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Drop in by Barbara Cumbers

Thank you, Nigel, for this invitation. It’s hard to know what to say, or which poem to choose out of a long sequence of poems about Shetland. I was on the islands for several weeks in the summers of several years both as a geologist and on holiday, and then for a whole month in winter on a creative writing residency. I suppose that, because the winter month was so much more intense for writing, and as I was by myself, the poems that stem from that month are much more poignant for me. In that month I became acquainted with two or three of the active writing groups on Shetland, and feel myself very definitely an outsider when writing about the islands, but it may be that that adds something to the sequence. I hope so anyway.

Unlike my earlier collection A gap in the rain (Indigo Dreams, 2016) which contains poems written over many years and on many subjects, In the simmer dim (Dempsey and Windle, 2022) is a sequence about a particular place and as such is less varied, though perhaps more coherent. Others may not think so, but to me there’s a lot of objectivity in the poems, and they reflect considerable aloneness, though not necessarily loneliness. 

I was born and still live in London, but that hasn’t restricted my deep interest in the natural world. I think all the poems in this sequence reflect that, particularly in geology and birdlife. The Shetlands are particularly varied in geology, and probably contain more geological diversity than any other area of comparable size in the world. I hope the poems show at least some of that. 

The poem I’ve chosen to write about is not a geological one, but more about physics, Da mirrie dancers. The title is the Shetland dialect name for the Northern Lights, and “mirrie” doesn’t mean “merry”, but “shimmering”, which is a lovely and much more appropriate name for this astounding natural phenomenon.

On a clear winter night anywhere as far north as Shetland, the sky can be bright green with the light created by the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, and sometimes the green can split into moving curtains of light. The myths and stories about dragons always have them living in the north, so I think the Northern Lights might be their origin, breathing fire into the northern sky, and sounding (goodness knows how) like knives brushing ice, which is just how the voices of dragons should sound. An earlier version of the poem mentioned dragons specifically, but the final version concentrates on the physics. I’ve seen the Northern Lights, and heard the sound, even though I know perfectly well that they can’t possibly make any noise at all. There’s something about being a scientist experiencing something that’s impossible that inspired much of this poem, so much so that the dragons seemed a distraction and I took them out. There’s also the idea that the glory of the simmer dim might be paid for by long dark nights in winter that I mention in another poem, North, and the awareness in this poem that that could be countered by the fact that occasionally, winter nights are not dark at all but lit by shimmering curtains of green, that not only in summer is there a “thinness of dark that only the north knows”.

The poems in the book aren’t arranged by season or by island, and they move both geographically between islands and from summer to winter. I only wish my experience of the islands weren’t restricted to just two seasons. Spring and autumn must be just as interesting and inspiring. If nothing else, I hope In the simmer dim  will encourage people to visit these beautiful, varied and unique islands.

Next week read my review of the wonderful celebration of the Shetlands, In the simmer dim.

Catch up with poets previously featured: Patricia M Osborne!

Spirit Mother: Experience the Myth by Patricia M Osborne

Discover folklore about oak and mistletoe, and legends around lavender, white lily, amaryllis, banyan, rowan and hazel. Be surprised at how the nightingale got its sweet voice or how the devil tricked a fisherman. Be enchanted as you chase each mythical tale. Experience the myth as you turn the page.

Orders and pre orders from . Scroll down for Spirit Mother.


Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

For details of how to purchase a copy, click here.


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