Gerda Stevenson's long-awaited first full-length collection is filled with song and music – skipping rhymes, piano, dance and marching music, laments and lullabies. She sings about butterflies, snowberries, aunts, teachers, Pentland rain, Sarajevo roses, graveyards, driftwood and the lost Eden of childhood; about wild weather, warm companionship and unmarked graves, about Bosnia, Iraq, Syria the Pyrenees and Scotland. If This Were Real is a kind of autobiography in verse, informed by intense relationships with places and people, by the personal and the political, by family life and the wider community in her native Scotland and beyond. Stevenson's experience as an actor and singer/song-writer is evident in the rhythmic sound structure of her writing – these are poems that demand not just to be read, but to be performed, 'spot-lit lies, / floodlit truths, and shadowed ambiguities / in our retellings of the world's old tales'.
Bees cruised on a breathless noon, cabbage white butterflies flickered in the lane. Our dolls' china tea set cracked the silence as we crept over the neighbour's dyke, spread a picnic under the rhubarb, and stripped to our pink Scots skin. We screeched and whooped among the tall red stalks, striped by their shadows in war paint glow, squealed at the slap of leafy parasols, shrieked as caterpillars fell to our knees from pin-holes of light where they grazed. Heels and stick click down the path, fingernail flames rip through leaves: 'Get out! Get out of my garden, you dirty, dirty girls!'
A milky way of marshmallow stars, Snow Queen's fruit to tempt us, though we knew never to eat them: poison – even in their silent breath, we thought – so we'd cup our hands over mouth and nose, hardly dare to inhale, crouched beneath the lethal galaxy, thrilled by death's proximity.
My heart stops at the waxed apple cheeks, plump and impossibly polished; your head in my palm yesterday, skull barely masked by paper skin, you were undeniably mine. An imposter lies in this small white box we ordered – a collector's doll, lace-framed face mounted on a slice of shop-window silk. I would strip the pinned folds, find the miracle of your miniature hands, blood cooled to blue beneath each nail, but a tail of brown thread, carelessly trimmed, curls below the jaw's angle, like a worm emerging from puckered skin. I draw back, let panic drain, search for signs of you, and detect at last the down-turn of your top lip – my mouth's copy – under a lipstick blur.
'Her poems have impressed me by their shape and discipline. My own wish would be to see them brought together in a book.'
'Beautifully carved and framed with emotion; excellent... metaphorical, symbolic and deep – so much that surprised me with dark beauty.'
'promises much and delivers. The best of the new in contemporary Scottish poetry... not to be missed.'
'The writing throughout is elegantly cadenced, balancing beauty and death, laughter and brutality... These cool or impassioned always clear eyed, poems comfort and disturb, sadden and enlighten; they at once ground and elevate the reader.'
The Bottle Imp
‘the most beautiful collection I have read in recent times.’