5 Oct 2015

The Steel Garden by Lorna J. Waite

The Steel Garden by Lorna J. Waite
A Steel Quine
Lorna J. Waite is a poet and activist who was brought up in the steel working community of Kilburnie, more specifically in the shadow of Glengarnock Steelworks, which closed in 1985. 

The Steel Garden is Lorna J. Waite’s first collection although she has been well represented in magazines and anthologies, has a doctorate from Dundee University, and had a long association with the free arts and culture magazine Variant.

Whereas Glengarnock opened its furnaces first in 1841, Variant was also fairly long running in its field. Launched in 1984 it appeared in one form or another and continued excellent and it has to be said popular work up until its Creative Scotland funding was cut in 2012.

Variant wasn’t just a magazine however ... much like Glengarnock wasn’t just a steel works. 

Variant was concerned with public education and the advancement of the arts and was in its day a constituted association that aimed to place the well-being of Scotland’s working communities higher than whatever the aims of a literary or arts magazine normally does. 

So one has to wonder if there were class issues here. Increasingly it looks like public bodies are not on the whole comfortable with community politics mixing with public resources, preferring something easier to sell to the aesthetic elites they deal with.

And likewise, while Glengarnock may have looked like a steel works on the UK’s balance sheets, it was in fact a community and a behemothic collection of lives, histories and many of these are captured here.

The Steel Garden isn't a 'moribund community remembered' type of poetry book, but combines memory with mythology with the result that the steel garden of the title, and the blasties who live there, are in fact elevated.  It isn't normal eulogy and it isn't the type of public memory, the likes of which prompted a rush of poetry during the miners' strikes of the 1980s. 

Dominant ideas include the unwavering nature of the strength of the people and in particular women, and several poems use mythology as a part of a process of growth and education, enforcing the need to stay committed in the long struggle ahead. The poem Poetic Proof asserts that,

The Steel Garden presents as a book divided in two, simultaneously spliced in many directions at once. There are for example poems in English and poems that are in Scots voices — the pronounced difference between the two elements of The Steel Garden. There are the poems of the streets, and there are poems of gods and mythologies.

It’s not unusual to find both Scottish and English mixed in Scottish poetry, but in The Steel Garden it is politically pronounced, so much as to offer folk poetry for the blasties, and mythological education placed in fine English. 

What Lorna J. Waite has succeeded in doing I feel, is proposing a substantial poetic record of the community of Kilburnie blasties.  It is generous and heartfelt, and sums up as a poetic time capsule every facet and ingredient of the community which it memorialises — furnace chimneys,  the old and young, the domestic violence, Kilburnie Loch, the Seven Sisters ... 

There is much more going in in The Steel Garden than one would habitually find in the average ‘slim volume’. For example, The Landless League of Forgotten Factories questions land use through ancestral voices, searching the shade of the Thatcherite dawn for hope.

Throughout Lorna J Waite examples the notion of the poet as axis mundi. The axis mundi in certain beliefs and philosophies, is the connection between Heaven and Earth. As the celestial pole and geographic pole, it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet, and in poetry it may be interpreted as the correspondence between higher and lower realms.

Through vernacular hitting mythology in The Steel Garden, communication transcends the historical lives of the steel working community.

Suitably, the images are mostly feminine, and the axis itself can be interpreted as a product of human manufacture, here the furnaces or the towers and its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious.  As every microcosm has a centre — that is to say, a place that is sacred above all — so must the community of the blasties, and it is this that Lorna J. Waite sets forth as only a poet can.  

This isn’t therefore simply a set of poems that mourns the passing of another industrial community, but which finds the religious significance in the processes of that community, through its death.

It is not easy work, and yet many fine long poems are achieved with a sense of celebration, as in the poem The Steelwork Likes to be Remembered:
Ye will ayeways be wi me ye ken
As backdrop tae maself
Ma youth has gone wi yae
Ma een still shine
Wi the sparkle o yer licht in the dimmin shadow
O the work, yer memory disnae haunt
Steel hairts o silent chambers echoin a pulse.

The poems about the furnaces and the daily lives of the blasties seem to drift to the north, always the north, first into Gaelic and then further yet into mythologies, perhaps reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s approach to the world — The Steel Garden is democratic in subject matter and language and even includes the odd list, as Lorna J. Waite catalogs the post-industrial world growing around her. 

Glengarnock Steelworks c.1900

Just as Scotland is different politically and practically from its UK and European counterparts, so too must Scottish poetry distinguish itself from English, and so we see swipes made as The Steel Garden breaks ground in both subject matter and diction.

This preference for the quotidian links Lorna J. Waite with others who write poetry in a vernacular language, but not in a romantic manner. Instead, what is written in The Steel Garden and appears in common language, is able to cross the gap between the self and another individual, to effect a sympathetic exchange of experiences.

At times it is in plain sight, as in Steel Quine:

A ken sum o the wummin luk at the educated wan an wonder
‘She did her ain thing, disnae huv weans ye ken,
wan o they kind o wummin.’

And at other times, it is hard wired into a formalised and classical approach to applying mythology to the mundane: 

The serpent of wisdom slithers
Up the folds of her grey patina dress
Statuesque form, strong in body,
To carry the wisdom of ancestors

Glengarnock Steelworks Images

Variant Magazine (Archive)