Humanities Blog

LVF Students at Literary Festival HeadRead

This spring, once again, the students of international Master's programme Literature, Visual Culture and Film Studies (LVF) had the opportunity to conduct their field-related practice at the literary festival HeadRead.


Besides participating in the organisation of the festival, the practice entails interviewing the guest authors and introducing their work in written media. This year's guests to the festival include Hervé Le Tellier, José Luís Peixoto, Anne Griffin, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė and many others. More about head read here.

LVF Master's student Mariia Ivanova reviews the debut collection of poetry Moder Dy by the Shetlandic writer, filmmaker and musician Roseanne Watt.

Moder Dy | Mother Wave (2019) is a collection by Shetlandic poet Roseanne Watt written through the intertwinement of English and Shaetlan dialect.

Moder Dy is the undercurrent that guides a lost fisherman through the pathless sea back to the land; it is the pulse of salty blood in one’s veins that guides a lost soul back to its spiritual soil. Through her poems, Roseanne Watt invites us to hame-trowe, to go homewards, but the epigraph from Shetland folklore echoing the lines from Ecclesiastes (12:7) - “earth you are; for of earth you were made; return now to earth” - foreshadows that this path may lead to the places much darker and deeper than the cradle of old legends on the coast of Shetland. 

Yielding to folkloric structure, the journey is threefold and a stream of poems leads readers from one realm to another. From the fabled island of Stoal (an old legend), we go to the open space of Sjusamillabakka (between sea and shore) and then turn inwards - to the continent, to the closure of a city, of a flat to face the light of Kokkel (lamp or compass) inside our souls. Most poems are space-emphasized and have sentinels and guides who mark the steps of our initiation. The heron welcomes us at the lakes that serve as metaphorical gates to bonhogas, spiritual or childhood places, while the scarecrow in the garden (or rather a graveyard) acts as the first herald of death, warning us that this aert (earth) is bare now and neither tree nor poet can take roots here.  

The author uses Shaetlan as a mediator between refined English and non-human languages of birds, fish, plants, non-animated beings, and those inhabitants of the islands who belong to the spiritual world. Watt engages with readers through first-person pronouns, pulling us in the narrative space, interacting with us herself or with the voices of characters that speak directly to us. Through the first initiation — sacrament even, for Shaetlan words break like bread, and the author breaks this bread with us — she dares us to try Shaetlan words in the mouth, listen to the sound of them in one’s voice, and maybe discover an echo, a bodily sensation, a pulse that responds to the calling, as if to a spell. Shaetlan words seep into the poems one by one until Moder Dy herself appears before us and speaks to us in her language, both Shaetlan and not-Shaetlan at the same time, for it is the ebbs and flows of feeling and knowing that are non-verbal, it is the language of streaming salty liquids of life: blood and seawater.

Taking readers to wander between the sea and the shore, poems explore signs of death and decay, expressed bodily and materially through corpses of marine creatures, bones, and skulls, wrecked houses - remnants and memories, hollow and slowly turning to dust. The island is burned to ash, while its language and legends are fading away, kept only by haafmen and by sacred texts inscribed in bodies of plants and animals, for this language is not only a verbal representation of life but also its material and ritual manifestations. It is the way one - whatever being this one may be - navigates between cycles of life and death, water and soil, the old and new worlds, the one that is allegedly dissolving and the one that is flickering in the darkness with beacons of oil rigs and far-away street lights of Edinburgh. 

Apart from those who stayed to preserve old gods or to fade with them and those who left their homeland thorny and hollow to migrate to the continent, there are the stuck ones. These beings are caught between two worlds in the moment of transformation, unable to adapt to any of the spaces. The last and the darkest part of the journey is the path inwards, through oneself. In the new world of wynds and living rooms, we find ourselves trapped and listening closely to the whispering of the waves that seem to echo in every city sound. This (is)land used to belong to animals and spirits as well before men came to claim it theirs, to cultivate and refine it. As the material presence of non-human beings and the cultural presence of legends and traditions were pushed out into forgetting as non-rational and wild, the female bodily and spiritual connection to them was labelled madness and suppressed. And the voices of women whose identity was forced to shrink emerged, resurrected by the calling of the great mother, Moder Dy. Ophelia, who was considered deranged, arises to bring back the right to be true to oneself, to be free, and to be alive. The selkie spirit, whose seal skin was abducted to make her stay in a human form and belong to a man, shows that sometimes being alive may mean being fragmented, skinless, and vicious, being barely human, but in letting oneself be vulnerable and abjected lies the freedom to be true to oneself.  

The collection illuminates the interconnectedness of material, spiritual and lingual spheres. The hard and bare soil which is challenging to take roots in is paralleled to the culture of the isolated islands threatened to fade. The motif of free Shaetlan dialect, dried and refined into English, stripped off its uniqueness resonates with the image of a female who is forced to conform to become a precious possession or be tagged as deranged in case she resists being moulded. Words themselves are presented here not as the tools of a rational mind, but as the expression of one’s essence, sifting and dripping, flowing from the body almost in an elemental way. They are compared to and felt like stones, and current of sand, and salt in the blood. 

Watt explores humans’ hybrid identity not only through bilingualism and the power of words to shape different fragments of self but through the unity of body and spirit and their interdependence on both nature and culture inside and outside. The way she attracts attention to the permeability of the borders between human and non-human bodies, between matter and spirit may remind of the notion of transcorporeality, of fluidity and inseparability of material and immaterial. Human beings are indispensable fragments of the universe as well as the fragments of the universe in turn constitute our allegedly whole and framed bodies and identities. You may move far from the ocean, but the part of the self transformed during the journey will always respond to its calling, for Moder Dy flows through your blood and speech, no matter which language you speak, and it guides you homeward, back to the homeland to your body and soul. 

Feature photo: collage Roseanne Watt/HeadRead (photo authors Igor Kotjuh and Louise Thomason).