Poetry review – Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh Pugh

Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh PughAs we hurtle towards the time of year when this title becomes ever truer, I’ve been drawn to pick up Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th collection again. I reviewed it for Mslexia’s Sep/Oct/Nov 2014 issue, but with only a handful of words to play with, feel the need to take another, perhaps deeper look.

Sheenagh writes of the tenacity of living things to live while speeding towards their own inevitable demise. Yet her pragmatism makes this a far from melancholy thing. Indeed, she seems to suggest that our mortality should make the joy of the everyday that bit more intense.

In her opening poem, Extremophile, Sheenagh marvels at the ability of life to take hold and thrive in the least hospitable environments: molluscs “in the night of the ocean floor”, lichens “on Antarctic valleys where no rain ever fell.” It sets the tone for a collection celebrating vitality in all forms.In Staying she explores the energies of the ground beneath us: “This fissured sea-cliff/ travelled north from the equator; its heights were once an ocean floor.”

Sheenagh draws the focus in tight too, examining the ageing process in poems like Terra Nova and Catching Up, and the aftermath of death itself in Travelling With Ashes. Yet there’s no sentimentality or regret in lines like “and the sunlight’s morse sent answering flashes/ off broken windscreens, a code he once knew”, simply an awareness that this is what comes to us all – so all that remains is the minutiae others can conjure up in memory.

Medals paints a picture of a military career in the most tender terms, with each stanza named for a different medal and location, telling a different chapter of a life. Other poems highlight the moments we’ll recall forever: a wedding nights in an ice hotel (there is a lot of ice, snow and fog in this collection), encounters with raw nature, and, unexpectedly, an homage to a bronze statue.

Sheenagh seems to be reminding us, I think, that every detail can be important, if we choose it to be.

Her steady humour shines out from between couplets and lines. The Vanishing Bishop made me smile as she describes digging up the ancient corpse of a bishop, sending for someone to come from the museum, and sitting with him, contented. “His whole face/ suddenly settled, fell in on itself, letting go its last memory/ of who he’d been.”

And the bit that made me want to laugh: when the scientists arrive, she confesses wanting to say: “You only just missed him; he was here with me a moment ago.”

The normality of the phrasing is an elegant touch in such an extraordinary circumstance, and clarifies my impression of what this collection is about – not just the wonder of life, but a thrill at its brevity.

Sheenagh revels in the ice hotel that will melt in spring and be rebuilt differently, catches and holds up the moment when your eyes see something not quite there, and relishes the truth that even the most seemingly permanent natural structures are “on the move.”

And as the poet shares her joy in the transience of things, that title seems more apt than ever. Our time here may be fleeting, but if we turn a fierce enough gaze on our time, it will cast a long, enduring shadow.

Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh Pugh is published by Seren Books and available to buy from Amazon.

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