Whale Hunt by SJ Fowler
-Reviewed by Billy Mills–
The whale hunt in the title of SJ Flower’s excellent chapbook is of the Viking variety, these being Viking poems. There is no clear evidence that the Vikings actually hunted whales, although whales and Vikings did most definitely co-exist and the one scavenged the carcasses of the other when such carcasses washed up on convenient beaches. Indeed, the limits of Viking whaling may well have been to injure whales in the hope of facilitating such scavenging. Sadly the Sagas are relatively silent on the matter.
Tilikum the captive orca, on the other hand, very definitely exists and is reasonably efficient as a people hunter, having killed three of them. Maybe he mistook them for Vikings? Together, Viking whale hunts, real or otherwise, and Tilikum the angry orca form the warp and woof of Whale Hunt.
As an object, this is the kind of chapbook that pleases my senses greatly. Its A6 page size is perfect for pockets, and the choice of a crisp serif font more than compensated for the small point size, meaning that the blocks of text are clearly readable. These untitled blocks, or poems, are nine in number and vary in length from eleven to seventeen lines, giving the whole the feel of a sonnet sequence. The inclusion of three interestingly complimentary illustrations, combining photomontage and angular line drawings, by publisher Nick Murray and the good-quality paper used add considerably to the pleasure.
The language of the poems is suitably jagged, given the Viking substratum:
Sparrows above, they are the size & colour of seagulls
Jokke saw they are so delicate, said their beaks
I told him & we throw rocks at them & eat them
with the preponderance of single-syllable words and fricative consonants combining highly effectively to create a suitably Nordic soundscape.
In a recent interview, Fowler mentions Pierre Joris and Tom Raworth as exemplars of the kind of poetic practice he admires. Anselm Hollo, a poet often associated with them, gets a name-check in the first of these poems; ‘now a skald in Valhalla’. On the evidence of Whale Hunt, what Fowler’s work most has in common with these older poets is speed. Speed of perception, of movement from one object to another, of language: these are the dominant characteristics of these poems. They are fast, disjunctive and unsettling of readerly expectations:
when war walked upright on the waves
bearpaw blackfish red arts admin.
that I surely shouldn’t do the recorded ruins
resurrected in Englishness tracery
intact in the tombing, parted company
heat dissolving delicacy, bound up
clow clear framing everyward to be heard
There is an additional undercurrent of animism running through the poems. Fowler’s whales and other animals are shape-shifting totemic creatures inhabiting a world in which ‘Time began with a bear then it became a Viking’. The bear is almost as much a presence as the whale; indeed they cannot really be distinguished:
Becoming Bear from Whale
Turns out the Whale is a Beaver
Bear > Beaver > Whale
Like Housman’s hunter and sailor, whalers, even putative Viking whalers, come home in the end. In fact, ‘home’ is the final word in both the first and last lines of the ninth and final poem in the set. For poet and Viking alike, it’s a hard-won landfall, ‘famished but alive’, wearing an Orca skull as helmet, home at last. It’s a neat resolution for such a restless sequence, final but somehow lacking finality, home until the next time, language, for the moment, at rest.