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A Choreographer's Cartography

Written by Jim Mainland for The New Shetlander, No. 241 on no date provided

The New Shetlander, No. 241, Hairst 2007
A Choreographer’s Cartography, Raman Mundair, Peepal Tree Press, £8.99

Many readers of the New Shetlander will remember Raman Mundair as a particularly effective Shetland Writer-in-Residence. Her first poetry collection Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves was launched during her placement, in 2003. the promise of that volume is consolidated here in a book that brims with the author’s characteristic candour, vitality and immediacy. She writes movingly about loss and acceptance, but what comes over most strongly is a manifesto fro empowerment, and an inhibition-denying crusade for the freedom of voice and self-expression.
The collection begins with poems in Shetland dialect. Some of these are fragments, impressionistically catching the fleetingness of experience suggested by their names: ‘Aurora’, ‘Mareel’, ‘Simmer Dim’, for example; but the opening poem, ‘Shetland Muse’, which articulates the effect of living in Shetland on her work is more distinctive. The poem ends like this:
Throughout the night, the moon
just out of reach, plays with the sheep-
hide and seek – their bustle torsos
a strange comfort in a landscape 
void of trees. While most sleep
my ink luminous marks magic true.

‘Bustle torsos is right, I think. The consonantal crowding conveys something of
the sheep’s solidity and surreal, moonlit presence, while the inverted, heavily stressed, alliterative last line emphasises the wizardry involved in the secret act of writing. ‘My luminous ink marks true magic’ has a different sense and rhythm altogether, and less possibility, since the placing of ‘luminous’ in the original line informs both ‘ink’ and ‘marks’.
‘Sheep Hill, Fair Isle’ is, on the face of it, a simple memory of an ‘attempt to roo’, but because of the casual earlier mention of ‘baby skin’, the last sentence is as moving as it is unexpected: ‘My fingers/lanolin soft with your memory.’ The edge is developed more in the ‘Stories fae da Shoormal’ sequence, where romantic images of Shetland give way to keener observations of ‘whispers’ that ‘echo alang Da Esplande’ and ‘shadows’ that ‘hing fae nooses’.
The section entitled ‘Terra Infirma’ begins with ‘Blood Season’, a poem about the Iraq war is made up of six pieces – some merely fragments – a structure which allows for shifting perspectives and related nuances to be presented together, and for a faceted narrative to be developed. The poems that follow are more personal, but often tenderly reflect similar themes of loss.
In the poems of ‘Vivace’ we shift to a more sensual territory. ‘Pleasure Beach’ is a longish, graphically expressed, rites-of-passage poem which stands out like a frank and unflinching piece of angst-ridden pandemonium by Peaches or Plan B out of Sugar Rush. ‘Club Kali’ and ‘Dizzy’ are propelled by a lust for metaphor-hopping, imperative driven language. It occurred to me that it was a pity that the latter poem wasn’t written in the dialect – or ‘Pleasure Beach’ done in Lerwegian, for example.
Expressions of freedom and release are evident in the title poem, ‘A Choreographer’s Cartography’ which seeks to dance the world into liberation and which leads to ‘Atempause’, a series of poems commissioned by the Austrian Cultural Institute, among others, and ‘inspired by and in celebration of the music of Johann Strauss and the waltz.’
As someone who essays even the St Bernard’s Waltz in the manner of the dog it is presumably named after, I regarded this section with some trepidation. After all, it could have been a rather earnest project, but happily Raman Mundair approaches the subject from varied and unexpected angles.
‘Volvere’, for instance, presents the waltz-craze in a whirl of adjective-noun constructions which capture the bubble of gentility burst by encroaching historical developments: ‘of Russia/ where workers march/ for justice, equality and bread’ and where, ultimately: ‘blood filters through Vienna snow.’ ‘A Servant’s Tale, part I’, explores the irony that the fabric of dresses worn by Viennese aristocratic women to adorn themselves came from ‘textile mills of Punjab’ and from ‘pittance-paid paid/ of hardened hands in darkened corners’, and at the end, a new dance is celebrated and acknowledged: ‘we summon sure steps towards freedom, / and impress a new cartography.’
The affirmative tone is present in Part III, a poems which is similar to Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Warming her Pearls’ where the lady’s servant girl, or hand-maiden, draws confidence from her realisation that ‘madam’ is, deep-down, lifeless and subordinate in a way the speaker, despite her powerlessness, will never be.
The is a memorable line in the poem ‘Detox’ which I think accurately sums up the range and attack of the poems in this collection, and it goes like this: ‘I’m wired, hungry, rash.’ Be warned!

Jim Mainland

This is a review of A Choreographer's Cartography

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