The cover of Sheenagh Pugh’s new collection features a photo of the long shadows of two people, standing on a beach, apparently looking back on their own footsteps. Backdropped by a close-up of round, eroded stones in a blue-grey scale, that opening image accurately reflects the title – Short Days, Long Shadows.
Focused on the sea, and addressing both the past and the present, these poems discuss life and death in a clean, everyday fashion that perhaps belies their deeper significance. Pugh’s work reflects on the natural course of time, sometimes lingering on historical characters, and at other times commenting on the act of simply “being”. The opening poem “Extremophile” essentially re-tells the story of life evolving on earth. From the miniscule bacteria in the ocean at the beginning to the clear and conscious ending of “never to leave it”, it draws a picture of never-ending life. Instead of using self-consciously “poetic” language, Pugh’s wording seems unpretentious, at times even scientific – consider, for example the tone of “hydrothermal vents”. The absence of stanza breaks in this poem seems to convey a kind of general truth, serving as an unbroken and fluid introduction to the rest of the collection. “Extremophile” exemplifies those ideas of life and universality that feature strongly in Pugh’s most recent work. In keeping with the accessible nature of her poetry (for which she is sometimes criticised) most of the collection is written in couplets or tercets, enhancing their apparent simplicity, giving them a certain musicality, flow and rhythm that will resonate with readers.
However, it is worth mentioning that that linguistic accessibility does not necessarily extend to her subject matter – the specific and complex study of historical events and people. For those uninterested in history, particularly specific WW2 incidents, and most especially for the non-British reader, some of Pugh’s themes are less than captivating. To understand the implications and motivation behind, for example, the three poems about “Walsingham’s Men”, one needs to have heard of the man, and to have some basic knowledge as to what he stands for in British history. That lack of understanding, not so much on the linguistic and poetic level, but in terms of metaphorical representation, might create distance, provoking a certain kind of disconnection and void that words alone are not really able to fill.
Throughout the entire collection, the reader encounters the sea in many guises, both real and metaphorical. In “Sea’s Answer” and “Wasting Time”, it becomes clear that, despite their contrasting structures, both poems use the ocean to represent the flux of time and the endlessness of life itself. The tercet and quatrains in “Sea’s Answer” may also simulate tidal patterns, ebbs and flows that are both different and similar. The concluding stanza ends aptly – “I am myself the metaphor”. “Wasting Time”, which like “Extremophile” has no stanzaic form, and reads like a story about observing the ocean. Pugh’s description of the waves and the colouring of the sea go hand in hand with the poem’s layout; the lines on the page’s white space giving the illusion of waves hitting the shore, endlessly approaching and retreating. It is possible to “waste time” observing the sea the same way one can lose time, immersed in the world of this poem.
All in all, Sheenagh Pugh’s new collection is a very reflective work that draws inspiration from the past yet indirectly also anticipates the future. However, the main focus remains firmly on the passing of time and the representation of life and existence.