- United Kingdom -
Em is a poet, novelist, mentor, editor, prison tutor and founder of Scottish charity, Three Streams. Her writing preoccupations are with nature, spirituality and the masculine. Em’s first full collection of poetry, Bird-Woman, was published by Shearsman in October 2016, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prize and won the 2017 Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her second collection, Horse-Man, was published in September 2019 and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Munthe prize for Best Second Collection. Her first novel, Quinn, was shortlisted for the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize and will be published by Oneworld in 2023.
Em Strang’s two books speak to each other—and to themselves—in subtle and ingenious ways. Each includes several poems featuring its titular creature, not necessarily as a character in itself but rather as a component of a landscape. A series of such poems in Horse-Man juxtapose the horse-man—a horse with human attributes, one imagines, not unlike a centaur—with various other images: “Horse-Man’s Long Dream of the Moon”, “Horse-Man Says Yes”, “Horse-Man in the Dunes”, “Horse-Man at Callanish”. “Horse-Man and the Oak” offers an especially poignant example of one of Strang’s signature techniques. The poem is short, comprised of one four-line stanza followed by a one-line stanza. The last line is the crucial one: it turns the poem in a new direction, leaving the reader something unusual to think with, but does not close the door to reinterpretation. “This morning Horse-Man is hanging / upside-down (magic rope) in an oak tree,” she writes, “his hooves moving as though he’s running / and the leaves all around him laughing. // Only oak trees could bear this much joy.” Strang’s work is at once lyrical and conversational, timeless and contemporary. This particular poem showcases her gently ominous imagery to full effect: Horse-Man hanging, but hanging upside-down; Horse-Man running, but running in a futile attempt to save his life.
The element of surprise in “Horse-Man and the Oak” first emerged in Bird-Woman. “The Miracle”, for example, imagines watching a dead body come back to life. Here, as in “Horse-Man and the Oak”, Strang displays a knack for turning clichés into unexpected images: “If we could speak,” she writes, “words would climb out of our mouths / and doubt all over the night.” Even when Strang’s poems are not necessarily “about” something—when they do not carry a narrative but rather paint a scene and invite the reader to enter it—they are nonetheless imbued with a sense of movement and aliveness. Perhaps this is because Strang has, since the early 2010s, been concerned with “embodied practice” and “embodied poetry”—that is, “how breath, movement, and voice inform and engage both writer and audience,” as Strang has described it. A quiet sense of rhythm, music, and bodily awareness—of her own body, of her readers’ bodies, and of the bodies of which she writes—forms a key undercurrent in both collections.
Yet, Strang is not always—or even often—a typical eco-poet or lyric poet. Perhaps what makes her ecological writing so striking is her willingness to poke fun at, or at least not be too precious about, her subjects. A case in point is the prose poem “Brown Bear Walt Whitman” from Bird-Woman, in which she imagines Walt Whitman, with his characteristic grandiosity and sense of wonder, as a brown bear: “Oh fish I eat you! Oh berries I eat you! […] I am of berries. Also, I am of fish. I hunker in the water to catch miraculous dinner! My paws are tremendous! My belly is tremendous with hunger, a shipping container with no cargo, a night sky with no moon. […] I keep eating because I do, I must […] Watch the strange fish jump! Watch the berries twerk in the wind!” The extemporaneous, waterfall-like quality of this monologue—the use of “also” suggesting a sudden recollection rather than a carefully composed sequence, the unexpected image of “berries twerk[ing] in the wind”—is a critical and unique element of Strang’s craft. Indeed, this spontaneity and attention to detail mirror the vibrancy she identifies in the natural world. It is the success of this parallel, rather than her occasional allusions to news headlines or any attempt to represent the natural world as an undisturbed holdout against the threat of human existence, that makes Strang’s work deeply urgent and relatable.
Nothing is yet in its true form - C.S. Lewis
The bird-woman is in the field in her blue dress,
small bird wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs.
The sunlight is squeezing her, squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,
somewhere used to slipping boundaries.
Then two men, hands in pockets,
feet sinking into the grey-black of the road.
The sun is hot and high and they wade into the field,
lose themselves to the waist in straight, green blades.
The bird-woman is scuffing the soft, loose earth,
making a bowl for the body.
She lays the bird with its broken neck
and covers it with clover,
small red flowers, lucky leaves.
When the men capsize her
the pleats of her dress unfurl.
The ground takes their weight.
/ HER INDOORS
She's quieter than usual,
barely a trip-trap to the fridge,
brown hide soft as a rug,
eyes full of long-forgotten stories
that came from the hills
and returned to them.
She noses out green vegetables –
winter cabbage, chard, kale –
and tosses them into a pan,
dainty hooves like ash buds,
agile limbs that restrain themselves
between cooker, worktop, bench.
At 6 o'clock he'll be in
all antler and hill-breath,
canter tales that wind up the kids;
he'll sit himself down
with his haunches splayed
and bellow about the rut.
/ THE FEAST
There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin – Umm Hassan, Syria, 2014
There's nothing inside this morning
but a blackbird.
He's pecking steadily into my eye-socket,
the yellow beak's fidelity
making a clean meal of my eye's meat.
But it's OK.
It's good to be useful.
/ BROWN BEAR WALT WHITMAN
Oh fish I eat you! Oh berries I eat you! Sex nipples on bushes and fish so quicksilver, they flick through the water like shooting-stars. I eat them ravenously. I am of berries. Also, I am of fish. I hunker in the water to catch miraculous dinner! My paws are tremendous! My belly is tremendous with hunger, a shipping container with no cargo, a night sky with no moon. When the hunger is here, fish are goners! Berries are goners! I splosh the length of the river for the best harvest. The water chases me timelessly. Sometimes filth comes downriver. I keep eating because I do, I must, and I keep loving the eating. Watch the strange fish jump! Watch the berries twerk in the wind!
An orange light
streams off my skin.
Brass tubas of heat.
I close my eyes.
There is a buzzing world.
There is a cave
where the living swim
in clear pools.
In Memoriam P
You have only one lung
and a tube to outside air, an open gill.
Your body is cut up like this, like that.
And every time you breathe
a bird sings a terrible song,
It won't be long, it won't be long.
In Memoriam Jyoti Singh
I'm carrying the hare along the road. One of its back legs is hanging by a single tendon, blood seeping slowly in the cold. It's early morning, but the hare is late. The school bus has taken it by surprise, for the last time. I'm holding it like a newborn baby, one hand beneath its head, the other beneath its backside. It's heavy. It weighs roughly as much as a fully grown, well-fed tomcat. It's the kind of weight I'd prefer to sling over my shoulder.
For some time now, I've been unable to let the images go: the bus in the semi-dark, the young woman and her male friend; the blood on the men's hands and all their wide eyes in the confines of the vehicle; the metal air; the woman's voice which I can hear, again and again, no matter where I look.
The body is still warm and limp, still supple, and I keep half-expecting its eyes to blink, its legs to jerk awake. I half-expect the hare to jump and charge away from me. But it doesn't. I carry it into the woods and put it down beneath a rhododendron bush. I lay it out in such a way that the gashed leg is invisible and it looks, it really looks, as though the hare is wide alive and running. It doesn't matter whether I'm doing this for me or for all hares.
I find a few branches and twigs and make a kind of woody tent over the body. I don't do this for other roadkill, but I've been watching the hares this year – there's a pair. Or there was. They circle the house like sentinels, beginning on the eastern side with the sun and working their way round through the orchard, past the hen-run and into the woods. I watch them through the windows, their black-tipped ears, their long, powerful hind-legs that work like suspension coils, easing the body up and forward, down and forward, perpetually sprung; ready, I supposed, for the unexpected.
By now it's a familiar story. The woman with a young, smiling face and soft skin. Her softness in the last light of the evening. All the shouting men, their mouths, their drenched clothes.
It's a small back road with little traffic, but the school bus passes twice a day and the driver doesn't mean to hit it. He's late and the kids are waiting, out in the cold on a corner of turf.
I stroke its long ears back against its head, stroke its fine coat, white belly, small face. Hares have kinetic skulls – they're jointed – which allows for a degree of movement between the front and back sections. It helps absorb the force of impact as the hare strikes the ground.
The iron bar. The shadow faces. The quiet glistening of the steering wheel, an empty glass bottle, an eye.
/ TWO COWS
Where the sun comes in across the grass
like a snake comes, silently, smoothly
because this is its habit –
two white cows.
The cows stand
with their hooves on the earth
like the feet of great tables.
Their backs bear the weight
of unbroken sunlight
from beginning to end.
Their bodies carry the myth of light
long after dusk.
They stand and stand.
Only bring the hunger that you are, the hidden
star in your throat,
that dark beacon.
the peony has fully opened and is
the deepest vermillion pompom.
It hangs in the long grass
like a bloody fist or a fresh heart.
I don’t worry about it anymore.
I can go out
to feed the hens and collect eggs
and not worry if it’s enough.
A scattering of corn
and they gather the rest –
small bugs, worms, grass.
It’s not my serving that matters.
I stand in the mud and so do they.
/ THE KINDNESS
The kindness of the day
is the white horse that stands in the rain
eating grass or not eating grass.
The horse is standing below the hill
where the young woods begin
and the river used to flow
two horses deep.
It knows good grass and rain
since these are the days of rain
and the blue-black nights of rain.
The white horse is waiting
for the river to refill,
since these are the days of forever
and the blue-black nights of forever.
The kindness of the night
is the rain that falls on the white horse
refilling the river or not refilling the river.
/ HORSE-MAN AT CROTHA BOTHY
First light, fire, tea. I strip-wash at the sink as the moon goes down behind one hill and the sun rises over another. I stand outside on the deck at just after 6am and the whole glen is silent, utterly soundless, except for the first calls of small birds and the flowing burn. No wind. The trees are motionless.
I wish never to forget – this is where we come from and return to, at last.