Reviews of collections by Edward O’Dwyer, Patrick Moran and Frank Golden

Bad News, Bearings, and Messages:

Afric McGlinchey reviews collections 
by Edward O’Dwyer, Patrick Moran, and Frank Golden

Afric McGlinchey’s awards include the Hennessy Poetry award, Northern Liberties Prize (USA) and Poets and Meet Politics prize. She was one of seven writers chosen to go to Italy for the 2014 Italo-Irish Literature Exchange. Her début, The lucky star of hidden things, was subsequently translated into Italian. Afric appears in issue 118 of Poetry Ireland Review, which features the editor’s selection of Ireland’s rising poets. She received a Cork County Council Arts bursary to enable her to write her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.  

Bad News, Good News, Bad News

Edward O’Dwyer

(Salmon Poetry, 2017)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-81-5

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon Poetry

Bearings

Patrick Moran

(Salmon Poetry, 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-24-2

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon Poetry

gotta get a message to you

Frank Golden

(Salmon Poetry, 2017)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-78-5

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon Poetry

Bad News, Good News, Bad News by Edward O’Dwyer, published by Salmon Poetry

Bad News, Good News, Bad News is Edward O’Dwyer’s second collection with Salmon Poetry.  The title encapsulates not only the themes here, but his broader preoccupations in general, which were introduced in his well-received first book, The Rain on Cruise’s Street. Here again, he is engaged in a study of perception.

In these cinematic poems, he focuses his attention on an examination of the Irish psyche and Irish culture in general, as well as more poignant elegies for an ended relationship. The poems take us many times and in many ways to where ‘families sit in living rooms / waiting for the worst / that they said would not happen / and so certainly will’ (‘Bad News’).

The language and register throughout are consistent, though the tone varies from bristlingly angry to wry, sardonic, or unexpectedly tender. The cohesiveness of mood gives the sense of an emotional continuum. O’Dwyer’s voice is authentic, and despite confessions in some of the poems about playing around with the truth, we feel we are in safe hands.

These are poems to and about people close to the speaker, many of whom are no longer alive. But unexpectedly, instead of homages, they are often frustrated angry rants at the deceased. The opening poem, ‘Tuesday’, packs a punch. There’s a sense of unfinished business, a failed relationship, a wasted life. He addresses someone who demanded ‘six feet of cold earth / on a Tuesday / when everyone else / who is no-one/ couldn’t be there / to pay their disrespects.’ Although there is sarcasm, it is hurt and bitter – this is a speaker who cares, who has bothered to write a poem about his feelings. In another poem, ‘Desmond died in his bed / and so was extinguished a long, misspent life’ (‘Desmond’s Tea Break’). This seems to be the speaker’s  abiding fear.

There’s the wife who keeps a holiday photo of her husband in Budapest on her bedside table, though she has cut herself out of the picture: ‘She deserves it, / she knows. To be that empty space / in the photo – and especially in that photo – is what she deserves to be’ (‘Deserves’).

I was reminded of Raymond Carver more than once, especially reading the poem ‘And Each Other’ which describes a jumble sale: ‘My golf clubs and tools will fetch a bob or two / and your jewellery’.

In terms of writing style, the plain titles fit these plain-spoken, accessible poems, and O’Dwyer’s preference for long lines suits the conversational register. He experiments with stanza lengths, using quatrains, tercets, couplets and poems in a single block; and a rhyming villanelle slipped in too, as well as some list poems. Sometimes there is a strangeness to the language that may be an Irishism, eg ‘she kept onto the photo’ (‘Deserves’) (meaning she held onto it).

This is a world of divisions, where ‘scumbags’ with knives in their pockets call out the ‘faggots’ (‘My Best Friend Sammy’). The speaker appears to be a bystander, a witness who does nothing but ‘will them to stay inside / ignore the shouting, the smashing.’ The urban landscape is very much a deprived one, where people sign on, regularly eat takeaway kebabs, chips, or ‘a shrunken deformed disc,/plastic-looking cheese jutting out’ (‘A Man About Town’); or get a six-pack from the ‘offie’ to take back to their bedsit. One after another, the portrayals of ‘a hard and underwhelming life’ (‘The End of Ice-Cream’) build up to evoke a kind of contemporary wasteland. The people who populate it are grey, passive and hopeless, who at the very most are in denial about their lot. They seem to accept their powerlessness, much to the speaker’s frustration.

Any references are, appropriately enough, Irish, political or from popular culture: Bertie Aherne, Cecilia Aherne, Waterford Whispers, the Manic Street Preachers, Castro, Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney, Matthew Broderick.

There are a number of encounters with random strangers, such as a fisherman (who looks like Jesus) and a barman (who acts as a philosopher). And there’s dark humour: a waitress (who may be Polish) ‘tells me it’s the end of everything.’ Everyone in these poems is resigned. Even the weather ‘can’t be bothered’ (‘Australia’). The cumulative effect is to heighten the sense of loneliness and despair in the speaker.

Throughout the collection, I became increasingly aware that we are defined by our acts (or lack of them). This is nowhere more apparent than in the stand-out poem, ‘My Best Friend Sammy’, which gives a portrait not only of his best friend, ‘a stubborn bastard’ with ‘big fat eyes bulging out of his head’, but also of the knife-edge danger of confronting the ‘scumbags.’ I won’t spoil it for you by saying more.

O’Dwyer’s tendency to use the second person singular makes the reader feel addressed and therefore complicit: ‘another Saturday night / you’re spending in, /watching the telly (‘The Chip Shop’). I’m not sure how much ‘good news’ there is here, although, minimally, hope is offered in one poem, in the form of a bag blowing in the wind,  and ‘you hold on to that image…that empty crisp packet blowing around in the street on a windy day’ (‘Hope’).

This is poetry that has the capacity to shock at times, with the suddenness of struck attack, before we are led to ‘one of those cinematic fades to black’ (‘The Credits’) and we discover we have edged imperceptibly towards a powerful, provocative silence.

Bearings by Patrick Moran, published by Salmon Poetry

Patrick Moran’s persistent themes are personal bonds, community, childhood memory and the act of writing. In this collection – his third – he continues to explore a sense of kinship. Set frequently in the local pub, from which many of these poems were inspired, this is an unadorned voice that inclines towards connection and the pleasure of words. There’s a surface simplicity to these anecdotes, gleaned from neighbours in the ‘snug’, about the marginalised, the lonely and estranged. Some poems implicitly confront the everyday realities of economic depression via migration to England for work, ghost estates, mental illness and death.

This poet is, like many Irish, a talker and a listener – a people person – although there are moments when he shifts his focus to nature. For example, in ‘Gannets, Diving’: ‘the perfected descent: //those great wings folding/just a split second before/heads break the surface;// arrowing into/this elemental,/ consummating catch.’ But his abiding interest is in portraying people, like the old woman, ‘Relic-like, pushing her bicycle, / a stooped, headscarfed woman,’ or ‘That pasty-faced bachelor straggling / homewards in his steadfast anorak’ (‘Advent’).

‘We cannot step twice into the same river,’ says Heraclitus, but I kept having the sensation of stepping into the same poem in this collection. More than a couple of character portraits pay tribute to men who once had a flair with a pool or snooker cue, or a dartboard. Others are triggered by wildlife documentaries that happen to be on in the pub, and these produce more visually interesting images. In ‘Polar’, the speaker is ‘drawn from pub bubblings…to a TV programme about polar bears’, where ‘I saw as much /as anything else /the grand immutables //of my childhood drifting past: surplice acolytes; /unmolested whitethorn…’. ‘All these jottings,’ he writes in ‘Kindling’, ‘hoarded like kindling, waiting for a spark.’ And again, ‘Is this where I am,’ he asks in ‘Harvesting’, ‘My pen merely a rake / tending these shedding leaves?’ I am reminded once more of Heraclitus’s river, which ‘scatters and gathers again.’

As with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, repetition becomes ritual in the way the poems converse, as though we have never left the pub. ‘Faith Healer’ starts: ‘So one night, years after, she resurfaced,/ randomly in talk. Whoever bought her house,/ Joe Mahon said, just knocked it down; //rebuilding on the site. Would that not bring/bad luck, like interfering with a rath?/ And what happened to her relics?’

Moran, like O’Dwyer, favours the simple, plain, usually one-word title, and the small incidents of life around him.  But Moran’s voice is kinder, his community less bitter and estranged, more contented, absorbed in chat and the frothing pint. (There is a lot of froth, and clinking of glasses, and publicans calling ‘time’.)

Unlike O’Dwyer’s visceral, frustrated attachment to the marginalised, the down-and-outs, the lonely, Moran responds to the stories he hears with more detachment, and rather with a writer’s quickening for an image. In ‘Report’: ‘When my father read from the local paper / that the grumpy, often tipsy man, who’d come/ in a battered van selling calves, had been killed/ (accidentally, they said) while shooting game – his gun discharging as he crossed a stile – I was barely ten.’ Years later, recalling this story, Moran asks himself: ‘what can I flush/out of that November fog? Not pheasants / rising, nor bags filling; nor stubbles bristling/against his muddy boots. Nothing only/ the gun: its tantalising, stark report.’

Moran’s opening poems are slight, serving simply to establish themes and motifs, to set up the collection, and his closing poems too, are brief. In fact, of the forty four poems in this collection, over twenty are less than half a page long. But midway through the collection, he mines deeper, shifting to childhood poems, and the language and lyrical grace of these more rural, emotionally resonant poems have an altogether different feel to them. ‘Blight’ is one of the stronger poems here, vivid with detail and texture:

            In time, I, too, learnt the danger signs.

            Days which felt clammy, yet moist and overcast.

            Spore-bearing winds. Evenings dense with midges.

                        Wet foliage. A sticky mist.

A retired post-primary school teacher, Moran is able to write poignantly about pangs for a more charged life, and for sex, and his last poem becomes quite explicit: ‘you and I blur/to climax: need / raising us fleetingly beyond ourselves.’

Such poems indicate potential for further reflection and emotional investment. I would like to have seen more of this. While the human condition is a universal one, we are in danger, on this island, of being both too insular and too guarded. In his next collection, I would hope to see Moran go beyond the familiar territory of the cosy Irish poem, into more challenging terrain.

gotta get a message to you, by Frank Golden, published by Salmon Poetry

Frank Golden’s gotta get a message to you, published by Salmon Poetry, is risk-taking in its address and plural in its forms and voices. Throughout the collection, I was conscious that the poet, like Marcel Proust, seemed to be ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’. Through the act of writing, Golden tells us, the mind is conscious of time both ‘lost and retrieved, retrieved and more deeply lost’. But the language here, especially in the first four sections of the book, is propulsive, more like Ginsberg than Proust, and I found I was enjoying it as a sense experience more than anything else. There is something interesting going on, an originality of observation and expression. The language is somewhat elevated and the emotional punch hits dead centre.

An astute observer, Golden’s points of reference are primarily artworks, and his own use of white space is diverse and arresting. Divided into six sections, the poems range from a series of ekphrastic responses to artworks by Tim Jones, Tom Molloy, Áine Phillips, Hazel Walker and Maria Kerin, to relationship poems, an elegy for Nora Guthrie and several meditations – on his mother’s illness and also the valley of Oughtmama, where the poet lives.  His intention is the depiction of ‘characters in moments of crisis or transition’ as the blurb puts it.  These include what he calls in the preface ‘an elliptical description of an enigmatic affair’ (triggered by Walker’s paintings) which are, for me, the standout poems in this startling and exciting collection.

The lyric address occurs, as is usual, between an ‘I’ and a ‘you’, aligning the lyric with the uncapturable life force of the lover. The ‘I’ cannot be assumed to be the poet, of course. A singular voice in poetry is, of course, a fiction, just as ‘you’ is invariably multiple individuals. So the relationship poems we see here are addressed to different second persons. By using dramatic monologue in the context of a visual artwork, Golden is protected from the accusation of writing overtly confessional lyric love poetry. And yet, in each lover, as in each poem, an aspect of the speaker’s self is doubtless embedded:

            We met again and again,

            photographs prove it.

            Stations in Veronsk, Palatou, Trabant.

                        Meet me, she would text.

                        3 days from now.

                        Dress in white.

                        No socks.

Usefully, images of the artworks are included, enhancing the experience of the poems, which illustrate an ingenious immersion in the source materials to evoke unabashed rapture and sorrow. Rhapsodic for the most part, the poems flow in long sentences, building momentum until a culmination. ‘My flesh aches,’ he writes in ‘To Burn’: ‘I could not breathe when you burned./ Nor could I stop.’

A bibliography at the back references lines taken from Shelly, Francis Thompson, Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson and Sylvia Plath. I also sense the influence of Dylan Thomas’s ‘rage, rage…’:

            We walk on though we are broken.

            Everything has been turned off.

            The door left open.

            What we were always destined to do, we do.

            The end of conscionable time is coming,

            So I call the words out as I see them.

            I call them screaming

                        glorious

                                    descending.

                                                (‘o peerless god’)

Images accumulate to become motifs: trains, exotic locations, cities, forests, snowy desolate landscapes – a sense of many elsewheres, including the elsewhere of a woman’s orgasm, a place the lover cannot reach. There are many list poems, and many evocative refrains. The poems are often resonant of song lyrics.

Towards the end of the collection, the poet returns home, to Oughtmama, where he lives. Several poems are also addressed to the poet’s mother, who suffered both from Parkinson’s and dementia, and here we see his impulse for listing objects:

            How many curlers for her dead hair

            How much Chanel for her dead lobes

            How much lipstick for her dead lips

            How deep to sever the vein she said she wanted cut

            How to mend her

            How to hold her

            How to leave her

            How to remember her bones

                                                (‘Rectification’)

This is a poet to get excited about, although the wroughtness is lost a little as the book veers away from the intense and enigmatic love poems into this rather more disparate subject matter. Perhaps there are two collections here. Perhaps ekphrastic poetry / collaboration is his strength. Certainly I would have omitted ‘Costa Del Costa’ where the tone descends to bathos and jars with the tone of the whole.

Overall, however, this is a collection of finely crafted and vibrant poems, playing out central concerns of love and loss. To great effect, as with the cover image, the poems blur the lines that communicate what we think and feel and dream, and leave plenty of pace to read between them.

©2017 Afric McGlinchey

These reviews were first published in Southword.

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The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes by Lieke Marsman

The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes, Lieke Marsman, translated by Sophie Collins, Liverpool University Press, ISBN: 978-1-78694-213-5.

Following her diagnosis of chondrosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, twenty-seven-year-old Lieke Marsman considers not just her illness but the world at large. Unlike Ilyse Kusnetz’s more overtly poignant Angel Bones, which also deals with the impact of receiving a cancer diagnosis, this chapbook’s tone is dry, detached and bitter-funny: ‘For years you have no doubt / been googling every freckle’. The chapbook takes the form of poems and journal entries, reflecting on issues including local elections, animal experiments, glossy magazines, loneliness of the cancer patient, and love. 

The mysterious speaker of the opening poem is disparaging about ‘mindfulness’ therapies highlighting the meaning of freedom as being about freedom from need.

            Wrong.

            To be free is to need some fresh air

            and to be able to get up and go outside

            Don’t say we didn’t warn you

                                    (‘The Following Scan Will Last Four Minutes’)

Initially, the doctor advised her that the dry, scaly skin was due to ‘too much shower gel’, and as for the bump on her back, ‘Perhaps I should get a new office chair or set an egg-timer to ensure that I take regular breaks from working’.

When a tumour, ‘8 x 9 x 10cms’ is finally found, ‘The diagnosis is a surprise to everyone.’

There are no fewer than eight poems titled ‘The Following Scan Will Last…’, reinforcing problems with diagnosis. Each also veers off in unexpected directions:

            People call my girlfriends hysterical

            tell them to keep calm

            while men initiate price wars

            or regular wars

            the kind involving weapons

                                    (‘The Following Scan Will Last Three Minutes’)

As Sophie Collins confirms in a series of epilogue letters to Lieke, the intricate translation process is influenced by the translator’s own personality, taste and personal agenda: ‘she will have her whims.’ These letters seem to address the reader rather than Lieke, however: ‘We met…at De Ysbreeker at Weesperzijde 23, which, being a little outside of Amsterdam’s main centre, was more bougie brunch territory than De Jaren.’ I would have preferred to see a translator’s note – or an exchange of letters – at the beginning, so the power of the poems could linger at the end.

Only one poem, ‘Poëzie’, is presented in the original Dutch, alongside its translation, and Sophie writes that there are ‘unquestionably’ things she would change now. It would have been interesting to see all the poems in their original language, alongside the translations. Despite these minor gripes, Marsman’s and Collins’ collaboration packs a punch, and is mightily worthy of its Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Afric McGlinchey

This review was first published in Orbis.

Afric’s new surrealist chapbook, Invisible Insane, is published by SurVision.

Review of Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, Stinging Fly, 160 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1906539450

Pond is an experimental novel that takes place entirely inside the mind of an unnamed protagonist. It relates the thought processes and intensely focused observations of an elusive, dissociated woman. Her language is fresh, and yet often completely ordinary, repetitive and seemingly trivial too. (Imagine some staid and pedantic neighbour garrulously rambling on about broken knobs on her cooker, Sheaffer pens, or a tube of tomato paste.) The repetitions, however, are cleverly patterned, in such a sustained way that the reader gradually realises that this is not just a domestic narrative but pure prose poetry, with the intensity of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept.

Only gradually does the reader discover the reason for her actions:

I had the idea about opening the window wide, which I did with no difficulty, despite the rigid appearance of the clasp … and then, from there, it was possible, unavoidable really, to listen to the storm going around and around, and I knew it was an old one that had come back.

See? That strangeness. You have to keep reading. “Thoughts such as these lurched and abated through several afternoons,” she tells us. And we lurch and abate with her. She gets an image in her mind of someone sitting on her ottoman. So she decides to have a party, and speculates how she will get this person to sit on the ottoman. The party takes place precisely to enable this fantasy to occur. Yet nothing is overtly stated. You have to follow her deliberately obtuse thoughts and divine her real intentions or subconscious attempts to hide significant facts. She is very intelligent and uncannily aware, wanting both to divulge and to hide. If you like riddles, this is your book. Her reflections are captivating. She uses unexpected adjective combinations (“prescient and steadfast”, “turbulent and extrinsic”) and verb pairings (“tumbled and prospered”), a didactic tone full of interesting statements and aphorisms (“the ivy always knows where the chaos is”), an old-fashioned (think Austen) formal register, and often (seemingly unintentional) humour.

The Latinate register occasionally shifts, all of a sudden, into crude language, an indication that her intensely controlled personality has slipped, to reveal a volatile, possibly schizophrenic, aspect to her nature, which is usually repressed for reasons that remain mysterious. Occasionally she veers into the lyrical: “bright flowers that extended, like dancers on tiptoe”. Or later, “the wine, you see, had gone gallivanting through my blood”. The unpredictability of the language is what makes this such a delicious read, as well as that confiding tone: “if you must know”, “I will admit”, “I’m quite certain”. The sensation throughout is that the reader is a confidante, or it’s an internal conversation she’s having with herself.

Objects (like a banana) are slipped randomly into the narrative, and then, many pages later, reappear. Nothing here is accidental and yet everything feels incongruous. While considering death, she stands on one leg, clipping toenails into a basin. She turns pessimism into an asset: “I have never had any difficulty in foreseeing impending setbacks.” She is profoundly secretive – in fact, she tells us so – and also contradictory. If she is as perambulatory in her thinking as Leopold Bloom, she’s also both more deluded and more self-aware. Like him, she does the strangest things: “I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead”; “I put two sugars and milk into my coffee because that’s how the ratcatcher takes his.” The reader feels a compulsion to psychoanalyse her and then is wrong-footed when the protagonist intuits this impulse. And just when the reader starts feeling that everything in the book is a metaphor, the unnamed speaker pre-empts that thought, too.

She is of indeterminate age, and appears to live alone. Subtle details suggest unmentioned aspects about her complex, sensually repressed personality, and revelations about her real internal state come obliquely, via other topics: “in every exuberant joy there is an undercurrent of terror, or else a wistful lament over an unrecoverable loss”.

She talks about a book she has read:

This is very much a book about survival and the grievous psychological ramifications and gruelling exigencies occasioned by confinement … the profound existential and cosmological repercussions precipitated by such extraordinary isolation are also beautifully charted and it is quite impossible to stop reading because in a sense you want to go where she is going.

One can’t help feeling that the protagonist has effectively encapsulated her own story.

The entire book is a labyrinth and Pond would warrant serious academic analysis to pry out these tantalising clues and motifs. She is a fascinating study. You can’t get her out of your mind. And you are none the wiser about her or her dark secret – though you may have an idea – when you reluctantly reach the last page.

First published in The Dublin Review of Books, 1/4/2017.

Review of Nothing on Earth, by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on Earth, by Conor O’Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, 192 pp, €17.50, ISBN: 978-1784161460

A distraught young girl appears on the doorstep of a man living alone, and tells him that her father has disappeared. So begins the strange, unnerving retrospective of a family with secrets, who have recently returned home after years abroad and moved into a new estate on the outskirts of a nondescript, one-street village.

When Paul and Helen, her twin sister Martina, and “the girl” discover that they are the only estate occupants – in fact, they live in the showhouse – the site owner, Flood, becomes more and more cagey about other potential buyers. Only one other prospective couple come along, and they don’t return. The atmosphere of this bleak, unpopulated landscape dominates more than anything else, becoming so pervasive and insistent it is almost the main protagonist in the story.

The anonymous new estate is eerily silent, and yet more deafening than the “millions-deep” chorus of cicadas. In fact, everything about the sounds in this very cinematic setting is extreme: too silent, or too noisy: “the volume of the telly was as far up as it would go”. There’s also the unsettling disturbance of the building debris left lying around: “rubble, cubes of foam packaging that appliances must have come in, off-cuts of yellow rubber piping and cement lumps in the shape of drums”. Unexplained presences are suggested in some writing finger-drawn on a window pane; a long-gone figure appearing fleetingly in the garden; noises from a nearby vacant house which may or may not be occupied by “Poles”.

The heatwave is revealed in the “parched muck” outside the houses. “The sun kept beating. The sun kept beating until the whole world, it felt, was dried to parchment.”

We are not even sure of the relationship of “the girl”, who has a German accent, to Helen and Paul. Is she really their daughter? Helen’s twin sister, Martina, also lives with them, and this causes conflict. There are secrets: “The sisters’ parents, going the way they did”; “All those years of skirting around the past, of her protectiveness of her sister, of keeping the girl in the dark.”

Paul and Martina go to work in the local factory. Helen remains at home with the unnamed girl. After changing her hairstyle, so she can be distinguished from her sister, Helen disappears, and aside from a few posters, there’s barely a ripple of attention about this, not even from Paul’s briefly appearing parents. Paul starts calling the girl Helen, and Martina notices, but doesn’t object, and the girl doesn’t seem to mind either. Martina and the girl spend a lot of time sunbathing, and Martina gradually introduces the girl to alcohol and the idea of going topless.

Marcus, a young guy who occupies a caravan and acts as the estate foreman, attracts Martina’s interest. Slattery and his wife Hazel, who live in a decaying big house and used to own the land the estate is built on, invite Paul and the girl to dinner. This scene is almost more strange than anything else that occurs.

The sense of a lack of water is vividly evoked, and when present, it is precious: “They sat tippling as if water were Prosecco.” Pipes from the attic tank “made occasional whale music”. And “washing in his daughter’s water didn’t bother Paul”.

There are no cars on the road, or people on the street, “as if the whole world was observing a siesta”. The weather veers from weeks of extreme heat to a final deluge. Although the word “eejits” is mentioned once, as well as hurling, the expression “grand”, and the occurrence of a removal after a death, the overall feeling is that this could be an “everywhere” or “anywhere” rather than a location in Ireland.

The story is revealed in intimations, in the silences and pauses, as perceived by the man (a priest), who opens the door to the unnamed girl. Her arrival puts him in an invidious situation, as he comes under suspicion himself when the police are called in. “After a certain age, a man has to work hard to look trustworthy.”

The narrator is also intensely self-aware: “ … as well as seeing them, I could also see myself watching them, and how that would have looked to someone else who might have come along”.

This is a novel sparse in dialogue. While the characters remain frustratingly elusive, they do reveal believable impulses and idiosyncrasies:

“Put the front door on the snib.”
“The what?”
She had heard him but wanted him to say the word again. It had been years since she had heard that word.

In particular, the sex scenes are startlingly original, and believably evoked, so that when the point of view is finally revealed, the voyeurism is spooky.

Several images recur, and my sense is that these are motifs for this poet-author, although they are effective as revelations of the unnamed narrator’s subconscious longing too:

She could feel his tongue making spirals on that ball of bone at the top of her spine;
… positioning my own lips where hers had marked the glass;
She dragged all her hair across one shoulder and twisted it with one fist into a loose spiral.

Relationships are fraught with tension and manipulation: “It was as if he were leaving spaces, deliberately for me to say what he wanted me to say. However determined I was not to say what he wanted, each space he left felt like a little vortex that I couldn’t resist being sucked into.

Even physically empty spaces are suggestive: “like a cavity, an entrance even”.

Like Claire Louise Bennett’s experimental Pond, what makes this a compelling narrative is, ultimately, point of view. Where Bennett’s is entirely interior, O’Callaghan’s is perceived via an extraordinary, twice-removed point of view.

It’s as though the narrator – and the reader over his shoulder – is looking through a spyhole, gleaning fragments as told by the girl, and having to jigsaw the story together. With such a perspective, so many possibilities are left open. In terms of unanswered questions and sense of guilt, I was reminded of EM Forster’s A Passage to India. Nothing is resolved: not the backstory, not the characters, nor their relationships. The process of revelation becomes a Magus-like obfuscation instead. Because of all this veiling, it can be difficult to engage emotionally with the characters, except, perhaps, Martina and later, the priest. Yet this stark, austere, occasionally lyrical tale becomes a vortex the reader cannot resist.

What does the narrator witness for himself? That the girl, who appears on his doorstep, writes words on her skin. The rest he learns from her descriptions. Though this is a retold story, the narrator describes it as vividly as though he were a drop of sweat on the girl’s flesh. As for the scenes she was not privy to, his obsessed imagination does the rest.

First published in The Dublin Review of Books, 01/05/2017

Review of Shiner by Eva H.D.

Shiner, by Eva HD, Mansfield Press, 108 pp, $17.00, ISBN: 978-1771261210

Eva HD’s first book of poetry, Rotten Perfect Mouth, was published by Mansfield Press in 2015. Shiner followed a year later. A science lecturer and poet friend of mine, who is disdainful of most poetry, introduced me to her. “Now there’s a poet worth reading,” he said. With my expectations set somewhat higher than usual, I dived in.

“Our mouth is open, and what are we expecting?” So begins the first poem in Shiner. A few lines on, the “we” becomes a singular entity, which metamorphoses a couple of lines later into “carp walking on down the street”. In the surreal image, there is, perhaps, a hint of Beckett’s sense of the absurd, and also the state of his existential crisis in The Unnameable: “thirsting away, you don’t know what for”.

As with her debut, the strongest impression in Shiner is of her casual register (she often uses words like “dunno” and “uh”) and her focus on what Heidegger refers to as the thingness of things. While being swept along in a storm of detail, the reader becomes aware of a troubled consciousness, though the occasional indications are wry and anti-sentimental. At a family lunch where her aunt is offering her figs and her nephew “cat’s cradles his / fingers on my tongue”, she writes, “I’m running out of ways to say I’m fine and so I say I’m fine.” But in the very next sentence: “My nephew addresses / the insects personally and individually”. This is her particular talent – deflection.

Why is she not “fine”? The process of revelation is oblique, until “Thirty Eight Michigans” (a poem that won the prestigious Montreal poetry competition, judged by Eavan Boland). But even here, we find the speaker using a tone that elides full-frontal lamentation:

You are thirty-eight Michigans away from me,
thirty-eight wolverine states into your cups
in the sky, because being dead is like being
profoundly tanked, profound as an empty silo,
with your thoughts and your arms and your
credit cards ignoring you, just eyes, eyes, and behind
those eyes nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure,
or thirty-eight Michigans of black, bloated ice.

With this long single opening sentence and unexpected juxtapositions of images, “we” (to borrow her implied complicity with the reader in her opening line) find ourselves being pulled along on a current, where “thirty-eight Michigans” becomes the impossibility of distance between the living and the dead. And yet it doesn’t stop the speaker from attempting a conversation.

Like Elizabeth Bishop, HD is aware of the power of anaphora: “just eyes, eyes, and behind / those eyes, nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure”. While there is a flow that sounds spontaneous, the poem is calibrated so that one meaning is offered, and then immediately subverted. Her repetition of “profoundly” and “profound” in the same line is risky but she gets away with it because she links the adverb to “tanked” – implying both “very” and also “in that drunken stupor of deep revelation” – then undercuts it in the next phrase: “profound as an empty silo”. Tone in her work is often layered, and here the line could be seen to contain anger too, as well as a teasing sarcasm that may have gone on between them.

She goes on to loop one thought to the next, so thirty-eight Michigans becomes a unit of measurement: measuring distance in the first line, and depth in the second. The level of drunkenness implied is perhaps a rebellious, wild act, which brings her to “wolverine”, a motif in the collection. Her line ending also deliberately manipulates the sense: “into your cups / in the sky”. Where the thirty-eight states earlier implied a stretch of distance between the speaker and “you”, now the notion of death is introduced.

These container words – “cups”, “silo” (as well as the notion of a container in the word “tanked”) –allow for the possibility of the sky being seen as a container too: “and behind / those eyes, nothing, or the sky”. Though they might seem random, “your thoughts and your arms and your / credit cards” all suggest a significant relationship. The “ignoring you” could also be seen to slide in meaning from the “you” addressed to the speaker herself.

In the second stanza, by extending the conceit of the thirty-eight Michigans, a stronger sense of personality is evoked, as well as the closeness of their relationship:

One Michigan is bigger by far than a football field,
and two or ten is one of those I’m a man who needs
no woman type of motorcycle trips and fifteen is all the
old routes of tea or silk or spice or Trans-Siberian
misery rolled; but thirty-eight is the size of the space where Oh,
I need to call you, though laying hands upon
the phone I am repelled by a force field of practicality,
grasping at the incongruities of the calendar year and my
desire and your non-existence.

While her selection of end words in the first stanza appears judicious, as the poem progresses, weak line endings such as “the” and “my” slide into a haphazardness (also seen elsewhere in the collection), but this flaw does little to diminish the power of the poem. Another strangeness is the lack of hyphens in “I’m a man who needs no women type”, but again, this and the unfinished cliché, “rolled”, are part of her idiolect. In spite of the apparent openness, mystery is left intact. A reader might be tempted to guess at the cause of death, but there are so many options here. “Laying hands” affectingly evokes the biblical image of healing (and thus, an illness); the mention of motorbike road trips and black ice hint at an accident. And then, later in the poem, “balking at being” could imply suicidal thoughts. This is a poet who knows how to hold the interest of her reader. The poignancy of the elegy is all the more powerful for her strenuous avoidance of sentimentality: “I am repelled by a force field of practicality”. Another motif throughout the collection is a notation of time: the day, the month, the season; so here, “the incongruities of the calendar year” suddenly give all those earlier markers an emotional resonance.

HD is an observer who, to paraphrase Eavan Boland, forces the contours of ordinary reference and experience into a new shape. In one poem after the next, unsuspecting couples, old men, family members and even babies come under her scrutiny. The opening prose poem quoted from earlier eavesdrops on voices in a city street: “That one punk chick in the lace corset going I don’t like that guy, I never liked him, with the weird eyebrow? I don’t trust his face” (“Nuestra Boca Abierta”). But while she witnesses those around her with a detached irony, affection, bitterness, or even disgust, as with the opening sentence, she includes herself as well: “All my muscles are / unimpressed: with me, the air / the lovers in the park” (“Baseball On The Radio At Night”). It’s safe to say that she is disillusioned by life – or at least, people – in general. “If Dickens were alive today, he’d / call it Managing Expectations”, she writes in “Bootblack”.

Most of her usually long-lined poems are formed in irregular-sized stanzas, but she is fond of the sestina too, which, in this collection, are easy giveaways. There are no fewer than three, and I would say they are the least effective in the collection – due, perhaps, to some unsubtle end-word choices: “marble”, “ticket”, “birthday” etc. Her sonnets – there are several of these too – are much more successful.

A key concern for her is animal rights. She describes animal experiments and contrasts the restless pacing of creatures in the Detroit zoo with the way free wolverines “run and run, scale / sheer cliffs and sprint the far sides” of mountains. With cutting brevity she highlights the hypocrisy of seemingly caring carnivores and fish eaters: “Was this salmon wild / before it was dead?”

For Eva HD, “our lives are porous, slipping into one another” (“Feidakis’ Birds”) and this seems the overriding theme of the collection. Poems touch on current world affairs, pop culture, history, music, religion. In her “Aubade in Eleven Postcards” she addresses Oppenheimer, Alex Bell, the French painter Albert Marquet, and St Christopher, among others.

Perhaps she sees gender as porous too, often using “you” to avoid gender pronouns. In a hospital visit, only the patient’s age is indicated: “phlegm hides in a crocheted pocket of crinkled neck”. Gender-avoidance, where it occurs, might, of course, be to disguise the person she is writing about. Elsewhere, men are more overtly visible than women. There is a general masculine energy throughout, not least because of casual conversations with a male taxi driver, a crazy character on a bench, old men in the square and fishermen down by the harbour. Scraps of conversation are frequently relayed. “I wonder if something could be done for the pain”, she says to a night nurse, Petros, who replies, “No. It’s important to suffer before you die.”

I owe my scientist/poet friend a pint for introducing this book to me. There is subtlety in the emotional range of Eva HD’s work, and the content conveys a restless, disquieted consciousness. But it is her idiosyncratic personal music in particular that captivates. In Eavan Boland’s words, this is a voice that “is making its own reality with a devil-take-the-hindmost defiance”.

1/12/2017

Review of Minal Hajratwala’s Bountiful Instructions for Englightenment

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, one of whose patrons is Carolyn Forché; Hajaratwala is also fortunate enough to have attended workshops by poets as diverse as Li-Young Lee and Kim Addonizio, among others. The book is many years in the making, and all the richer for it.

An epigraph for Part Four, ‘(avatars) gods for a new millennium’, describes Hajratwala’s approach to sourcing material and producing her work:

‘From the Vedic perspective, truly effective poetry…fashions wholeness out of what otherwise may be experienced as brokenness, constructing cosmos out of chaos.’

William K. Mahony (The Artful Universe)

This is a big, noisy collection, with a lot going on, but there’s a lot of skill in it too. Hajratwala’s passions and obsessions are woven deftly into each other: the convergence of body and spirit, sensuality and soul, oppression (of women, of ‘queers’, and of a country), and rebellion. There is edginess and joy, anger and tongue-in-cheek humour underlying the whole experience, and reading Hajratwala is an experience. She works well with dichotomy and paradox: ‘My intimacy’s with the seven million’ (‘Dialogue of the Lady Monsters’). I find myself deliciously enjoying her irreverent, intelligent connections, her intuitive understanding of humanity.

We know we’re in for something interesting from the title and cover, which displays a collection of headless Kali-like arms in gestural poses inside a labelled jar. The physical book is larger (more bountiful) than usual, about the shape and size of an ipad, which gives Hajratwala’s longer lines room to sprawl across the page without spilling over.

The first poem is ‘Angerfish’, a sequence in four parts, in which the conceit of the fish beautifully deflects what the poem is really talking about, a feature that runs through the collection:

I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Her similes – and there are many – are flamboyant: ‘the roots of trees pushing themselves out like amputated limbs still feeling themselves itch’; ‘their leaves like velvet paintings inscribed with gold cowboys or dying landscapes of fruit’; ‘our lives glowed like islands, some large as empires, others solitary jagged rocks that scraped the fickle sky.’

Speaking of empires, this is another recurring theme: ‘Empire made us monkeys, robbed us of our lips and palates’; ‘the walls had strange white accents.’ Hajratwala displays insightful awareness of oppression: ‘They want to use us, even our words.’ But Hajratwala is never simply doing one thing, and her treatment of subject matter is as varied as her range. There are numerous mythical references – to Melampus, Diotima, Teiresius, Achilles, Arjuna –as well as other writers, from the classical (Socrates), to the contemporary (Marie Howe). In ‘Dialogue of the Lady Monsters’, Lady Gaga strikes up with Casssadra of Troy, who warns her: ‘Ego is nothing. The gods are cruel. Don’t become one.’ Lady Gaga’s tone is somewhat more contemporary: ‘Hey C, Googled you. Hot stuff!’ Their tonalities and demeanours shift as each speaker adapts to the other’s register.

Hajratwala’s lyricism is at its most seductive when she is writing about food: ‘the fish has grown in me / like bubblegum or seeds of water/melons’ (Angerfish); ‘I will lipstick its beak with cranberries and thyme’ (Her Discourse on the Leaf); ‘lightly blessed with cumin and salt’ (Her Discourse on Art and Shortcuts):

So open your mango quick & slick: wash it, stand it up, slice in parallel thirds in two curves around the pit. Let the slivers fall lotus-like, hairy core flop to one side, submit to gravity’s random, disinterested dance.

(Her Discourse on Art and Shortcuts)

She excels in striking, unexpected juxtapositions of words: ‘tart sherbet of the heart, petty scrotum lust’ (The Goddess of Lemons); ‘the crickets breed belief’ (The After-Dark Humming Confusion). As her titles show, this is exhilarating, extroverted poetry that surprises on every page.

Hajratwala is also blatantly sexual, even (outrageously) invoking the divine in the sexual act:

Only the prostitutes in the temples know God. They have sucked & fucked him, run their fingers down his spine & up his cavities, heard him moan and beg for more. “God,” they like to say, “is one ugly motherfucker.”

The exotic language of her culture is one of her weapons; she sardonically points out to us that her political messages are often cunningly disguised in a sensual wrapping:

Just the word
chanted like a sutra silk silk silk silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on the musk of exotic suffering.

Whatever we say
love war race hate
if we wrap it in silk
they will take it home,
unminding.

The closest comparison I can arrive at is Billy Ramsell’s recent collection, The Architect Dreams of Winter, which conflates spiritual and sensual language with that of computer networks. Like Hajratwala, he uses multiple voices, his book is similarly shaped and sized, and his lines, like Hajratwala’s, breathe right across the page. In fact the ‘architect’ of his title is also a goddess.

As with Ramsell, sensuality is only one of Hajratwala’s weapons. Another is humour. Part Three, ‘archaeologies of the present’, is divided into twelve sections, and to give you an example of Hajratwala’s approach absorbing social media registers, here are some titles, complete with hashtags: 1-00 The Beautiful (Tags: star, blood, cellular, closet, homo, hegemony); 2-00 The Professionals (Tags: sugar, pastry, rules, sky); 3-00 The Fiddlers (Tags: progress, promise, sins, sugar); 1-01 The Gamblers (Tags: glue, whip, ingredient, history, repeat, custom, life, stars).

For most of us (and even for the gods) it all comes down to food and sex. One innovation is Hajratwala’s frequent references to ‘The We’ and ‘The They’. (Initially you think it’s a typo. But of course not. Everything in this book is deliberate.) Here’s an example:

Milk is a celebrity so The They celebrate the thin film it leaves above the lip, a new fetish for millionaires, like botox or submission.

‘7-00 The Hungry (Tags: eat, eating, ate)’

Though her orientation is Indian, Hajratwala – raised in New Zealand and elsewhere, educated at Stanford – is not constrained by the boundaries of culture or nationality. Her years in the States have left their impression, and her image-base is a concocted from a merging of cultures.

One flaw of this lucky bag collection is that there’s too much going on. Reading is like channel hopping, being served up morsels of excitement with each image/sound byte. It’s the kind of collection you can’t read in one swallow. But then, you wouldn’t want to rush it. Like a chef who uses a certain spice with panache, Hajratwala serves up this extravagance with wonderful echoing motifs which pull the whole collection together.

I haven’t even mentioned Part Four yet, which, surprisingly, is a play, complete with eight characters, many of whom double up as other characters. Set at the turn of the millennium, it depicts a magical otherworld that ‘shifts from temple to suburbia to abyss.’ I’ll leave you with part of the Prologue:

VAC ((the fearsome Vedic goddess of speech): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new millennium. Please turn all cellular telephones, beepers, and mobile computing devices to the ‘vibrate’ setting. Vibrations can be very pleasant and do not offend the gods. Take a deep breath. Now please clear your minds of all preconceived notions, emotions, feelings, perceptions, desires, hormonal rushes, hunger pangs, hot flashes, itchiness, and other distractions. Here we are at yet another beginning of time, when each of us, divine and corrupt, must recruit loyal followers to our cults, lest we disappear into the mists of –

For a taste of something different, Bountiful Instructions does what it says on the tin.

First published in the Dublin Review of Books and subsequently translated into Italian by Inkroci.

Review of Selected Poems, by Vona Groarke

Selected Poems, by Vona Groarke, Gallery Press, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1852356675

This Selected volume reflects the development of Vona Groarke’s poetic sensibility over a period of twenty years. The poems are drawn from her six previous collections, all published by Gallery Press: Shale (1994); Other People’s Houses (1999); Flight (2002) (which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2002 and won the Michael Hartnett award in 2003); Juniper Street (2006); and X (2014), which received a Poetry Society Recommendation.

A reviewer might observe that a particular poet is passionate, raw, visceral, working from the unconscious; another poet might be said to be intellectual, cool and refined. I would say that the adjective that best describes Groarke’s work as a whole is transcendent. Even in the midst of a grief where “I find I cannot speak of love /or any of its wind-torn ghosts to you / who promised warm sheets and a candle, lit” she manages to leave the shadows behind, and to keep instead, the “remembered light” (“The Garden in Hindsight”).

Groarke grew up on a farm in the Irish Midlands, so it is not surprising that her work closely observes the natural world. Yet, while it appears to focus on her own domestic and garden worlds, something about her aesthetic temperament reminds me of the title of Tania Hershman’s debut chapbook, “Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open”. Groarke’s images appear to embody an intuitive knowledge of the unconscious, while her lyric language, with its particular powers of inflection, expresses a subtle intellectual discrimination. Fuse these with her remarkably consistent tone and you have the embodiment of her powers as a poet.

Perhaps what is most true of her work is the way she “keeps faith with the world”, as Nick Laird has put it. Although she has responded to the 1916 Rising with a narrative poem here, called “Imperial Measure” (which focuses wittily on the sourcing and cooking of specific foods for the rebels) and includes another narrative, “The Game of Tennis in Irish History”, set in 1873, Groarke’s particular strength is in her attentiveness to human emotions. Her image-making is as painterly as the artist Vilhelm Hammershoi’s portraits and landscapes, whose work she admires. Like the paintings, her poems conjure largely blues and whites and earth tones, reflecting an outward calm. But, subtly encoded in their geometry, light and shadow is a hidden turbulence caused by hinted-at losses. Many poems are marked by an ache and a delicacy that reminds me of the poetry of Jane Hirshfield:

…the way your breath on the back of my hand
had three things to say, and none of them got said.
“Call Waiting”

These are poems that have been clearly distilled and, though quiet, they resonate with a smouldering fire. There is, of course, an added poignancy to a retrospective selection, where earlier poems gain a more luminous resonance:

I would have you lie down
on young heather,
all the years between us
pressed clean like sheets of linen …
“Love Songs” (from the collection Spindrift)

It is fascinating that poets ultimately write the same poems over and over. Key motifs unearth what are perhaps unconscious obsessions at the time of writing, although the gradual intrusion of self-consciousness is almost inevitable, particularly when choosing poems to represent your life’s work in a Selected volume. Houses, for example, figure significantly in Groarke’s work. The idea of house as womb (the beautiful cover features a nest) or house as self, become apparent: “I am floor-length curtains and bookcases, / rooms that listen nicely to each other” (“3”). She appears almost compelled to use the house as a symbol for so many aspects of her life:

I already know

That … I have been required to fly
over the history of my house …
“Fate”

While the house could be seen as a refuge (as well as a symbol of the self), the garden is a project that offers purpose and also marks the passage of time:

… the afternoon staked to two kinds of hour …
“The Garden as Event”

Groarke’s love for her garden and for the tending of that garden echoes her love for language, and the tending of language too. Her attention to le mot juste has been observed more than once. Although there is a thread of pure magical delight in some of her images, for the most part her work is stripped down: “I begin to learn / the simple thing”, she writes in “Purism”. (I did wonder what was wrong with the more appealing word “Purity”. But of course she wanted the subtly different meaning. This is an example of her attention to, and precision with, words.)

A poet at an earlier stage in her career might seek to set off fireworks in her poems, but Vona Groarke is a seasoned poet, who has learned to listen, to wait, for the right words to arrive: “ … the rain has too much glitter in it, yes” (“Purism”).

Geometric shapes figure largely in this section: “my linear breath” (“Veneer”); “news falls in slanted beats” (“To Smithereens”); “arc of brilliance on the cloth” (“Athlones”); “A summer Saturday pitched / like a mansard roof” (“Just Exactly That Kind of Day”); “The night is required to fold itself up into squares that get smaller and smaller” (“3”).

The symbol X, the striking title of her sixth collection, is both a negative symbol (suggesting “wrong” and “no”) and affirmative and assertive (X meaning yes on a form, X marks the spot, the target, bull’s eye). It suggests both the rational (mathematical) and the intuitive (emotive symbol of a kiss). There is its central holding point, and also four directions heading off to the four corners of the page, or universe. Like the X, Vona Groarke is a poet of paradox – both spontaneous, full of fire, and also almost Prufrock-like in her caution. One example is the way this hesitancy is contradicted by a predilection for the longer line, something I associate with a certainty, a rational groundedness, rather than the spontaneity of thought suggested by shorter lines. Brilliantly, she takes the very open-ended symbol of the X and explores its myriad possibilities, ultimately seeking to find, amid all the contrary impulses, her core:

so I may walk in the room
of my own breath
“Fate”

Perhaps in order to prevent herself shooting off, like a Cupid’s arrow, into unknown territory, she confines the big abstracts to specific shapes and measurements: “squares of music”; “fractional slippage of love” (“Just exactly that kind of Day”); “square of light” (“The Garden as Event”). Time and space can also be elastic: “One minute is cavernous // compared to the next” she writes in “Ghost Poem”. Or she does the opposite – in “Front Door”, she reveals that the possibility of great magnitudes can be compressed into a small space: “The sky inside my head grows out / of a single cell of blue.”

Such visual images and symbols are both concrete and abstract, intersecting her physical and cerebral worlds. Other motifs are the moon, hands, water, a lighthouse, a windmill, and also language and accents – aspects that identify an individual’s roots. The clarity of language is balanced by subtlety; compelling recurring motifs are markers for what is left unsaid. It is the combination of all these elements that keeps the reader intrigued:

What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands …
“Shale”

Groarke is also capable of a wryness that leaves the reader guessing at undertones:

My mother has gone and bought herself a piglet
because none of us comes to visit anymore.
George has good manners and is clean in his ways:
he is courtly, thoughtful, easy to amuse …

When I tell him I’m glad he’s there when I can’t be,
he answers ‘thank you’ in a voice too like my own …
“Family”

In her review of X in The Stinging Fly, Ailbhe Darcy queries Groarke’s “intemperance” in bandying about such an enormous word as “love”. Although there’s no denying her sensuousness (in “Veneer”, from the earlier collection “Flight”, she imagines her tongue grazing “the whorl at the base of his neck”), I feel that Groarke’s poetry is anything but intemperate. The X symbolises, for me, an attempt to contain that vast emotional realm, to prevent a spilling over into excesses of pain, loneliness, all the sorrow of a fractured relationship. These are not rhapsodic poems. Instead, there is a stoicism that ensures a life beyond loss:

Though there is only the road
and its sidelong songs
to mark time with you, walk on.
Trees talking shadow talk
will make no mention of you.
“La Route”

As she says in a poem from the collection Spindrift, written immediately before X:

Thistledown, fuchsia, flagstone floor:
this noun house

has the wherewithal
to sit out centuries …
“An Teach Tuí”

With characteristic humility, Vona Groarke is piercingly aware that her habit of staring long and deeply might cause her to annotate the trees forensically, but miss the wood:

and you look everywhere
but it’s not to be found
until there it is
right in front of your eyes

and still you keep on looking.
“Just Exactly That Kind of Day”

Not everything in Groarke’s poetry world is tangible. There is a strong presence of ghosts, for example. But they are welcome, helpful presences, who “gather / in their arms what light the house holds, / pooling it in doorways so none of us / will ever have to step out into the dark …” (“3”). This is a collection brimming with such lyricism. In both tone and content, Groarke’s poems are layered with sub-texts and juxtapositions. Her attention alights at times on the cosmos, infinity, and at others, on the bricks and mortar of her home: walls, windows, rooms. While the mood of the collection is one of solitude, it also explores the connection to all living things, in language that refracts our own experience, like light and shadow’s dance. Beneath the weight of life’s sorrows, her impulse for joy still stirs, nowhere more evident than in the wonderful “Pier”, from the collection Spindrift, where, again, the word “open” appears:

And then let fly. Push wide,
tuck up your knees so the blue nets hold you,
wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;
fling a jet trail round your neck like feather boa,
toss every bone and sinew to the plunge …

This energy and momentum contrasts with an otherwise stopped-time sense of her emotional state. Yet, even here, there is a hesitancy. One senses that these are instructions to the self, urging herself to overcome the paralysis caused by fear (in this case, of the tide): “release your ankles from its coiled ropes”. In “Going Out”, again, the impression is that she is talking to herself as much as to her daughter, to whom the poem is dedicated:

Walk your walk through ten thousand doorways
so the music of you is one and the same as the music
of starlings and new moons and traffic lights and weirs …

Why did I choose to call her work transcendent? Because, in a collection of almost sublime purity – and yes, I mean that word – she moves from a youthful confidence inspired by love, to a state of “chassis” (as Tom MacIntyre might say), and finally to a point where she looks outward, away from the enclosing confines of the symbolic house. And her images perform the complex, layered work of transcendence, as in “High Notes”, where the word “open” appears to be her new spur, to look both outwards and inwards; to be receptive, to write

for no one in particular,
written to be open, for the sake of openness,
this night and every budding night inside.

First published in The Dublin Review of Books, 1/7/2016