I read these poems as I read everything these days – seeking out words of wisdom, tips on how, in Pat Sutherland’s words to ‘own… tomorrow without fear.’ The many contributors to this reflective and moving collection suggest I’m not alone in finding poetry a source of nourishment. But what is it about poetry in particular that supports recovery and wellbeing so richly?
The answers can be found in Seven Journeys. Firstly, poetry consoles. It brings us, through intense, focused observation, into a state of presence. In conjuring the beauty of the natural world, Sutherland’s poems (some of the best in the anthology) serve this purpose with a delicate sensitivity:
Only April, but a day of June-like sun
recalling unfettered days, walks in tall grass,
sultry dusks, moths and fireflies,
crickets ticking down to silence
Helen Elsley, in ‘Roaming’, similarly evokes the past in such detail as to bring it to visceral, sensuous life in the present:
We swam in gasp-cold sea
and soft lochans that made out winter-pale skin
look browned, and our steps sank
in warm peat silt.
In ‘Quiet, Are You Here’, Lesley O’Brien brings us to a wonderfully described present moment redolent with joy:
Thunder slowly fades,
…and I am here,
licking honey from my fingers,
spilled on the edge of my teacup.
These are my favourite lines of the whole anthology for the way they delight in the tiny details of daily life and reassure us that all in well in this precise instant.
Secondly, poetry confronts. The poems in Seven Journeys are not afraid to address illness, grief, death. They are poems with an unflinching gaze, where suffering is tackled head on. Some poems resonated with me for days, they so pulled at my heart strings with their brave honesty – like Lynn Gilgannon’s ‘When I Lie in Bed at Night’ (‘Broken-hearted / has always been / my truest diagnosis / of myself …Don’t talk to her, she’s / always sad. What’s wrong with you? / …Last night my son / called me a crack-pot’) and the poignantly-titled ‘I Open the Door and Let Myself in’ by May McIntyre (‘he has gone, / Gone forever. I could not stop him. / Out of my sight, / Out of my life on this Earth’).
Finally, poetry transforms. At its heart is a metaphorical vision which transforms experience and gives the reader a new and surprising way of seeing things. Time preoccupies many writers in this anthology – unsurprising given that recovery and wellbeing is perhaps dependent on a shift in our relationship to both the past and the future. For Peter Gallagher, the past has become a ’drawer… full of once-useful and long-forgotten keepsakes… pulled open and tipped… upside down’. For Kay Ritchie, the memory is ‘rope-anchored by a fisherman’s knot’ to the mind. Both these images offer new perspectives on our ambivalent attitude towards our past. For Louise Donaldson, a post-lockdown drink at a bar is cleverly transformed by her metaphorical vision into two new realities – the light of the moon finally brightening the darkness and the poet grasping the possibilities of the future:
The clouds broke up, a yellow wedge appeared,
sparkled in the water, lit the night, and
I said I’ll have that.
It’s a fitting last line to an unsparing, but ultimately uplifting collection.
To buy a copy of Seven Journeys click here.
Kate Hendry writes poetry and short stories and has taught creative writing to children and adults for 20 years. She was the Scottish Book Trust reader in residence at the National Library of Scotland in 2013-14 and has run reading groups at the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her collection of poems The Lost Original was published by Happenstance Press in 2016. She has edited three collections of poetry for the Scottish Poetry Library: The Poem Goes to Prison, Tools of the Trade: poems for new doctors and To Learn the Future: poems for teachers.