For 2020, the StAnza Blog is hosting DURA – the Dundee University Review of the Arts – who as reviewers in virtual residence on the StAnza Blog will post excerpts from their selection of reviews of titles by poets on the StAnza 2020 programme, including this one in today’s blog. The full review can be read on their website at https://dura-dundee.org.uk/category/poets-stanza-2019-reviews/. Written by staff and students, DURA is keen to promote the diversity of artists and art forms in the UK context, supporting especially (albeit non-exclusively) independent cinema outlets, exhibitions, theatre, film and publishing.
Valerie Gillies, The Cream of the Well, reviewed by Hamzah M Hussain
Over the last four decades Valerie Gillies has truly inhabited the Scottish and Irish landscapes; she draws from them a perpetual source of sustenance for her work. “The Cream of the Well” refers to the first sip taken at sunrise that was believed to have healing properties – a mystical quality which has a strong and ethereal presence throughout the collection. Since 1977 she has journeyed, making observations of increasing depth. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Gillies’ work, this new volume collects poetry from previous publications and sets these alongside new poems. Read in its entirety, The Cream of the Well offers a poetic topography of Scotland and Ireland: we can trace her footsteps and share her lens on the physical, historical and mythological aspects of the places she visits.
Poems from her early book, from Each Bright Eye (1977) to Bed of Stone, physically carve and build on those landscapes. The language describes a thick, earthy and dirty world; the vista opens on a “wayless country”, “open grassmoor that is paradise” and “barren cold”, for example. Humans and animals live on the land as one; images are used interchangeably, giving full life to these landscapes, animals and people in an unflattering and imperfect beauty. This brings to mind scenes of misty hills and mountains, mulchy browns and greens with pastoral smells and animals.
The Cream of the Well is edited chronologically so as to show the evolution of Gillies’ ideas. Her earlier works introduce and establish a sense of place to which later works add characters, narrative and mythology. All of these flow from title to title, much like the water springs that are the metaphoric source of inspiration for much of her work.