Moder Dy by Roseanne Watt

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

moder dy roseanne watt

I’ve been following Roseanne Watt for a while via twitter and Instagram with the sense that this was somebody worth keeping an eye on. With that in mind I’d been looking forward to reading her first collection of poetry (with which she won the Edward Morgan poetry award for 2018) since it was announced.

Even so I was nothing like prepared for how good I think this collection is, how rich, relevant, and multi layered. It does a lot of things, but if there’s a central theme that runs through ‘Moder Dy’ it’s about the links between language and identity.

The Moder Dy is the mother wave in Shetland dialect, an underswell that the Haaf fishermen in their small open boats could steer by. These boats known as sixareens, were around 30 feet long and crewed by six men, who would row out 40 miles or more to fish for days at a time. The Moder Dy runs back towards land. 

Watt, who is from Shetland is specifically interested in its dialect which is almost a language (Christine De Luca, another poet with Shetland roots has some interesting things to say about which she thinks it is that can be found on You Tube). It is predominantly a mix of old norn and lowland Scots – Shetland only became part of Scotland in the 15th century, before then it had been under Norwegian control. 

The other important thing about the Shetland dialect is that it’s never really been the language of authority in the islands, and until relatively recently hasn’t been the language of culture either – which sets it apart from something like Gaelic. What it is, is the language of the home, fishing, folklore and farming, increasingly it is part of the language of contemporary Shetlands culture too.

Whilst that’s undoubtedly because people are more attuned to the value of dialect as part of a heritage, broad dialect is a very specific marker of belonging to a particular place. Malachy Tallack talks about the twin pillars of accent and ancestry in Shetland society in ’60 Degrees North’; if you don’t have both you remain an outsider. As an outsider dialect is harder to pick up because of the Shetland habit of Knapping – modifying dialect to be easier to understand to non native speakers.  Watt defines this as “to speak in an affected manner, a Shetlander attempting to speak ‘proper’ English.

Some of the poems here are written entirely in Shaetlan, they come with ‘uneasy translations’ – sister poems – they are close to each other but discernibly different. (There’s a glossary to consult if you want a more direct translation of specific words). Other poems mix dialect with English, some don’t use dialect at all, but it’s a continuous thread to explore.

These words are a link to the past, or a gift for the future. Some are clearly used for the sheer delight they give (like slockit- for extinguished, as of a light). The paired poems speak of the tension between an inherited past and the contemporary world – how do you reconcile the two so that they live easily together?

That isn’t a question that has just one answer, I think Watt does it by acknowledging the tradition she is part of both through the mythic imagery she uses in pieces such as Kishie Wife which imbues the crofting woman with a promethean purpose. I think it has a nod towards George Mackay Brown too. Then there is a perfect little masterpiece inspired by a faerie ring which distils a thousand years of superstition and folklore into 14 words. 

But then every poem has revealed something, and continues to give more with each reading. They’ve stretched time whilst I’ve read them on tea breaks and bus journeys – a scant quarter of an hour turned into a profound pause in my day, and provoked a whole range of emotion which has sometimes been uncomfortable. I really can’t overstate just how damn good I think this collection is, or how much I want people to read it. I am absolutely in awe of what Roseanne Watt has done here.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy (Polygon 2019) 9781846974878, 83pp, paperback.

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