Caught by the River


Will Burns | 6th October 2017

Oyster by Michael Pedersen, with illustrations by Scott Hutchison (Birlinn, paperback, 128 pages. Out now and available here)

Review by Will Burns

In a world whose machinery has become increasingly greased with hate, a love poem can certainly be charged with radicalism. For Graves, they may have had to be bounced off the moon, but I’ll take them being bounced around closer to home for now – the streets of Manchester, Edinburgh, Paris. And Michael Pedersen’s Oyster does just that, staking a claim for love as an act of defiance against a reactionary re-drawing of borders, against parochialism and, most subtle of all, against those countless tiny acts of violence that a tradition of patriarchal portrayals of heterosexual love have ossified into sentimentality – the ‘saccharine warmth’ of ‘love’s tragic overspill’.

The title poem covers characteristic ground – the second line conjuring the expanse of universes in ‘every direction…beyond this/room glimmer and creak’ before describing the act of sharing an oyster (a first for the object of the speaker’s affection). It could be a worn out image, a worn out scene, but Pedersen’s exuberance and linguistic sense of play allow the poem’s movement from the infinite to the domestic-specific to feel strange and vital. The key word is ‘tongue’ (which appears half a dozen times in this poem alone), and its attendant ‘licking’ – the noun becoming a kind of lightning rod, ‘born out of sparks’, for the ‘many magics’ of both the oyster tasting and the couple’s tentative, new, uncertain contact. Here they are indeed, the two of them, ‘plucky as moon/still out in morning’.

The tongue is a kind of spirit animal for the whole collection, a trickster figure in many ways – often providing a point of contact, but also a junction, a membrane to permeate, a way into translation. In the book’s first poem, the speaker ‘will swallow/your dancing tongue…’ and this kind of swallowing, enveloping, mashing together becomes the method of Pedersen’s love – love as ‘wearing someone/else’s skin’.

There are poems for friends, too. Poems for fellow travellers and for those occasions in cities and youth which the reader will recognise, even if one’s own didn’t involve trying to fence a stash of knocked-off computers after an all-nighter in Edinburgh. These treat a different kind of love, of course, as do the poems which so skilfully render that melancholically-tinged excitement that comes with travel and living abroad. The Middle November, Paris 2015 sequence is wonderfully done – evocative and personal. And again the poems here shrug off any over-familiarity by dint of language and an authorial sensibility that make a strange beauty. There is a kind of crescendo built from this sequence (and another two poems) into Birds & Trains, the poem that, perhaps even more than the title poem, seems to underpin the book. Here Pedersen manages to wrap up all of his Europe into an ecstatic ode to birds (‘our great migrants’), trains, travel and the now-named figure in his love affair. The poem is superbly controlled, balancing the bird images with the ‘engineered majesty’ of the trains and finally coming to rest on the fever-dream of new love. It’s hard not to get on board (Jesus, I’m sorry) with the poem’s final lines –

Like passing trains, we might not often share the same steel shed or carry similar cargo, but our locomotion synced-up is something sublime and like birds, of feathers every colour, we make a fantastic racket.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the book in full is the energy that Pedersen has imparted to the poems. Susan Sontag wrote that permanence is not one of beauty’s more obvious attributes, and there is in this book a sense of life’s momentary structure, the quickness of it all, the speed with which things come on, pass by, pass out or pass away. I suppose sensuality (and it is most definitely a sensual book) after all relies on brevity. The poems read like a wonderful, frantic night out with that brilliant but somehow dangerous friend we all have or wish we had. There is something of the beats, for sure, but the book’s own elbow room apart from those American forebears is achieved by far more than just the Scottish dialect words and slang. It is the definitive product of a single imagination and a single set of circumstances, experiences and an aesthetic sensibility and linguistic power robust enough to stand up to those, whether they be the downward spiral of drug addiction, or the intensity of new love.

In many ways it feels like a book out of its time, so proudly un-ironic and fervent is it. One can read it as a kind of charm against so much that is broken, empty and cynical in the world we have ended up with. It is a book with eyes and heart open wide to the true things of the world – life, for good or ill. It is a book which longs, ultimately, to make to the reader a gift of experience.


Oyster is available in the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £9.00.

Will Burns on Caught by the River/on Twitter