Two Countries by Katrina Porteous
£12.00, Bloodaxe Press
Katrina Porteous’ new poetry collection: Two Countries, reaches out to the marginalised, to the changing and to the remote to give a voice to those precluded from much literature. Her poems are about place, landscape, community and the shifting, provisional relations between them. This collection focuses on the Anglo-Scottish border, exploring the friction between the communities that live alongside it. As always, her poetry is on the cusp of contemporary thought; the release of this collection was timed to coincide with the Scottish referendum. She aims to share the story of these border communities and her narrative voices are certainly striking, innovative and filled with local flavour. Her fragmentary and complex style may exclude those unfamiliar with her poetry however, acting as a deterrent to the marginalised rural groups she writes about. Her work is ambitious and sometimes difficult to follow, but it helps to remember that Two Countries is organised around a selection of her radio work; the poems certainly read better when spoken aloud.
These poems find a symbol of conflict in Hadrian’s Wall. Porteous is concerned with history and people, how people’s lives have changed and where change has not been progress. She explores the ambiguities of the Roman Wall in the present day and the tensions created between tradition and modernity, nature and culture, country and town. In her opening section, ‘Wall’, she writes:
I, the Wall,
Defend this place.
Across a dizziness
I am control:
A ruled line,
Mark of the safe,
The sure, the known.
I am the edge-
This is where the world ends.
Throughout the collection, the image of the wall is a metaphor for both stability and control, but also of the change that occurs around this physical mark of divide. The poet explains with characteristic simplicity that “It’s a Tourist Trail/ It’s a working farm/ It’s a battleground/ It’s a place to live.” She has the great skill of being able to present facts without ever telling her reader what to think, but still provoking an emotive response. Her message is that change is not inherently positive, that individual lives and livelihoods matter and that we should listen to the stories of those affected by ‘progress’. The poet doesn’t call for pity but understanding, and reminds us that “it’s a long way from Westminster to the cattle gate.” Just because people are not campaigning does not mean that their issues are less important; many do not have the power to change the law or publish their experiences. In Two Countries, Porteous aims to step into the breach. She listens and then communicates what she hears to a wide audience, using the borderlands’ own words and dialects.
Porteous does not constrict herself to a rigid form or rhyme scheme, but makes good use of free verse. Many of her poems are arranged in stanzas, of varied line length and number, though these are often interrupted by other sections or perhaps voices, set in italics. When reading her poetry you are confronted with a novel use of space; in ‘Dunstanburgh’, these italicised sections are often separated from the main text, creating two separate columns of poetry placed next to each other. It is not clear which column is meant to be read first, as meaning does not flow from one to another. The reader is left to help the poem for themselves as they can choose what order to read the lines in and, subsequently, what meaning to take from the sequence.
It can be disconcerting to be presented with a page of text where you are uncertain what you are meant to be focusing on and what you are meant to be reading. On sharing this poem with friends who do not read usually poetry for pleasure, they commented that they were uncomfortable with this style and would not choose to read it. Her style often comes across as confrontational, both in form and content. If the poet is trying to speak out on behalf of overlooked groups and marginalised voices, it is a shame that her work is not more accessible. This difficulty is not found in every poem; Two Countries fluctuates between long, dense works spanning several pages and shorter, more easily digestible poems.
One of the strongest pieces falls into the second category. ‘Shanky’ undercuts a scene of natural beauty with a sense of desolation and abandonment. In the last line the warmth and safety of the sun ‘floods everything golden’, but no one is there to see it, ‘no one but the nostalgic.’ Looking at this empty scene, the reader is left with a something more than nostalgia – a desire to protect these landscapes and the livelihoods that depended on them. Porteous’ poetry is a call to action and, although Two Countries has its flaws, this makes it an important read.