(Stewed Rhubarb, 2021); £5.99
The Highland Citizenship Test is a small collection of poems by Colin Bramwell. The poems themselves range in form and tone, as well as dialect, with some presented in Scots and others in English. Bramwell is a poet, musician and performer from the Black Isle who describes himself as a writer who ‘works between literary genres with a strong sense of rhythm and melody.’
The first poem in his collection is a haiku with a pun-based title. It’s called the ‘Hai-land-ku’. This instantly caught my eye as a writer of haikus with pun titles. The title also has a double pun on ‘Highland Coo’, as in “Highland Cow” (!), as well as drawing attention to its form. Sound play is very relevant to the poems involved, especially when comes to Scots in later poems.
‘Jigsaw’ starts amusingly with the narrator’s annoyance at being left a jigsaw puzzle (and nothing else) in a relative’s will. Bramwell demonstrates a keen eye for character, with the implied argument between mother and son feeling realistically mundane: ‘Your mum gives you an earful, storms off.’ It’s a wonderful poem that highlights how memory can be a horrible thing to confront. The jigsaw puzzle works as a beautiful metaphor for grief and the effects it has on us. The second person narration sways the reader into the mindset of the narrator – the bitterness, the sentimentality and ultimately the moment of truth. We all have our own jigsaw puzzles, fragments of a memory that have a powerful impact when put together.
The centre piece of the booklet is the titular poem, the title track if you will. It takes the form of list poetry, with the list in question being a series of questions. It’s a deftly funny satire on the bureaucratic arbitrariness of citizenship tests but is also vaguely ominous, with the final line being ‘There are no second chances here, discuss’ The use of italics is pointed, like a judgemental finger. Yet there is more to it than just that, as the poem becomes a sort of heightened parody of how Scottish people talk to each other in this very question-oriented and vaguely argumentative way… as well as what we talk to each other about. The deliberate spacing of the poem seems to mirror the staging of a performance, the pause of the white space perhaps gesturing towards audience laughter at each of the questions:
Huv ye thocht aboot settin yir screenplay here?
If so, whaur specifical?
Is Glencoe Massacre an IPA?
Do ye ken the gate tae Sandalwood Bay?
How come Black Isle fishermen winna buy Swan matches? …
It also litigates the very nature of the Highlands itself with questions like ‘Does Aiberdeen coont? Whit aboot Elgin?’. The absurdity of the questions is apparent in lines such as ‘Do you ever miss the feudal system?’. It also comes across as a bit of a parody of TV quiz shows or a newspaper interview, but as the questions are stripped of all context, it comes across as a pointless exercise. The reader, or at least this reader feels no call to answer these baffling questions, they just exist. Because. The pointlessness is the point. The blank ‘Answers’ sheet on the last page is a clever additional joke to finish off the book. Its implication is pretty clear.
The Highland Citizenship Test by Colin Bramwell is an enjoyable and quite eclectic collection of poetry, good for a laugh and also a night of introspection on love, loss and family.
P.S: The note on the inner back cover of the booklet highlighted in green reads, “Contrary to popular belief, Colin Bramwell will not be able to mark your exam script for the Highland Citizenship Test, nor give feedback on any of your answers to the questions therein”, tells a story in its own right and is hilarious.