[This review first appeared in Poetry Wales]
Sheenagh Pugh, Short Days, Long Shadows (Seren)
The blurb of Sheenagh Pugh’s twelfth collection Short Days, Long Shadows describes her as a poet who ‘considers “too accessible” to be the best sort of compliment’. So often the back of a book of a book of poetry sells its author short, but on this occasion the copywriters at Seren are exactly right: there is nothing that Pugh seems unwilling to sacrifice in the interests of creating a poetry of ultimate, uniform accessibility. Of course, ‘too accessible’ is by definition a negative quality: it is too much, too far. The only justification for Pugh’s position, then, is that she sees nothing to place on the weighing scales opposite ‘accessibility’; nothing that might be lost or endangered by a headlong rush for inclusive lowest-common-denominatorising. And this rush does seem visible in Pugh’s work.
A poet as accomplished and capable as Pugh will rarely complete a poem without anything interesting in it, but the problem here is that so many of these poems find an interesting image, construction or idea, and promptly close up shop. In ‘Dresden Shepherdesses 1908’, for example, Pugh describes a group of men dressed as shepherdesses, ‘choosing to inhabit, / for this one night, their inner shepherdess’. Despite the cliché, it’s an idea with potential to speak about a range of things. Why might these men dress as women? Why might they possess an ‘inner shepherdess’? Do clothes conceal or reveal the subtle fluidities of our gender? How about our bodies? But, for Pugh, simply describing the fact of the cross-dressing is apparently enough work for one poem to do (although I’ll grudgingly allow the pun on ‘inhabit’/‘in habit’ as offering some slight poetic value). There’s no ambition to offer insight – philosophical, linguistic, emotional – because to do so risks losing the audience members who miss the point, or who demur from any argument which might be made, any position which might be taken.
But poetry isn’t all about densely worked philosophical argument, and there are passages in the book which have a slow, accretive atmosphere. It’s a book of the inaccessibility of the past, and of the inevitability of death, irregularly and ineffectively stalled by the casting backwards of memory. These thematics are painted onto a backdrop Northern places – the Shetlands, Scandinavia – and Pugh does some good work on subtly aligned the sea-dominated, windswept landscapes with the feeling of aging. It’s an effect that emerges over a number of poems, gradually, the way a picture emerges from a magic-eye trick. But that’s the point: to get it, you need to unfocus your eyes, and consciously disengage your attention from the particulars.
Because paying close attention to these poems is often a frustrating experience. ‘Sea’s Answer’ is one of the most interesting poems in the book. It’s framed as a discussion between a poet and the sea, as they discuss why ‘when I figure you, every image / fails me.’ For a moment, we’re offered a glimpse of language which is enriched by a second dimension, by a language behaving otherwise than as a simple tool, in which words stand simply in for the objects of the world. The poem evokes the sea all the more forcefully for the admission that it exceeds the capacity of language to pin it down: it claims to escape poetry’s usual bag of tricks: ‘I am myself the metaphor.’ And yet the whole poem is weighed down by Pugh’s evident discomfort with these ideas. It’s shackled by a proliferation of colloquial banalities, of anti-poetic language like ‘(you get that way, at my age)’ or ‘for what that’s worth’. Also instructive is Pugh’s assertion that ‘I don’t believe in clichés; / words don’t just stop working.’
But cliché doesn’t occur when words ‘stop working’. It occurs when language becomes stripped, through overuse, of its metaphorical or allusive significances, and becomes just a familiar string of sounds upon which we can hang old, familiar thoughts. And throughout Short Days, Long Shadows, it is precisely these kind of old and familiar thoughts which seem all Pugh is interested in finding and offering. Familiar and unchallenging thoughts make for maximally accessible poetry, but they also make for dull, uninspired language.
The problem is that accessibility needn’t be a problem. Heaney alone is enough to prove that, but the numbers in which people still seek out Sylvia Plath cement the fact that poetry can have mass appeal and still be ambitious, multivalent, strange, and profound. All of which are qualities strikingly lacking in Pugh’s latest work.