Songs of the rain: A review of Return by Minor Road by Heidi Williamson (Bloodaxe, 2020)

This is a book of remembrance, of trauma and grief, but also one of hope, healing and consolation. It’s a book of landscapes and emotion, often drawing parallels between the two, finding mirrors and echoes in nature.

Heidi was part of the community in Dunblane at the time of the shooting in the primary school in March, 1996. Return by Minor Road is not an attempt to understand the tragedy, but in the words of one of key poems, to ‘reckon’ with it. Across its three parts, we are taken on a circuitous journey of healing and rebuilding; a coming to terms with what happened, without the sense that the poet is reaching for easy answers or explanation. Throughout, nature is a companion, a sounding board and at times, almost a commentator on feelings and events. Some poems tackle its appalling subject head-on, but for the most part, these fine, carefully weighted and minutely observed poems arrive at oblique angles.

‘In a school room, the woodcutter’ is an erasure of one of Heidi’s earlier poems. It invokes myth and fairy tale, a sinister reimagining of a Grimm fable; where the woodcutter has ‘come for the children.’ They ‘tried to be small… as birds, quieter/one feather… pressed to their beaks.’ It is unbearably moving, wrought with fear and works within a framework of lost innocence. Heidi has a great tenderness and insight in her treatment of children in the collection, her observations informed, no doubt, by her own experiences as a mother.

Return by Minor Road

Water, and the image of the river, in particular, recurs throughout. It is a symbol for time, grief and memory. In ‘Thrawn’ (a dialect word meaning twisted and/or stubborn) the river is a source of solace as well as power. Unable to sleep, the poet goes ‘back to the river’ in her mind, and is lulled by the rhythms of the water as it ‘laps and falls.’ She feels it running through everything – beneath the streets, and even at an atomic level as it seeps into ‘each cell of stone.’

Elsewhere, the river represents escape: ‘You may stand on its banks some days and resist/The temptation to walk in up to your chest.’

‘Allan Water Bridge’ also presents a moment of dangerous reflection. A woman on a bridge contemplates the oblivion of the water below, as the ‘Dark fish weave beneath.’ It’s full of menace; death a mere slip away. But there is a stepping back. As she raises her hands from the stone, there is a sudden lightness, as the bridge itself ‘begins to hover/one inch above the water’ then proceeds to travel through the town. The familiarity of landscape is what eventually settles her: ‘She knows this place.’

However, the poet resists the temptation to interpret all feeling through the pathetic fallacy of nature. She is acutely aware of our tendency to project ourselves onto landscapes and constantly search for meaning. She knows that nature is ultimately an unconscious, elemental force: ‘The river will outlast this rush/but not mourn it./The cormorant will not grieve/for what it never knew to be its difference.’ Heidi does not apologise for using nature as a mirror, but makes no claims for it to be possessed of supernatural or spiritual feeling of its own. The one instance of this, in ‘When we were stone’ is almost light relief: the protagonist imagines herself as a rock on a riverbed: ‘The fish eyed us with suspicion./And when we drained in the sun/dragonflies alighted on us…’ It’s a wonderful conceit and an arresting image.

The second part of the book, Cold Spring, is searing in its intensity. The language is often fragmented, revealing its inadequacy in the face of such inexplicable tragedy. We hear the muted voice of a counsellor: ‘how do you feel/What would you want to/say?’ Grief, it is clear, is not a linear process; there are relapses, reversals and vivid flash backs as ‘shock… resets.’ Elsewhere, in ‘Self’ the poet appears to doubt the wisdom of the whole enterprise; the tone is questioning, doubting, even accusing: ‘How can you make words out of this? I don’t know.

In Dumyat, the protagonist finds herself almost exhausted by grief: ‘Some days we cried ourselves out.’ Instead their pack coats and leave to climb a hill. They climb in silence, relieved at not having to articulate their sense of loss, of despair or outrage: ‘At the summit we kept numb vigil/for what we couldn’t say.’

Perhaps the starkest piece in the collection is ‘Elegy’ consisting solely of the names of the victims. They are arranged, as if sat at desks in their classroom, with spaces between. It’s numbing in its rawness; a bold assertion of the loss and the framing is everything. But this is a deeply compassionate work, and there is often consolation to be found. ‘Elegy’ is followed by ‘Snowdrop’ where an implied link is made between the lost children and the flower: ‘Every year they break through/hard ground, their tiny selves/weighed down with sunlight.’ It’s a glimpse of hope and renewal, but also an invocation of The Snowdrop Campaign, which successfully lobbied for gun controls – suggesting their sacrifice wasn’t utterly meaningless; they have saved the lives of others.

The poem ‘And’ works in the same way as ‘Elegy’: an apparently straightforward list of the lives the tragedy has touched: ‘And the postman. And the florist. And the dentist…’ It is at once banal and crushingly painful. The staccato bursts are like jolts of grief and finality. Buried in the list is a warning: ‘And the next time’.  It builds to a devastating ending: ‘And the siblings. And the parents. And the children. And.’ It is hard to conceive how some of these poems could be performed, pitched as they are at such a degree of intensity.

If any of this implies that the book is hard to read, then that is to mislead; the lyrical flights are sensational; among the finest nature poetry being written this year. The language is as freshly minted as the landscape; the river is ‘forceful as a key.’ Each descent into despair is balanced by a resurgence of life and language (‘the flood may recede/as rapidly as it arrived.’)

Heidi is also well aware of the duality of nature, and by extension, ourselves. In the poem ‘Smoke’ it ‘needn’t be a warning,/it can be an invitation.’ It comes towards the end of the collection, when the elapse of time allows us to look at things differently – to see that some symbols can be double edged – what once would have been a portent can also represent renewal and comfort. In this particular piece, her own child’s spirit is vigorously invoked as the totem to ward off grief and despair: ‘the hero in this poem/throws invisible smoke bombs/to exist a room mysteriously.’

So many of these poems speak of absence, whether in the spaces between lines, between poems, or in the powerful use of the erasure form, where words are stripped away. In ‘Dust, at intervals’, the poet watches thin air itself, observing ‘The air is not nothing.’ The lines drift, like motes of dust across the page, as she sees ‘skin flakes, mites, cat dander’ pass through lamplight. It says much about the poet’s powers that even an absence is revealing.

The collection culminates in a return to Dunblane. This final section is also home to the powerful title poem, an intimate portrait of a family exploring its past. She sees the place through different eyes, specifically her child’s, who reckons with the unfamiliar landscapes for the first time: ‘He says the light/tastes different here.’ The tone is just as candid and reflective in the poem that follows: ‘Dunblane.’ We walk in step with the family as they revisit old haunts, noticing things that weren’t part of their earlier lives: ‘the play parks and museums’. There is an intense sense of gratitude; an awareness of their luck to have each other; to be witness to a childhood untouched by tragedy. But they take nothing for granted: ‘We watch the future/we do not dare to presume.’ The final poem, ‘Place’ is one of the best I’ve read this year; a gush of images that manage to evoke a country, a time and a chapter in a life.  

Return by Minor Road feels like a major achievement. Brilliantly constructed, each poem feels complete in itself, while contributing to a greater whole – a book that is woven together with the grasses and branches, shadowed by rain clouds. A work of vivid phrase-making and lyrical empathy, it is by turns, a celebration of our spirit, a forensic examination of the soul, and a warning of the darkness that lives at the edges of our lives.

Christopher James won first prize in the National Poetry Competition, 2008. His most recent collection is The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017). He is also the author of several works of pastiche fiction, including Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons (MX, 2020).