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Short Days, Long Shadows

Sheenagh Pugh
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 5, 2014
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In this, her twelfth collection, noted poet Sheenagh Pugh steps into a new, northern landscape, the Shetland Islands, with poems steeped in the wilder weathers and views of rugged coastlines, sweeping sea-vistas and the hardy historical characters who have inhabited these lands. There is a lovely pared-down spareness, and elegiac formality to poems like ‘Travelling with Ashes’, ‘Staying’, and ‘Trondheim: January’ where the inhabitants appear lost in a ‘strange pink daylight’, and in ‘Gardening’ where ‘White stones are shaped like hearts’. The author’s characteristic dry humour emerges elsewhere as in ‘Extremeophiles’, a paean to bacteria – ‘chancers’ who live without sun. A poet who considers ‘too accessible’ to be the best sort of compliment, Sheenagh Pugh’s work has as much to offer the general reader as it does the specialist, who will admire her artful use of traditional forms.



Review By Martyn Crucefix, Agenda

Monday, August 3, 2015

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 detail 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 than 'now' that proves so hard to turn away from, it is 'all the thens' which 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. 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 the 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'.

Since she gave up 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 that there are poems here that do little more than make a few well-turned observations, in plain language, in a 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 terms of lexical and formal choices as the desire to communicate the 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 odds, manage to carve out of 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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