Review: Fios by Stewart Sanderson

Knowledge, Which You Don’t Have Yet

I’m always suspicious of back cover notes that insist a book “marks the emergence of an important new voice” aware that the poets’ friends are often invited to write the same, or a publisher with an eye to sales. Fair enough. On this occasion, however, I must agree.

Edwin Morgan Poetry Award shortlisted Stewart Sanderson’s sensational debut pamphlet Fios (pronounced ‘fiss’ I learn) not only offers the promise of a major new Scottish voice, but one that, although rooted in his devotion to the Scots language and landscape, has something to say we all might want to hear.

Sanderson’s work demands you visit or revisit works of art, amateur black and white film footage or recall the dimly remembered history of a revolutionary poet, because only by doing so can we can plug into the ‘fios’ – “knowledge, which you don’t have yet” (from ‘Fios’, appropriately the first poem in the collection) – which Sanderson’s work, on careful examination, gives up.

Poetry tells you things you know but do not know you know, shines light into the dark corners of things, offers a sense of something better understood. It peels back sensibilities in the same way Sanderson’s fine poem ‘Tradition Bearer’ peals back centuries from the moment his downstairs neighbour pushes a “pound note” under his infant pillow so he should “dae right” to…

“a very ancient man

with a face like teak

a voice the colour of smoke

(who) said when he was four

he could mind the boy riding

white-faced through the village, shouting

Culloden was lost.”

Not only does Sanderson perfectly articulate a sense of belonging in our own histories but, as other poems show, a sense of belonging in the Scots language as well. Yes, I had to Google words from old Scots, words like “crotal” (sheep bells), “waulking songs” (songs sung by women beating tweed to soften it), “smirr” (drizzly rain) and “cladach” (beach or shore), but these may be better known to some Scots readers and their discovery and the richness of their sounds added a fresh dimension to my own joy in the work. Listen to the onomatopoeia he seizes from the use of “cladach” in ‘Botticelli’s Illustration for Purgatorio 11’ for instance: “the calm cladach / where sea-sick spirits wretch.”, shore just wouldn’t have done it.

And yes, I did need to reacquaint myself with those paintings and histories, for at twenty-five, Sanderson is very wise and mightily well-informed. But then he rewards research a hundred-fold by offering new perspectives or exploding the expectations of early iconographic interpretations, as in ‘Portrait of a Young Married Couple’ inspired by Jan Van Eyck’s famous painting…

“That terrier we see

between the lovers’ legs would sooner steal

a chop than symbolise their hearts’ desires.”

No Renaissance symbol of marital fidelity and love there, then? Here is a poet who writes of love with a lyrical simplicity as in ‘Early Afternoon in America’,

“I miss your tenement

where sleep grows,

softer than some rare

beast’s fur”

but who also retains a deep understanding of the craft of poetry, has the measure of free verse in his bones and, it seems, the invisible scaffolding of more formal structures at his beck and call.

This is a small book of big ideas by a poet who will no doubt confirm in time the self- fulfilling prophesy on the back cover.


– Macavity


Fios by Stewart Sanderson
Tapsalteerie, RRP £5.00, 39pp

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