Before moving to specifics, I’ll start with some general points. It’s a perplexing title, is it not? These poems take the reader to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, which is the administrative centre of the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway’s natural harbour has been used at least since Viking times but probably much earlier than that in unrecorded history. In Callanish, the island has of course a remarkable stone circle and also standing stones rivalling the more famous Stonehenge.
Murray was born in Ness but now lives in the Shetland Isles. He is a teacher, author and a journalist as well as a poet and The Guga Hunters, a recent volume of poetry and prose is written in both Gaelic and English.
The first poem in SY StorY, “Beginnings”, reflects on “Mesolithic wanderers”. With an unobtrusive but quite complicated rhyme scheme, it typifies many of the poems here. Murray employs both full and slant rhymes and, when he chooses not to rhyme in a volume of rhyme-heavy verse, the effect and emphasis is profound. Consider the effect of “our foundations here are fragile” and
There is ground here
No man can call his own.
Murray’s introduction to the collection describes a “misspent teenage years…spent around Stornoway Harbour” and details his “personal history of Stornoway”, appropriately entitled “An I-View”. There is also a short afterword (or “Rear View”), which attempts to separate autobiographical fact from fiction in the poems. While all this might seem unnecessary for the enjoyment of the poems, it may well be necessary for a member of that tightly-knit community who just might find cause to wonder.
There is such rich range and mixture of poems – even humorous verse set beside historical poems. While some of the collection’s concern events which took place a long time ago, none of their immediacy is lost and some are quite distressing to read.
There is an intermittent series of short poems entitled “Love song with….”, In “Love Song with Kippers”, each of the four short stanzas begins “Let us meet inside the smokehouse”, and does sound as though it ought to be sung. Each stanza compares smoked fish to some aspect of love, for instance ‘”marinated with our tears’’ and ”a love hooking deep inside us’’. “Love Song with Dogfish” is only two lines long and “Love Song with Conger Eel” and others a mere one line long but all are perfect, funny little poems.
The poems in SY StorY about shipwrecks are almost unbearably sad. There is a series of poems about the Norge, which sank in 1904. These are mainly about specific survivors (only 160 out of 805) but one concerns Murray’s musings on a photograph of some of the survivors outside the poorhouse. The whole book is peppered with old photographs (which would make an interesting book by themselves), as well as wonderful drawings by Douglas Robertson.
The historical poems in Murray’s collection tend to reflect on whether the people written about ever wondered what Stornoway would be like in their future but our present. Murray imagines the Vikings having visions of container lorries. The fishermen standing in front of a “thick woodland of masts”, which perfectly describes the old photograph that accompanies the poem, are envisaged foreseeing their sons leaving “to cut branches”. Again, that subtle rhyming is present.
There are almost eighty poems in this collection, far too many to do justice to in a short review. If that title is still perplexing, then you need go no further than Stornoway’s airport…but that would be a pity. There is so much more to discover here.