In eager anticipation, I pick up Gerda Stevenson’s second volume of poetry, Quines. Stevenson is a prolific and multi-talented Scottish artist, renowned for her work as an actor, playwright, director, poet and singer-songwriter. This collection, published on International Women’s Day 2018, has been lauded by high-profile commentators, including Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Lesley Riddoch and Richard Holloway. I have high expectations.
This collection of 68 poems celebrates the lives of remarkable Scottish women, many of whose achievements are unknown to us. Poems are organised in rough historical order of the events influencing the lives of these women and vary in poetic form. Our first encounter is with an indignant and timeless ‘Nessie,’
Your sonar probes and camera clicks
I’ll only rise when you can see
beyond the surface, fathoms deep.
From Nessie’s deep loch, the timeline launches into the voice of Sgàthach, the legendary warrior queen of Skye, moving on to the 6th century (Teneu, mother of the City of Glasgow) and through the centuries until the very recent past, where we hear the voice of the Scottish Poetry Library, remembering its founder, Tessa Ransford, OBE, who died in 2015.
Each poem is a monologue, told in the voice of the subject or someone related to her or another related entity. Nan Shepherd, for instance, is remembered in the voice of the Living Mountain (in the Cairngorms) of her eponymous book. The mountain addresses a stray £5 banknote bearing her image which floats on the breeze,
I dislike litter, especially your kind
though in your case, I’ll make an exception, because
you bear her face.
Most of the poems are written in English but a third are in Scots with some also gesturing to Gaelic inflection and syntax, as in ‘Saint Margaret,’
Cho brèagha, was the whisper of the court,
This woman more fair than any we had seen,
pale as the pearls I clasped around
her slender neck at dawn each day,
jewelled fingers spooning warm brochan
into blue-lipped orphan mouths
by the palace door at sunrise-
This ringing the changes in voice ensures that the sequence of poems remains vibrant and interesting whilst maintaining an air of authenticity.
Two bookend poems are written in Stevenson’s own voice. Her prologue, ‘Reconstructed Head of a Young Woman (Shetland Museum,)’ introduces us to the trigger for this anthology – her chance discovery in a Lerwick museum of the young woman’s reconstructed head which captured her imagination. Her ensuing fascination spawned this collection which would include Frances (Fanny) Wright – influential in her lifetime but long since forgotten – whose story had also captivated her. Stevenson’s epilogue is a memorial poem to Catriona White and celebrates “the eloquence of women’s work” – the efforts over a thousand (predominantly female) stitchers of The Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Stevenson concentrates on women who interest her. Here are singers, scientists, doctors, politicians, noblewomen, writers, activists. But also a fish-gutter, a salt-seller and an entire Scotland Women’s Football team, winners of the first recorded international match, Scotland v England, on Saturday 7th May, 1881. Many of the women have connections to Dundee (Fanny Wright; Mary Slessor; Williamina Fleming; Margaret Blackwood, MBE; Christian Small.)
This is a project of dazzling literary scope and vision. These poems entertain but they also educate. Who knew that Mary Fleming, Lady-in-Waiting to Mary Queen of Scots, became ‘Queen of the Bean’ in 1573 by being the lucky one to find a concealed bean in her Black Bun? How many of us were previously acquainted with ‘half-hangit’ Maggie Dickson, who survived hanging in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in the early18th century?
The collection shines a radiant light into the dark corners of unwritten women’s history. It has been reported that Stevenson would love a copy of Quines to go into every Scottish high school and university. I can’t think of a more worthy ambition.