twenty-five: Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury

Back in June I went to a poetry reading (where I heard Mimi Khalvati and Alice Major) run by two poets, Nancy Mattson and Mike Bartholomew-Biggs. This week I read Nancy’s latest collection, Writing With Mercury, published in 2006 by Flambard Press.

Nancy comes from a background that intrigues me: she’s Canadian, third-generation (I think) Finnish, and there’s something about both countries that compels me: I think it’s a vague idea of ‘the north’, although I’ve only visited Canada, and only once. Although the collection is very much an evocation of life in modern London, it’s suffused with a sense of the width and the purity of both landscapes.

Nancy writes astutely and humorously about the differences and dislocations of being an expat in a new country, with roots in yet another, and Writing With Mercury feels very rooted to a sense of place – London – though always hinting at other places. Finnish words are threaded throughout the collection in intriguing, riddling ways. Birds feature, become punning ways of understanding, remembering: in ‘Bitternness’, memory ‘is bittern’; in ‘Grouseness’, it becomes ‘grouse wing’.

What I liked most about Writing With Mercury was the sense you got of the poet’s own history and voice. There are lots of poems that deal with family history, dialogues between fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters; and there are lots of fantastically celebratory poems, both of freedom and of people. This personal remembering takes place within a larger context of a wider history, with ‘Fourteen Women’ and ‘Song for Canadian Dads’.

Favourites were ‘Winters of Authenticity’, ‘Old Baby Tales’, ‘When in Finland’, ‘Stones of New Finland’, ‘Inheritance’, Northern Way’, ‘Sod Hut’, ‘Miracle on Upper Street’, ‘Blackberries, Lumb Bank’, ‘”Tosi” is a Word for Truth’, and ‘Maze’, which is just beautiful – London become page:

What I miss is gravel
crunching under foot or wheel,
wide sky above
the road straight into horizon.

I want to walk the crease
of a prairie book, lines of wheat
as even type, all one size
the word gold over and over.

London’s a fused maze
of alphabets: wherever you walk,
each road, wherever it turns,
is utterly paved or cobbled crookedly.

A crazed typesetter has been at work
every night for centuries, his head
swirling with shadows thrown
on crumbling walls by candle-flame.

He has set every line diabolical
in a different font and size,
hot lead in higgledy-piggledy frames
and gutters overflowing with errata.

Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury (Flambard Press, 2006)

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