Thursday, April 01, 2021

Steve Dornan's new poetry collection – 'Tha Jaa Banes'

I've been saving this one up for a while, given that tomorrow is Good Friday...

Steve and I have met, I think, twice (once in Belfast, once in Donaghadee) – he's an Ards man who relocated many years ago to Scotland, close to Aberdeen. So he grew up here in an era and community when Ulster-Scots speech was still very much part of daily life – within our ears from older folk if not always on our lips. But that's how it starts. You need to hear the sounds before you can make the sounds. He moved to a real heartland of Scots (the local dialect of Scots is often called 'Doric' up there in the north east) which has a richness all of its own. We banter on Twitter a fair bit. And he has no idea I am writing this post. 

The Ulster-Scots Academy Press, the publishers of this title, have flourished in our lockdown year, with a raft of important publications. Tha Jaa Banes was published back in December and it meets a long need, as a contemporary collection from a new young writer. It is very skilfully handled, and in so many places deeply thought provoking. Here are a few thoughts it inspired:

1. Creative contemporary Ulster-Scots writing is possible, it's not just for nostalgia or occasional comedic interjections.

2. It can be rooted in, and duly honour, community tradition (both linguistic and cultural) and yet also provide space for personal reflection and re-consideration of those traditions.

3. It can offer incisive and insightful comment, with a compactness and brusqueness not always possible with English

4. It can re-energise words from our written and spoken past and re-introduce them into the present. I had to look up a brave wheen of the words in each poem from the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, Chambers Concise Scots Dictionary and of course The Hamely Tongue. I am impressed that Steve did not include a glossary. The onus is placed on the genuinely seeking readers to 'do the work'; it invites us to apply ourselves and join with him in the uncovering.

5. Individual words are interesting, but they need to be woven together to be truly contextualised and appreciated. The "word of the day" thing has been around for many years now, from various quarters, because that's still a necessary point of entry for some (but seriously, how many times can 'oxters' be rolled out?). Some of the newer Twitter-based ones are younger, fresh and full of vitality. But words need a habitat, an idea to express, a story to tell. A sentence tae haud.

So, why post this today of all days? The standout poem for me is 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday'. I measure its power in its having welded itself into my mind ever since I first read it. The intelligence and multi-layered meanings within 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday' make it a poem I have returned to many times. 

Here in Northern Ireland we had a generation of Troubles/Conflict. Theoretically that ended with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – but in actuality it just moved to a new arena and different methods, to a low-level relentless wearying attrition. Since the 'GFA' we have had a further generation, which, for a time at least, enjoyed a 'peace dividend' of material prosperity. And yet so much remains unresolved, bleeding raw, unhealed, bealing, stoons.

Just last week it was disclosed that a government-commissioned report into just one aspect of that past will never be made public (newspaper report here). We've been offered conveniently-packaged official narratives, which come wrapped in our preferred colour schemes. But the actual truth seems to be too dark to tell. The empty chairs, the photographs on walls and mantelpieces, the silent birthdays, the missing Christmas cards, the tending of graves, the looming annual anniversaries. The cost of the desire to 'move on' has been a kind of 'institutionalised forgetting'.

"Progressive weans, on siller reared,
Can ocht forget"

Each line in 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday' demands attention, offering perspectives on the commercialisation and gentrification of the city, language decline but also thran persistence, a place with 'nae heart' (I have heard similar remarks from many people about the 'new' Windsor Park). When at Belfast Art College from 1990–94 I walked nearly every day from Oxford Street Ulsterbus Station, down through the lonely near-dereliction of what would later become redeveloped and rebranded as 'Victoria Square' and 'Cathedral Quarter', making my way to York Street and the old college building; the campus included the former 1930s Orpheus Ballroom, which was next door to the vast abandoned shell of the famous and once-bustling Co-Op with it's 1960s sci-fi movie set external cladding. These are all shiny glass boxes now. Much has changed. 

Tha Jaa Banes has been deservedly, positively, reviewed by people who understand literary form far better than I ever will. Seek those reviews out.

Steve, from within the community, has produced a collection that does justice to the depth and subtlety that exists within the values, thoughts and experiences of the community. He is not some detached monacled examiner surmising over a new curio or specimen. He has not adopted an alien idiom, he has not harvested mere 'content'. He has dug up oor banes. As the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel famously asked, "Can these bones live?".  Well, these Jaa Banes aren't just living – they hae a 'Leevin Tongue' forbye. An mair nor that, the jaas hae something tae say...

Tha Jaa Banes is a 60 page collection and is published by The Ulster-Scots Academy Press. You can buy it online here, for just £6.00.

PS: And here is Steve hissel in his ain words –