Poem of the week

Hüm (noun) by Jen Hadfield

Jen Hadfield’s poem, set in Shetland, will leave you feeling drenched, windswept and thoroughly invigorated

WEATHER Storms 2

Battle against the elements … Jen Hadfield’s poem Hüm (noun) vividly evokes the driving wind and rain.

Jen Hadfield’s latest collection, Nigh-No-Place, feels like a gust of bracingly fresh air through the English language.

Even if, like me, you have never been to Shetland, where Hadfield lives and where many of her poems live, too, you come away from the book feeling as if you had spent days there, getting drenched and windswept and thoroughly invigorated. The landscapes are fierce, unbiddable and unexpectedly magical.

The poems I especially like have the swagger of meteorological “events”. They are elemental, but they avoid the grimness associated with that genre and are often humorous, or a touch ironical – an unusual and pleasing combination. Within the apparent spontaneity there is a highly conscious and disciplined poetic technique at work.

Hüm (noun), this week’s poem, begins with a dictionary. The title gives us the Shetland dialect word, Hüm, and its part of speech; the first line provides the definition. This is a bit of a tease, a signpost turned round the wrong way; it would be easy to be lulled by those rich sounds, “Twilight, gloaming”. However, the prospect of a gentle, if unconventional, pastoral poem is swiftly dispelled. This will not be a gloaming for roaming in. The wind starts blowing in line two, and then, in stanza two, slashes of rain. The pastoral tradition and even language itself are brought back to basics. A clever human, faced by such weather, can do nothing but submit to animal instinct. What’s the good of a hanky or tissues? A tongue is better adapted to licking the streaming “snot and rain” from the “top lip”.

No word in the poem is wasted, yet many are repeated. We have, for instance, triads such as “blind/blinded/blinded” and the three occurrences of “dark”. The repetitions do important narrative work. They are reminders of the power and inescapability of the forces around the speaker. Nor do they simply reinforce the human experience; they remind us that the weather itself is blind and dark.

Having lived in north Wales, I know something about bad weather. In merciless, driving wind, and rain which comes at you sometimes from the north and sometimes from the west, in starless, light-less night, there is nothing else to think about. You can’t see what’s ahead: you can only battle on, reduced and determined. The stop-start rhythms in the poem enact the efforts of will needed by the walker to keep pushing forward. “To be abject” … “To be blinded” are constructions that imply a passive subject, and the protagonist at first is all but invisible. Agency returns with the subsequent litany of infinitives: “to walk”, “to pass”, etc, but the dominance is still hard-won and in combat with real danger. The Trowes may only be folklore – to “bluster a deal” with them a bit of literary fancy – but what about the peatcut (is there boggy land nearby?) and the bull, invisibly lurking in “his” field? Bulls, in fact, are far less aggressive than their reputation suggests, but still, a storm-panicked bull would not be one to tangle with.

We aren’t told if the gate that finally surprises the speaker signifies home, or is simply another dark object to be negotiated on a continuing journey. The wind is the biggest “character” in the drama: it’s everywhere, even whining inside a previous gate’s hollow metal bars, and there is no consoling abatement. The byre “like a rotten walnut” is, perhaps, meant to show us what wind and weather ultimately do with human strategies for survival – whether that strategy is a cowshed or a dictionary. If the poem has a subtext about the diminution of a language, its enjoyment of dialect words suggests how the stubborn seeds of words may travel, and germinate far from home.

Hüm (noun)

(For Bo)

Twilight, gloaming;
to walk blind
against the wind;

to be abject; lick snot
and rain from the top lip
like a sick calf.

To be blinded by rain
from the north.

To be blinded
by westerly rain.

To walk uphill
into a tarry peatcut
and bluster a deal
with the Trowes.

To cross the bull’s field
in the dark.

To pass in the dark
a gate of hollow bars
inside which the wind is broaling.

To pass in the dark
a byre like a rotten walnut.

To not know the gate
till you run up against it.

broal: cry of a cow or other animal; to cry as in pain
hüm: twilight; gloaming
trow: a mischievous fairy


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/05/poem-week-hum-jen-hadfield