Monday, October 31, 2022

Microreview: Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

 An eerie collection of poems in the Orkney dialect, musing on themes of home, identity and belonging, against the backdrop of deep space.

Just as a bit of context for this review, I listened to the audiobook read by the author while reading the physical book, in order to get the proper sound of the language. I suspect this definitely influenced my enjoyment of it, as someone who does not speak Orcadian specifically or Scots more generally. It is perfectly possible to enjoy this entirely in print or entirely in the audio, but there were definitely aspects of both I appreciated having as part of the experience.

Deep Wheel Orcadia tells, in a series of poems, the story of Astrid, returning home from art school on Mars to the struggling deep space station she grew up on, and Darling, who has found herself there while running from a life and identity she doesn't want, as well as snippets of those others who live on the station. It is told initially in the Orkney dialect of the Scots language, with a translation mostly in standard English (we'll get back to this) underneath. The poems are mostly a sequential story, but play around with rhythm and form between the various viewpoints and themes they cover throughout the story.

As a story, it's haunting and emotionally vivid. As the poems pass by, we begin to see Darling's need to find her place, and how this may be it, it contrast to how conflicted Astrid is about her home station and her place in it, and about her art that she supposedly came back to work on. Her interactions with her parents are understated but resonant, full of unspoken sadness between them, captured in small words and juxtapositions, and underlined by her parents' interactions with each other, and the rest of the station. Her time with Darling is charged and fraught, not just for Darling herself but what Darling represents to Astrid. And even her simply being on the station is laden with poignancy - the poem Astrid gangs tae kirk encapsulates this beautifully, as well as being such a raw piece of musing on the conflict between the nostalgia of returning to your home church and all its rituals when it's a religion you've chosen to discard while away.

And this is where it succeeds as poetry - each poem can stand alone in its meaning, in its feeling, as well as stringing together to form a greater whole of storytelling. The rhythm and shape of them shifts to what is needed for the moment, and so the pace varies, from the quiet slowness of the introductory poems, to the bustle and gathering momentum of the dance, to the snippety precision of watching Øyvind working. They exist all as moments, frozen in amber, independent and crystal sharp. And they are so clearly poems for reading, for sounding out - when read by Giles herself, there is an evident music and rhythm to them - that you cannot help but linger over the words of them, reading them back and again to find the mouth-feel of a perfect phrase (which is all the better when you've had Giles reading them to you herself, so you know quite how good they sound as they are meant to be pronounced).

But as well as being both a piece of storytelling and a set of poems, Deep Wheel Orcadia is an exercise in translational art. As a reader coming into it without Orkney Scots, my experience of the poems in their original language is necessarily scaffolded by the translations - I can understand some of the original, get the gist and the feel and the sound - but a significant part of the vocabulary is new to me, and it does not always read how I might expect it to. And so I need the English too. But because the English is also written by the author, and because she has chosen a particular way of translating words and concepts that may not map perfectly onto English, what you get, when you combine both sets of text, are two pieces of a whole, rather than an original and its lesser shadow.

For example, in the first poem, one verse reads:

pierheads trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween ootbye an in
clossan slaa - but only noo,
wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is.

While the translation reads:

pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowly - but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.

I have never come across the word trang, before, and so giving me fullactiveintimate conveys a hint of the sort of multi-faceted sense that a speaker would have for it, a feel for the flavour of the word beyond a direct English translation. She could, of course, have simply chosen one word to translate trang as, whichever she felt most suited this context. And it would have made the English reading more fluid, more simple. But then, what does that mean for the original text - do you give an English that can be consumed alone, and risk that many people then do just that, ignoring the Orkney? Do you sacrifice a depth of sense for readability?

As someone who was taught to translate poetry - albeit from dead languages only and a number of years ago - quite often the answer is "yes". The translator chooses the meaning they think most suits the setting, most evokes the feeling of the original, or reads best, or sits more nicely in the language of their translation. And this isn't a bad decision - you provide the reader with accessibility into something that they would not have otherwise, and you do your best to get them as close to feeling it as possible.

But... but. In doing that, you do tend to sacrifice the original. And when the original is at least partially accessible, as Orkney is to an English speaker - trang may be obscured from me, but but only noo, wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is is well within my grasp - that feels wasteful. And so the English here does not stand alone - it needs the Orkney to give you rhythm and sound and smoothness, the flow of poetry written to be read. But that gives space for the depth that smoothness obscures, and I have a better sense for what trang might mean than I ever otherwise would.

And in some ways, the Orkney needs the English too - not for sense or reading pleasure, but for experiencing the complexity of the art that Giles has made here. Because those translations are art too - they are a conversation between the languages, a relationship nearly as present as the ones between the characters.

This becomes even more apparent as the story progresses, and we see Darling start to pick up snippets of Orcadian, weaving them into her otherwise English phrasings. There's also the character Noor, who has come to the station from away, but lived there now a while, and her language is mainly English, but peppered with parts of speech she's picked up from her time - and again, the extent of that shifts through the story, and with what she's discussing and with whom. Language and the conversation between language, mutual intelligibility and cultural disconnection, are all at the heart of the story being told, and by viewing it in both languages, we see the two halves of Astrid and the changing self of Darling, and their ongoing conversations within themselves and between each other. Because it is such a story of the self one chooses to be, through the vector of place and culture and language, having language at the forefront of the experience makes it that much more real and vivid to the reader.

And so Giles has taken three separate pieces of artistry - narrative, poetry and translation - and not only excelled at each individually, but skilfully managed the synthesis of the three into a coherent and wondrous whole. They all inform each other, they all relate back to each other, and they are all needed to get a full understanding of how deeply clever this book is. Nor is that even the whole of it - there's a running theme of echoes between island life and space station life, the way the people of the station evoke fishermen in the dangers of their work. The way religion and mythology sit quietly underneath parts of it, in the language and the way people live their lives. And then there's the artistry of how understated it all is - how much Giles manages to convey in so few words, in emotion and story telling and haunting mystery. It's not a work about giving you answers, or providing a simple, linear narrative with a clear ending. But what it is is a work that builds a beautiful, intense feeling of familiarity with a group of people living their lives, both entirely remote and strangely familiar. There's a huge galaxy outside of the station we see here, a whole world glimpsed in snippets, of people's lives we'll never see the edges of. But its incompleteness, its isolation, is exactly part of its art. We cannot ever know the full story - we're just seeing the conversation, the feeling and the moment. And they're glorious.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for being the sort of text where the more you think on it, the more you read it, the more layers of sheer artistry become apparent

Penalties: none

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference:  Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia [Picador, 2021]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea