“The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women”
Salt on Your Tongue defies definition. It is a multi – genre work of poetry, memoir, history and myth. It sets out to tell the story of women and the sea, filtered through her own perspective as she deals with the prospect of new life at the same time as death has hit her family. Runcie finds in the story of women a story that echoes her own, and through this she delves into the relationship between women and the sea, which in her eyes, dates back as far as womankind kind do and is as strong as the pull of the deepest ocean.
Much of her life has been interlinked with that of the changing Scottish coastline and as she settles into her new life and role as mother, she reflects back on the relationship she and her recently deceased grandmother, the end of a long line of women stretching back, have had with the sea. She delves into the history of men traditionally being on the sea and women, like Penelope who she discusses early on, waiting on the shore, or acting like sirens, enticing men across the waves to their doom. Although throughout history and much of literature women have been waiting on the beach that hasn’t weakened their bond with the sea. This simple observation is one that has often been missed as history books and mythology still often focus on men’s journeys and men’s stories. The fact that she finds women have had such a profound relationship with the sea is fascinating, and by looking into the fringes of song, poetry, stories and so on she finds women standing on the fringes of the sea, whole in themselves and their own telling.
Runcie has always had a love of the sea. Although not a sailor, or even a great sea swimmer, she has had a visceral relationship with the sea since childhood and the smell and taste of it are as real and present in her life as her growing belly. Pregnancy triggers in her a longing for salt water and sand, while also causing her to dwell on ideas and images of death. This manifests itself around the frequent appearances of her grandmother, who had a considerable impact on the young Runcie, and who died not long before she became pregnant. The many threads throughout Salt all ultimately weave themselves around this one central through point.
She writes with great skill; making the lyrical descriptions flow across the pages. Runcie notes that she has ‘a secret past as a poet’, however from Salt it looks like her poetry has taken on a new form. This is a book that lends itself to being read out loud. There is usually an extra dimension to poetry when vocalised and Salt is no different. There are two main ways to read this book. The first is to sit back and get lost in the feelings and atmosphere that Runcie’s language evokes. It is easy to fall into the lyricism and the soothing stories of the sea and to allow it to slowly inspire your own thoughts and memories.
However, in order to take it all in some will prefer to read it in sections so that they can take a breath and absorb everything that they have read. Read in just a few sittings it can feel like a bit much at times as so much is densely packed onto the pages. It is impossible not to be blown away by the sheer amount of information contained in Salt. Runcie’s research has been exceptional. Salt touches on fourteenth century maps, Norse myths, sea shanties, Victorian murder mysteries, The Odyssey and more. It is notable that Runcie chose this format; something that defies categorisation. This could have been a collection of essays or poems, which I’m sure would also have been enjoyable, but the fact that she has captured all of this, plus her own threads of family and memoir is truly exceptional. Further, Salt lends itself to rereading as there is always something more to find in its pages.
Any Cop?: This review is being written at a time when the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus. The sea is just a short walk away. At night I can hear the waves and it is hard to resist the urge to take off my shoes, walk across the pebbles, and let the sea water lap over my feet. In the absence of this, Salt was the perfect read for the moment.