Travels in time, the art of place, human love
An essay on the Shetlander poet Christine De LucabyØystein Orten
Scotland has a rich literary tradition. A great number of poets have come from this northern part of Great Britain. One of the most significant ones among the contemporary authors is a woman from a small village in the Shetland Islands. In addition to her numerous publications of various genres, the retiring Edinburgh Makar has published six collections of poetry. She writes the majority of her texts in her Shetland dialect. Her poems may be difficult to understand even for Scottish people. Still, for Norwegian readers, the literature of Christine De Luca (nee Pearson) evokes considerable familiarity.
This author was born on the island of Bressay (Bressa) in 1947, but she grew up in Walls (Waas), where her father was the school headmaster. Her upbringing in this community was fairly typical of the times as they also worked a traditional small farm, or croft, close by the sea. Her father’s family roots werefrom the east coast of Mainland, around the little crofting-fishing settlements of Lunna and Vidlin. Having finished secondary education in Lerwick she attended university in Edinburgh, where she graduated in geography. In the Scottish capital she married Damian, a grocer of Italian descent. Together they have a son, Daniel.
But even though Christine De Luca has lived in Edinburgh for 50 years, holding various duties and positions in the educational world, her ties to Shetland are extremely strong. In many of her texts she discusses her dual heritage. On one occasion, she compares her own identity to a Russian doll. Naturally, she feels like an exile, since she has studied, worked, and lived in Edinburgh for half a century. However, she is primarily a Shetlander, and particularly a Westsider, raised under long and crimson sunsets on the west coast. She emphasizes that the Shetland sentiment is very strong, even when she is travelling around the world.
Therefore, Christine De Luca’s special geographic origin may be crucial for a reader who wants to acquire a deeper insight into her authorship. Not only is Shetland the most northern part of Great Britain; the islands also represent the fringes of the Scottish autonomous region. Over many centuries Shetland has developed a distinctive political, cultural, and linguistic identity, somewhat separate from central government. From a London perspective, Shetland is on the margins of the periphery. And the Shetlandic language is a minority tongue within a minority. For Scotland is not England, and neither is Shetland the same as Scotland.
Nevertheless, despite this remote position in the North Sea, the islands have received considerable influences from abroad. In several of her poems she mentions the people who have sailed across the ocean and managed to cling to their settlements in these islands: first and foremost the Picts, the Vikings and the Scots. But during the last century also the migrant workers during the herring seasons, as well as the oil industry employees at Sullom Voe. They have all contributed to shaping Shetland’s uniqueness, with respect to culture and language.
And from the Norwegian colonization in the 9th century onwards, the traces are numerous. In the poem Viking Landfall
from her debut collection Voes & Sounds (1994) the author describes an arrival on East Yell where we can sense the fear that the inhabitants experience at the sight of the Norwegian sails on the horizon. However, the land occupation by the Vikings did not only leave genetic remains (recent research has shown that more than half of the Shetland population has Norwegian ancestors). In addition there are many words and geographical names, often found together on maps such as wicks
(vågar) and bisters
(bustader). Terms from Old Norse mythology and Norwegian folklore are also alive in Shetland folklore (note the use of trows
for trolls). Combined with the experiences from the Second World War, when Shetland opened up as a rescuing haven for Norwegian refugees, this cultural exchange has made the relationship to Norway, or Norrawa
, close and – in its unique way – warm.
After the Norwegians had to give up Shetland and Orkney in the Middle Ages, the inhabitants came under Scottish rule. The King’s lairds
were the power in the islands and wielded it roughly. And the factors
of the lairds
demanded unreasonably high taxes. The indigenous Shetlanders became crofter-fishermen
(fishing for the lairds)
with small rented land-holdings, and probably with a social level below that of the Norwegian crofters (husmenn
). Towards the end of the 19th century, many of the lairds turned the land over to sheep-farming, forcing many tenants to leave. Since then the emigration has been extensive. Scattered all over the islands one can see the buildings of the small crofts now crumbling, with just the occasional stone wall remaining. These characteristic ruins tell a story of suppression, exploitation and hardship.
Despite its small population of c 23,000 inhabitants Shetland has strong literary traditions. The most significant of authors is Vagaland (1909 – 1973), whose strictly metrical odes to his home place remind us of the skaldic poetry in Heimskringla.
Besides, Stella Sutherland (1924 – 2015), to whom the author has written a beautiful poem, stands out with an authorship stretching over more than sixty years.
Since childhood Christine De Luca noticed that the Shetland poets were different from the Scottish ones. They drew from their own experiences. They would make use of an arsenal of metaphors. They emerged with the energy of the enormous natural forces that surrounded these islands. This had to do with the power of survival. A sort of proud defiance. The ocean and the winds had provided them with the strength to speak with authority and confidence in their own language.
Because of this background the Shetland dialect is the key to the world for Christine De Luca. In its mix of old Scots and Norn vocabulary she depicts life as it unfolds itself on the islands out in the west. The Shetlandic language has deep roots in the maritime and rural life. Most words have developed from a rough existence of fishing and small-scale farming. They draw their resources from ancient, pre-industrial skills such as sailing, peat-working and the processes associated with wool. The language, for example, contains many nuances for expressions relating to changes of weather and wind direction. Only a few of these words are abstract. The vocabulary is mainly descriptive. Mostly unpolished and brutal. Often with an onomatopoetic quality. Because one is dependent on the winds, there is such variety of different words for this element. For this reason, there also exist numerous expressions for waves. For earth. For peat. For wool. So many words for rest. For sleep. Also, many for leaving and for sailing. The author makes us feel the value and the importance of these inherited expressions. They show exact observations related to their chores, crucial for human survival. Their whole existence rests on the fact that the words are precise.
The scenery in the Shetland Islands is not particularly dramatic. The lines in the landscape are generally not abrupt. The fields are green. The vogues (voes
) are often long and narrow. The thousands of lakes (lochs
) are small. The passes (aiths
) are low. The valleys are short. Ponies graze peacefully on the hillsides. Out on the headlands the flowers pop up among stones and moss. The sun sets towards the west in countless nuances of red. However, the weather can certainly be changing all the time, and extraordinarily brutal. It is rarely quite calm. Nor is it ever distinctly warm.
The dynamic surroundings of these islands are frequently discernable in the poetry of Christine De Luca.
The birds flying over the moors. The terns diving. The curlew`s trilling, complaining song. The hiding places of newborn lambs in the marshland. And last, but not least, the sounds from the inner voes (fiords). A special sloshing at the tideline intimating the weather to be expected, bringing a warning of the wind’s changing direction. Or remaining in a certain position, like we hear it in Yarbent
, the beautiful poem in honour of aunt Ella, from De Luca’s
collection Parallel Worlds
Still, even stronger than the fascination of nature is her love of the people who live so close to the ocean. Da Sea Fock
. The small and often isolated communities in the Shetland Islands have deep egalitarian traits. The townships along the fiords and wicks were often built around families where the father was related to the boat owners with their sixern
of six men. Here they were all dependent on each other. For this reason the concept of equality is an essential idea for Christine De Luca. Looking back at her own childhood, (she often has conversations with herself as ’you’) she describes this fellowship with sincere sensitivity, as if she is worried that it may break apart. The human unity
) is more important than any other theme.
But her texts are also influenced by modernity and an ambivalence of the acknowledgement of who we are. They convey other values, idder erts
. In many poems we hear about idder fock,
who lived at idder voes
, in idder times
. Unceasingly she lifts up the Shetlandic as something special and unique compared with the other. She describes ordinary events from different parts of the world, and portrays these as different to her own world. This is not Shetland.
On the other hand she insists on the similarities between the civilizations. There is only one world. Or put in another way: the worlds are parallel. Canada is like Shetland. Bengal is like Shetland. The people’s needs are the same. We are same but different
. Only an ocean divides
Christine De Luca is sincerely aware of history, exploring time as a phenomenon, where she depicts ways of living at all times, and in quite different places, and she shows a sensitivity of the changes in the very conditions for living. Not only the slow changes through the seasons, the biorhythms, but also the changes in human life itself are of great interest to her, such as the development towards old age, towards Alzheimers, and towards death. The texts explore environment and society at different times, take sudden loops in history; they set out, to use her own words, on an existential paragliding, all from the Iron Age and the Viking Era, through the time of sail ships and the World Wars, to the Oil Age and finally to Shetland deep into the 21st century.
Her literary project evolves around this linear perspective. Time, which also goes around in circles, such as day and night, and the year. History which repeats itself (it is a lie that this does not happen). The journey is a metaphor of human life, which points at transformation, development. However, the author does not define any start or any goal for this journey, despite the many religious references in her texts. She walks back in history through time, glancing backwards
, but sometimes jumps from one century to the next. She studies the conditions for human existence through a retrospective point of view. Through time warps she serves up glimpses into the lives of different people in various parts of the world at different ages. The I- person in Christine De Luca’s poetry is a time-traiveller
At the same time she compares the tiny bit of time of a human being with eternity, as if she wants to disclose chains of causes and powers behind a persons’ destination. She talks about a thousand moments which together amount to happiness in a tenth of a second.
Her literature contains a lot of light and optimism. Not only does she emphasize a deep joy of living in this beautiful landscape, with all the distant islands and diverse profiles viewed from land (the author reveals exceptional love for the island of Foula). Primarily, her texts radiate a strong humanism. The human beings can show deep generosity and have sincere concern for each other in spite of material poverty. However, here is also tristesse as well as feelings of sadness, as we can read in her elegies over parents and aunts. Happiness involves both joy and sorrow.
Moreover, this poet is above all a poet of place. Her poetry is distinctly imaginary, drawing from the sources of the natural world of Shetland. Her verses are full of this landscape’s music, and they pour out a cacophony of sounds from sea and winds and especially the wonderful, untouched beaches and the sky above. It is the enormous powers of the ocean breaking and tearing down. The waves are continuously slashing and hitting. Together with the wind they create new tones. Ancient tones.
The author is knitting scenery. In Makkin Sooth Eshaness
(from Parallel Worlds
) the designing of landscape is compared with the mixing of colours, selecting patterns and decreasing the knitting, as if the Creator Himself were responsible for the knitting. The parcels of land along the beaches, pale as marshland, form the basic colour. The sheep in various shades, marked in their ears by their owners, are grazing on green patches of land. Such an endless amount of stones. The basic element itself. The birds searching for food along the shores. The rhythm of day and night giving the shadows on the cliffs different shades. The nuances in the clouds are changing with the winds that are chasing the barren moors. This land cannot imitate the woods, the author writes in one her poems.
In various ways she can be compared to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. She speaks about “the body of a place”, and “the spirit in a place”. In one of her volumes she writes that the love of a place is the fundament of a good life. All impressions of nature from one’s childhood, this original, paradise-like, lies in the archives of each human being. The perfection is preserved inside every one of us. On the one hand, she tries to distil a Shetland essence from the raw material of human beings, nature and history – materialized in place, the external surroundings which create the conditions for human life. Furthermore, she holds this material up towards the light in order to examine if there are similarities with other societies and cultures in the world.
Perhaps this is the reason why travelling is such a central motif in her writing. This exploring, examining and testing approach. The searching for an opening towards something new, but also back to something old, safe, and familiar.
Hence, the road becomes a word which incorporates most of the themes in Christine De Luca’s writing. The way out. The way home. Frequently we meet expressions that confirm this. The Gate (da gaet
). The road (da rodd
). But above all the voyage, the travelling by sea. Da sea
. In order to get out, and to find the way back home, one needs to cross the ocean. Haemfarin
means to return to one’s birthplace after a long period of time. According to Christine De Luca, Ulysses is still on the move. His journey is long and exhausting. The road is laborious. But there is a guideline for the navigation of this voyage. The poets, with their ancient wisdom and briefly carved texts, can show the way. It is a matter of completin da circle
, according to a phrase she uses in her third collection of poetry, Plain Song
Her place by the sea creates the actual universe of Christine De Luca’s poetry. The term belonging
does not only imply her relationship to this place, but also to the people who live there. It is as if they say: - We have been living here before you. But you belong here. In this way the language binds people together. It is dee an me.
It is about wis.
In this way the cosmopolitan Christine De Luca enables us to believe that Shetland is the centre of the universe. Besides, through her writing she makes us experience many glimpses of our own origin.
OriginallyTIDSREISER, STADSKUNST, MENNESKEKJÆRLEIK
Glimt av opphav - Glims o origin
Poems by Christine De Luca - Odd GoksøyrUra Forlag 2017
translated into English by Hilde Petra Brungot