a poll tax. Written in first person, as one of the peasants following the orders of Walter ‘Wat’ Tyler, the ‘sacking’ is imagined in rich detail, with a sympathy for the peasants, who follow an ethic of ‘no looting’. There are touching moments where the men feel for the beautiful stuff they are ruining: ‘I saw men lay velvet / to their cheeks, stroke silk with fingertips / before their knives ripped through it’. The ‘silver cups … fell / at our feet, grimacing up // like pained faces’ and jewels are ‘ground … into flinders’. One transgressor, who couldn’t help himself and stole a goblet, ‘we drowned’ because ‘honour’ was needed that day, was ‘all we had’.

The poems move through time to pause at various historical points to bring us characters like Charles VI, the ‘mad’ king of France who imagined himself transparent, made of glass, ‘Nothing of him / but is open to view’. Then ‘Ça ira’ sings of the French Revolution’s aspirations ‘to make the world work a better way’ where, however, ‘everyone’s dream’ of ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood’ turned to nightmare as ‘the axe … chopped and chopped’. The poem’s breezy Panglossian refrain, ‘It’ll be fine, it’ll be okay’, is ironically set against every grand aspiration. Despite humanity’s longing ‘to learn’, despite that which ‘gropes for light’, earthing the dream has proven chronically elusive: ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood, / … just not today’.

In ‘Ronald’, the focus is not on the human hero, Lord Cardigan, but his horse. The context is the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the deliberately simple diction, created through a predominance of single-syllable words, creates a spare story-telling voice. The narrative is told in eleven clipped three-line stanzas, where pathos is powerfully evoked: ‘Some horses break, / lie screaming, thrashing / in the smell of blood. // Or their man breaks / and they stay by him, nuzzling his face’. But the tale is equally comic: Ronald, surviving his battle-field horror, ‘lived to be old’, and the poet imagines him dozing off after a dose of laudanum, ‘(against a wall, / let’s hope, like Marvin’s horse / in Cat Ballou)’.

The Shetland poems capture an atmospheric sense of place, with long winters, low light, the might of the North Sea. ‘Afternoons Go Nowhere’, the title poem, is set as the tourist season ends, when ‘Butter hardens in the dish overnight’. The locals are caught out as ‘Dark falls early’ and ‘Radiators cough into life’. The poem suggests that ‘no one is ever quite ready / for this’ coming of winter, this being stopped in one’s tracks, with work still to do, and the poem ends with a ‘half-hope’ that time itself would be less keen, ‘would let things slide by … finishing what started late’.

Admirable in this admirable collection is the poem ‘Head Gulls’, which pricks pomposity by praising the common gull, those jesters and iconoclasts – for wherever a king’s ‘statue stares over folk’s heads / with that trademark, costive sublimity, / there’ll be a seagull cackling in his curls’. The sculptor may have ‘done his best to imbue / the florid features with … nobility’, but ‘all is undone / by the republican, bolshie, sarcastic seagull / perched on his head’.

This collection is an entertaining adventure from first to last. Witty, astute and moving in equal measure, it is a blast of clear air from the North.


A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review by Judy Darley

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Time, in Sheenagh Pugh’s hands, has a tendency to turn gleefully slippery. In Afternoons Go Nowhere, her tenth collection, Pugh turns her poetic sorcery to humanity, history, geology, nature, and the spaces between all those magical things.

Silken strings of words offer up glorious catches: bewildered kings, harangued statues, a lord’s horse, a bored husband building cairns, and monks speculating about saints exhale alongside bus passengers “postponing goodbyes”, not to mention glacial water scooping “a hollow in limestone.” In Pugh’s eyes, it seems, each of these has equal gravitas.

Lit by Pugh’s keen gaze, every plant, stone, animal or person has the potential to grow playful or impatient, coy, attention-seeking, or ashamed. Unexpected characters emerge humming tunes that seem familiar, but which curl with their own original lilt.

In short, Pugh’s poetry unearths those traditionally overlooked, allowing us to experience individual quirks, confusions and unfathomable kindnesses for ourselves. One delicious example is The Offering, in which Bishop Thorlock, who has been charged with restoring a possessed sea-cliff for human use, considerately leaves “one slope unblessed,” for the sole enjoyment of “gannets, puffins and cliff-monsters.”

Pugh imbues her words with consistently infectious affection – displaying an anthropological delight in our idiosyncrasies, as well as a linguistic love that equips her to paint civilisations’ heritage with fresh colours never seen before.

In ‘Airline Pilots’, a deceptively simple clutch of couplets, Pugh analyses the professional nonchalance of pilots’ tones and takes it from a practical necessity to calm anxious passengers to an admission of glory – “I am acquainted with the sun.” Sublime.

Elsewhere, Pugh alights on a moment as yet unsullied by darkness to come, inviting us to be awed by a mother’s love for her infant son, uncaring that in years to come she’ll “order his eyes put out” to assuage a power-thirst stronger than that love. In Pugh’s opinion, it seems, one act cannot, and will not, reduce the worth of the other.

Pugh’s greatest skill lies in her ability to share a passion for details, as in the title poem ‘Afternoons Go Nowhere’, when the seasons change from summer to autumn always comes as a surprises: “Somehow no one is ever quite ready/ for this, as if they half hoped/ time too would let things slide.”

It echoes the heartfelt sentiment of Pugh’s earlier collection Short Days, Long Shadows.

Elsewhere, in ‘Sensory Acquisition’, senses failing with age offer up passages of exquisite beauty, as though diminished eyesight and hearing is editing out the mundane: “Speak of paracetamol; he hears Paris in turmoil. A tame housecoat slips its peg, prowls the shadows, an ocelot.”

Pugh is also a magician when it comes to conjuring a sense of place, spooling out not only views but palpable impressions of the locations she loves, most notably Shetland and Canada. In ‘Quarff Gap’, the focus is on space itself – “Nothing fills the eye”.

It seems that Pugh is intent on training us to marvel in the small miracles we each overlook each day, to follow nature’s rule and allocate to each of those more commonly lauded a gull for a crown, and rather than mourning our losses, to celebrate what they’ve made way for.

It makes for a hugely cheerful read, during which you’ll find yourself falling in love with the most unlikely of heroes. At these times when so much of what we read, view and experience is overshadowed by future dreads, Afternoons Go Nowhere is a sunlit respite we all sorely need.

Review of ‘Bus Station’ by Carol Rumens, Guardian Poem of the Week

Monday, July 8, 2019

Despite the haunting title poem and other finely observed, Shetland-based studies of seascape and season, in her latest collection Afternoons Go Nowhere Sheenagh Pugh’s alertness to human characters, situations and voices, historical and contemporary, continues undiminished. I like ‘Bus Station’ not least for its sheer unexpectedness (it’s placed between two more landscape oriented poems) and for the way that as it unfolds it continues to see things clearly, and resist making the obvious judgment. The smartphone users Pugh has assembled in the small bus station are not there to be turned into stereotypes of the misguided modern human, patronised for “staring / intently into their palms”. If the poem’s tack is to engage with a sense of how things could be or should be, it’s not in the usual formulation, where “these people should be talking to each other!” The focus is on the extraordinary quietness of their technologically dazzling electronic communications, and on imagining “the sound this glow would make”.

The poem itself uses sound with remarkable skill. There are the repetitions in the first couplet, “move/not moving”. “becalmed/between”: the combination of pace-slowing consonants and rhythmic jolts suggests the physical process of setting down baggage, settling awkwardly into seats, adjusting from action to stasis, giving up one’s weight to the wait. After the caesura in the first line of the second couplet, “Dead quiet” is a forceful pairing, and again produces a slowing of the tempo. But everything changes and becomes light and speedy in the third couplet, where the short “i” sounds dance like fingertips.

Now the swiftness of the exchanges is mimed in a sketchy itemisation of knowledge. Levels of significance are flattened. Economics and warfare impinge, and pass in an instant. We slip from “the price of gold” and “what’s happening in Iran” to the social-media jumble sale where “thoughts, // facts, rumours, insults zip along wires / like cash on a Baldwin Flyer”. And with that wry simile we’re suddenly back in old technology, where you could see the excitement of trade and hear the hum – or was it more of a rattle?

A little before this, the poem has taken us on an even older metaphorical ride, with its reference to the faces as “backlit” and the smartphone users “no spectators // but part of the play”. All the world’s (still) a stage it seems. This may be a short poem, but it skims over plenty of historical ground. The reference to the now-obsolete cash railway system could be read as an omen: today’s clever technology ends up in tomorrow’s museum. The more interesting analogy is the economic one. Basketloads of cash still fly around the networks, but now they fly much faster and farther and less accountably.

In the fourth stanza, very unobtrusively, the pronoun changes from “they” to “we”, revealing the speaker to be a participant in the scene. This helps sustain a non-accusatory tone as the poem moves closer to an evaluation of the behaviour it has observed.

The apparent introversion of this behaviour is emphasised by the reference to “looking out / only on our own reflections”. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of the imagined contrast of what it might it to look up from the screen and through a window. Only the bus station windows “are dark with winter”, and there is nothing to see.

The subject of “looking out on our own reflections” is “we” (grammatically following on from “we should hear a buzz”) but by the end of the poem it’s as if the windows, too, were implicated. In a faint shiver of the uncanny, suitable for a dark winter evening, the windows might themselves seem to be looking at the figures reflected from the waiting room.

Throughout the poem, we have simply continued to watch the little hushed theatre of smartphone users, lit up in the winter darkness, plying their keys in a silence that is “off-key” but not so much disturbing as surprising. Its sounds and images are memorable. The poem doesn’t need to send us a message.

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