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Aoife Lyall

When the Tree Falls: A Review

 

 

his time is precious as a dry spell

when there’s silage to be cut

Jane Clarke’s second collection When the Tree Falls records her father’s life passing through its final season. The narrative is centred around country living and goes about its business with astounding grace and balance.

Clarke does not treat the land as something made for poetry: reared on the farm, its rhythms and rituals are hers. Expressing her father’s illness through familiar, concrete imagery gives her poems a striking and tender sincerity: her father becomes “a frightened bullock”, his fever coming on “as fast as nightfall in winter”; the insidious spread of his cancer is later likened to “The way couch grass takes hold of a garden,/ spreads seeds, runners, white rhizomes/ long before we notice”.

These poems do not use poetry to obscure or detract from the reality of her father’s illness and death. Rather, they root one reality in another: connecting her loss to his life, his life to the farm, the farm to her life. Because life must go on, especially when there are animals to be birthed and tended, and fences to be checked and mended. And so, this collection is one full of cycles and routines in which life and death come and go, in the natural way.

If a tree falls in a wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? The question is meant to challenge our perception of sound: the tree falling is irrefutable. Clarke recognises love is thus: not a gathering of empty words, hollow laments, or fervent declarations, but simple, indisputable, acts of care, and attention; holding hands, shaving, visiting the cows. Love is integral to this collection, the only absolute present:

 

When he falls asleep

at the kitchen table and drops

another cup, my mother bends

without a word, sweeps up

the broken pieces in her hands,

looking out for shards in case

he wanders barefoot in the night.

 

People who don’t say much tend to say exactly what they mean, and Clarke captures the poetry in the brevity of her friends and neighbours by letting them speak for themselves through her beautifully rendered, but otherwise unadorned, accounts:

 

They […]

fill the kitchen with the man

they knew, a grand man altogether,

always out early, hardy as a wild duck,

a good judge of a bullock, fierce man

to work, he had woeful hands,

a man of his word.

 

That said, she also acknowledges how this same silence caused untold suffering and grief for thousands of men, women, and children growing up in Ireland. In ‘In Glasnevin’ she considers two lovers consigned as friends on their headstone, wondering whether the demarcation was their choice or their fate:

 

faithful comrade, lifelong friend,

reminds me of my grandmother

who used to say there was none of that

in her day.

 

In ‘Polling Station’, written in mind of the abortion referendum which took place in Ireland on May 25th 2018, the conversation in the queue outside may be friendly, even light-hearted, but:

 

No one asks anyone where they’ll place their X-

every family has stories, left like ploughs

and harrows among thistles behind the sheds.

 

The poems that draw the collection to its close very much encapsulate the pragmatic, even convivial, spirit the Irish espouse when it comes to death: as with so much “it happens quickly/ in the end”, and they “agree they couldn’t have/ a better day for digging a grave”.

Clarke’s confidences are few, and the poems that do speak of grief and hardship do not dwell on them:

 

Not that those months

minding him were easy

but compared to this

they were white

and pink-splashed blossoms

on briar roses in June

 

This distancing allows the reader to share the circumstances of the poem, without becoming overwhelmed by them, making it a collection that provides genuine comfort and solace.

Clarke recognises and records the poetry in her life. These poems are rich and earthy, natural and cultivated, and When the Tree Falls is a beautiful second collection, giving the reader not only a sense of loss, but also peace, and even joy, in the quiet memories that live on here:

 

When he asks to get up

I hold his wrists,

brace my weight against his.

For a moment he’s confused –

It’s okay Janey, I’ve got you,

Go on now, you can stand.

 

 

When the Tree Falls. Jane Clarke; Bloodaxe Books, 2019. £9.95

ISBN: 978-1-780374-80-2

Dad, Remember You are Dead: A Review

 

The men push me towards the dark

but I’m too fast. You’ll never stop my mouth

not now I’ve started. I can play rough too.

I’ll write my world, I’ll take my place. I spit

this shape onto the page. I make my mark.

Dad, Remember you are Dead is Jacqueline Saphra’s visceral and virulent sister collection to the T.S Eliot Prize shortlisted All my Mad Mothers. This is not a collection about resolution, or finding peace, or coming to terms with the past. It is searing, scathing shattering of convenient, comfortable silences: a disabusing of the narratives of dignified acceptance and humble forgiveness used to subjugate, manipulate, and control women.

For its emotional complexity and forceful handling of oppressive social conditioning, look no further than Saphra’s destabilising title: ‘Dad’ invoking a hierarchical relationship; ‘remember’ intoning a shifting authority; ‘you are dead’ declaring both a state of being and unbeing. Combined, these innocuous elements conflict and conflate, and reveal the tortured truth of this collection: ‘death being not the end-/ not for the living.’

Order: disorder. Obedience: defiance. Saphra’s skilful engagement of form and content yokes them together in uncomfortable alliances, enacting the struggle to survive within, and fight against, patriarchal social norms. This is witnessed most fervently in three key sequences that adeptly extrapolate the title:

Lessons my Father Taught me

I. Cycling

 

Must I? Don’t make me. I wish I could run

from the chill of the challenge. I carp and I cry

 

so he sprinkles some grit in the white of my eye

as a father will do. I’m weedy and green

Rhythm and rhyme play the part of our tidy expectations, while the content articulates the turbulent reality of furious submissions and terrifying assertiveness.

II. Diving

He approves the ascent. Will he smile? Will he cheer?

I must gather my grace as he’s calling my name.

No. I force him to witness my turn from the brink

climb down drunk on defiance and dizzy with shame.

Where we expect picture-perfect moments between the generous teacher and the eager student, we witness instead a melee of defeat, defiance, and disconnect between father and daughter:

III. Climbing

as he’s conning the climb and my troubles begin

as he drags me up with him. I say that I won’t

 

but he’s holding me tight and he tells me I must,

though I’m witless and gutless and kicking up dust

This sequence pointedly exemplifies the perpetual and exhausting battle of wills that rages throughout the book. The following sequence, ‘Not the Deathbed just the Disappointment’, epitomises the social constraints which bind adult children to their parents, and the infuriating duties, engendered silences, and strained lip-service that must be paid by an obedient daughter to her dying father. Saphra also considers this incandescent, socially incommunicable rage in ‘Recusatio Redacted’:

but now I’ve begun I am filled with

and an incandescent

no it’s not like me to

I was always so

and daughterly

while in the third of these sequences, ‘My Father’s Will’, she learns how to live with the dead, or rather, learns that we still have to live with the dead:

The hand lives. Ridiculous, that fist,

the way it rises, opens, gives a little wave.

This sequence is suitably muted in form, befitting the cautious steps needed to navigate the uncertain territory that comes with the death of a parent, particularly when the loss is a relief and not a lament. The poems embody the insidious nature of power and control. Even in a weakened state, the abuser manipulates and dictates the behaviour of those around them: demanding sympathy and refusing to die:

                                                […] they scream

their loss into the small hours, puke and snap

and beg you for a route into your dreams

burrow their balding heads into your lap.

Many of the poems in this collection focus on the physicality of the father: how he uses his body to intimidate and subjugate the women around him. A pervasive and persistent image throughout the collection is that of lips: wet lips, lecherous lips, lips demanding and pleading to be kissed; lips that don’t respect physical or emotional boundaries; lips that are distant and overfamiliar, defensive and predatory, disinterested and overly intimate. Nowhere is this more blatantly and unashamedly retold as in ‘My Father’s Stories’:

kiss me on the lips

on the lips

[…]

a baby who never slept

you were lucky

I didn’t abuse you

[…]

I could make you sleep

I’d dip my finger in whisky

& make you suck it

& sweetheart you loved it

One of the ways Saphra fights these violations is through the resistances and rebellions revealed in her ekphrastic poems. ‘Chiaroscuro’, dedicated to the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, focuses on her painting Lot and His Daughters. The painting also serves as the collection’s cover image, and has the unsettling effect of making the uninitiated observer close the book, study it anew, and consider just how significantly its subject has been misread:

In fact, the artist’s luminous regard so arrests

the old man’s gaze, he doesn’t spot something

quite irregular. Yes, the usual glass, the wine, daughter

without a name, absent wife; these we’ve known before.

But not this sharp sedition nudging at the edge:

strategic loaf of bread seemingly asking to be sliced

and next to it the artist’s hand, lovingly positioned,

fingers curled around the handle of the knife.

The poems in this collection are unflinching, viscous, precise, deliberate, defiant, and vocal: the antithesis of all a good daughter, a good woman, should be. And should anyone wonder if Saphra’s brutal honesty and unapologetic outspokenness about her personal life may be cause for regret, they need only refer to the collection’s closing couplet:

Fuck that. Fuck Atreus, fuck Agamemnon,

fuck Zeus, motherfucker masquerading as a swan.

 Dad, Remember You are Dead. Jacqueline Saphra; Nine Arches Press, 2019. £9.99

ISBN: 978-1-911027-73-7

The Rag Tree Speaks: A Review

 

It can be considered odd that the Irish language
has no word for hand or foot; these appendages,
as we see them, are of the linguistic flow of arm and leg
and the words themselves seem supple and warm,

McKervey’s opening poem, ‘An Sciathán’ establishes displacement and curiosity as the tone and tenure of her debut collection The Rag Tree Speaks. The speaker is insider and outsider here. Only with the knowledge of the English terms ‘hand’ and ‘foot’ can their absence from the Irish language be deemed ‘odd’: only in this discovery can the speaker explore how language shapes things ‘as we see them’. The phrase is doubly significant: it allows the speaker to identify an otherness which was previously inexpressible, while simultaneously identifying and securing her place in the community. The revelation in this poem is one that creates distance without division, and so it is in ‘Superstition’: the speaker throws salt over her shoulder, not to save her soul, but to maintain her place in a social structure she queries but does not resist. The title-poem further declares ‘they cannot dig out my roots / I’m embedded and protected by too many charms’, speaking to the ambivalent status of cultural inheritance: as weight and measure, comfort and burden, it is something that can be considered but not obliterated; interrogated but not extracted.

McKervey’s poems are knotted tightly to the branches of translation and transition. Beyond ‘An Sciathán’, we read about a traveller’s disappointment in an inaccurate world; we rummage through the tatty memories of failed relationships; we mull over the fundamental differences between ‘expectation’ and ‘hope’; observe the true state of glass; and take notes on how to grow up, move up, and move on. The consistent structure of the poems turns the left-hand margin both into the seam from which the poem has been ripped, and the branch from which its raggedy end-lines now flutter. McKervey’s use of repetition can prove thorny at times, and some poems would benefit from taking up more space on the page. That said, it would feel unnatural for this collection to be divided into sections: the poems hang easily beside each other, ordered but not tidy; individual but not artificially unique; a discordant harmony that represents all that is community.

The Rag Tree Speaks is not a collection of questions and answers: its poems speak from the potential of all the silences that exist in between. McKervey’s debut collection is fluent, subtle, and contains within its leaves an air of longevity and a trace of the sublime.

The Rag Tree Speaks, Emma McKervey. Doire Press: 80 pp / €12 ISBN: 978-1-907682-55-1

Bloodroot: A Review

Bloodroot is Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s perceptive and meticulous debut collection, an exhumation and interrogation of the exile faced by the women of Ireland within its borders.
The life and legacy of the Magdalene Laundry is one obscured by indignity and hostility. Initially established to reform street workers, the appeal of a laundry service with an unpaid workforce saw the operation expand to include unwed mothers, women with learning difficulties, and even beautiful girls who might attract the wrong sort of attention.

The opening poem ‘Untitled’ immediately articulates the depth of the coercive silence that punished and controlled the female body. The series of poems that follow in this first section read not as timid or quiet, but intensely focused: guiding the reader through the entangling seaweed and sharp stones of seemingly innocent events, whispered warnings, and lessons learned too late, before plunging them into the deep and dark reality of a shameful past.

If the reader is gradually numbed by the first section, the articulate cold of the second will hit them like an ocean wave. Poem after poem speaks to the scandal, the negligence, the contradictions rife in a system wherein the punishments for giving life far outweighed those for taking it. And Ní Churreáin’s anger is palpable. It is also articulate, distinct, and tempered like steel. No words are wasted in her scathing indictment of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation in ‘Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’:

The scent of a child in an unmarked grave may get in beneath
Your fingernails and cause all sorts of problems in later life.

Those who have been silenced understand the power of words, and these poems fight against this silencing with precision and clarity.

As though to break from the past, and place, of Ireland, the final section opens with a poem set in India. Another is set in Tibet: another, Goa; others, Florida. A fitting tribute to the Irish penchant to travel, it brings a more relaxed, personal feel to the collection. Here the poems are saturated with water: water for washing, cleansing, learning and unlearning, making new, and starting again. It might allow the most casual reader to believe that such a break, such a new beginning, is possible. But the past is not a physical location: it cannot be left behind. Ni Churreáin says as much in this opening poem, which is haunted by its title: ‘Laundry’. The poem itself is about the simple, innocuous pleasure of clean clothing moving in the wind on a pleasant day. But the discerning reader knows what ‘laundry’ has come to mean, and is made nervous to learn that:

Side by side they hang: his shirt, my summer dress
As if they know each other well.

The innocence of the moment is thus sullied by its broader context. The reader is expected, perhaps, to determine whether the image is sinful or not sinful, thus falling into the false dichotomy that was the basis of a savage, unrelenting ideology that ruined the lives of so many of Ireland’s women.

Bloodroot gives body, blood, and breath to the women of the Magdalene Laundry, and Ní Churreáin is in the vanguard of a generation that refuse to be silenced or intimidated. Intent on ensuring the past is not only revealed, but its victims heard, and its offenders held to account, her debut collection adds a singular and powerful voice to Ireland’s contemporary cannon.

Bloodroot. Annemarie Ní Churreáin. Doire Press: 72pp: €12. ISBN: 978-1-907682-58-2

Luck is the Hook: A Review

Hadfield Nigh 64

Luck is the Hook. Imtiaz Dharker. Bloodaxe Books £12 ISBN: 978-1-78037-218-1 Pp 128

Luck is the Hook. The title attests to Dharker’s passion for the rhythm and rhyme that flow effortlessly through her poems. The four words speak to her playful and deft layering of language: the homophonic ‘luck’ and ‘look’ allow an aural ambiguity to occur; and a ‘hook’ can pull things together as easily as it can pull them apart. From these four words, the reader knows to expect, and to revel in, a collection replete with linguistic possibilities.

Dharker works language as a lathe and the smooth finish of her poems belies the craft, skill, and precision involved:

 

The day blows a fuse. You walk out,

your breath a snow-storm surging

round your mouth, your tracks a baffled

argument in black and white.

-‘Thaw’

 

The imagery here is circular and electric. Day becomes night from sheer frustration. ‘You walk out’ suggests both calm, in contrast to this heightened emotion, and the finality of leaving a relationship. These ideas are then challenged by the ‘snow-storm’ breath in the next line: one ‘storms’ out in the heat of the moment to cool down, usually with the intent to return. The ‘baffled’ tracks link back to the opening sense of being overwhelmed, and work as an image for the flurried snow that is disturbed by hurried footsteps. ‘Black and white’ ends the stanza by pulling these strands together:  the ideas of daylight and darkness, happiness and anger; the supposed simplicity of the argument which has been undermined by ‘blows a fuse’ and ‘baffled’; and the contrast between the straight-forward snow and nuanced ground it disguises.

Line breaks also embody a multitude of possibilities. Dharker carries language across these line-breaks with ease, leaving a litany of ambiguities and potential interpretations in her wake:

Like a giant boar, pig-ugly, it tore

out of the sky with its load

of death. clumsy, it missed the mark

and snouted down into the road

The saints held their breath, bells

bit their tongues, singing died.

                                                                                -‘Unexploded-

 

The opening line ends with ‘tore’ giving us the sense that this unidentified ‘it’ is wild, aggressive, and moving at great speeds over land, perhaps tearing through undergrowth or physically tearing something with its teeth. It takes the following line for the object to move into the sky, and the third to identify it as a weapon, though an imprecise one that misses its ‘mark’. Further down the poem we expect the ‘bells’ to stop ringing or to be silenced; Dharker makes the bells as sentient as the statues, enforcing their own silence. The transferred epithet of death makes the purpose of this projectile unmistakable, and the two end-line words ‘bells’ and ‘died’ evoke the desperate stillness that so often precedes chaos.

The collection is a fluid one. Sequences of elephants, seeds, ghosts, rivers, letters, arcs, trains, planes, and wars tumble and flow like sticks and leaves thrown into a fast-flowing river. Words and phrases appear, vanish, and resurface in ways that surprise and delight the reader. Fitting then, that the collection ends with ‘This tide of Humber’, a poem which stops the reader, who now finds themselves at ‘the edge of the world’, with the instruction that ‘you need to be ready to throw away// the part of your ticket that says Return’.

Dharker is a story-teller: she chooses words for their looks, their sounds, their silences; the relationships that develop between them on the page, and the relationships they develop with the reader off the page. Her poetic forms illuminate her work as meaningfully as her pictures and her stories thrill and tease, sharpen and soften with every turn of the page. New and returning readers alike will undoubtably fall for this collection hook, line, and sinker.

Gifts the Mole Gave Me: A Review

 

Gifts the Mole Gave Me. Wendy Pratt.

Valley Press £9.99 ISBN: 9781908853882 pp 76

Gifts the Mole Gave Me is restrained and uninhibited, disciplined and free-flowing, rhythmic and discordant.

Pratt is skilled at capturing the sensations, attributes, and instinctive nuances of things, ideas, and experiences through clean and fitting imagery. ‘In Search of the Perfect Purse’ evokes the spectrum of difference between our passion for, and possession of, an object:

Even though I know it’s downstairs

in the junk drawer, its broken-zipped

mouth gaping, still holding

the train tickets and Metro pass

from Paris, I want to own it again.

How we first love objects for how they project and protect us; how they become time capsules of who we were and how we understood the world! Here we witness the indefinable transition between intimacy and idleness as love fades, circumstances change, and the shift in sentiment that renders the object more useless than any broken zip possibly could.

Pratt’s poems navigate the introspective and observational in touching, unusual, and humorous ways. ‘In Scarborough’ is a light and pertinent invocation of the sleepy seaside town gearing itself up for the summer season:

We’ve been huddled as gulls while the North

has been shut down. Now someone’s fed the meter

and we can all begin again.

‘Starlings’ is a fresh and evocative look at the comfort of old friendships:

When my mum returns

to her kith and kin

she becomes a starling on a wire

while ‘This is Where We Nearly Died’ embodies the acute perception of the world we acquire in moments of genuine crisis:

They don’t tell you, on the plastic sheet,

when to say I love you.’


 

The soul of this collection is in the poems concerned with the invisible and pervasive loss of a child. The gift of these poems is the balance Pratt strikes between the deeply intimate loss of her daughter through stillbirth, and the hidden prevalence of an experience from which no culture or country is exempt. ‘Amazing Grace’ aches with this ‘sudden and inexplicable’ heartbreak. The image of the new, bereaved parents:

Their unnatural smiles, their heads

flicking back and forth, knowing that these

are the only images they’ll have

is fraught with the intersections of life and death: celebration and mourning; grief and gratitude; the desire to forget twinned with the compulsion to remember.

In ‘Heptonstall Graveyard’ we witness the tender sorrow of a mother picking a final resting place for her child ‘I couldn’t have placed you here, in this wind’. The simplicity of the statement captures the power of maternal instinct to endure the ultimate hardship. Significantly, she chooses instead:

the bleak

modern field where the new builds’ bathrooms

back onto you, and the children squeal on trampolines.

The field may be bleak, but it is near the living, specifically the new life of new homes and the young children growing up in them. And so, the child is laid to rest, lovingly ‘mouthed into the soil’ into a world that will grow around her. Not apart from, but rather among, the living.

It is in our public and religious holidays, our birthdays and anniversaries, our rites and rituals, that we most often bear out Vico’s understanding of time as cyclical and not linear. Alongside these celebrations are those once unimportant dates that in a moment- a phonecall, a text, a knock at the door- come to dominate our personal calendars. This concept in borne out in ‘Stepping into My Own Footprints’ and ‘Sixth Birthday’ which keen with memories both real and desired, with shadows both hopeful and haunting.

You would still be small enough

to pull onto my knees; a kindling

The legacy of stillbirth is that of concealed grief. ‘Learning to Cry Quietly’ gives voice to the pain that lives on long after the world has stopped asking.

Two years, three, the ricocheting shrapnel

of a fourth birthday comes only to us, then,

and can’t be shared.

The tone in the latter part of the poem speaks to the restraint Time imposes on the wildness of grief, without diminishing its capacity to cause pain: each birthday is ‘ricocheting shrapnel’; every birthday still a moment of being caught out, ripped apart, and silenced.

And so it is through this collection her daughter grows. Pratt ventures beyond the prayer cards and platitudes and her poems carry the weight of this life-long loss with grace and balance. Combined with her careful attention to sound, imagery, and emotional verisimilitude, Pratt’s work generates a genuine and heartfelt investment in her poetry.

Octopus Medicine: A Review

 

Octopus Medicine is not a traditional poetry collection; it is three verse-stories about the octopus, interpolated by illustrations, facts, figures and instructions to the reader. It is doing something new. And it is doing it remarkably well.

Becci Louise refers to the reader’s approach to the text as ‘this dive we are about to take’, emphasising that the relationship between poet and reader is as much one of companionship as trust.

The collection opens with ‘A Prophet for The Sea’, an intense submarine bildungsroman, whose strong narratives are stirring and didactic. This verse-story is distinguished by the existential journey of its cephalopod protagonist as he grows through the bitter experience of war and learns to recognise himself.

‘Devilfish’ is a series of ten cinematic poems that recounts, through multiple perspectives, the transformation of a selfish fisherman into an octopus.  Almost every poem ends with an evocative instruction as to how the next should be read;

[This part needs to be read by someone who understands regret…]

[The next part needs to be read with guts…]

Each poem explores in an astute way the terrifying scenario of suddenly finding yourself, not as predator but prey; suddenly victim to the whims of unknown creatures in the hostile environments you once ruled over.  Louise’s pertinent use of the ‘monstrous’ octopus shows us just how readily we discount the humanity of those we consider different, or a threat, to our way of life.

The most haunting and stilling verse-story finishes the collection.  There is nothing peaceful about the quiet tour guide or serene about the silences between the poems in ‘Kraken: A Story Backwards’. Louise gently coaxes the reader through the story, with the use of the second person as compelling as it is reassuring; confronted with the resignation of the drowned tour guide the reader feels unable to simply bow out of the narrative, yet Louise is on hand to help the reader articulate their thoughts;

You’d never considered before that a ship might suffer as it sank.

That it might sputter and scream and fit.

But now, you’re sure of it.

These verse-stories may be read alone but they also need to be read aloud, animated, orchestrated, painted, performed, and recorded. They are enthralling, dynamic, and utterly captivating.


 

Octopus medicine, Becci Louise. Two Rivers Press 48 pp; £8.99 ISBN: 978-1909747302

Half the Human Race: A Review

 

Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems, Susan Uttings.

Two Rivers Press 112 pp; £9.99 ISBN: 978-1909747258

 

Susan Uttings touches on what it is to be all the women a woman is expected to be in Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems The experiences of daughters, school girls, mothers, spinsters, widows and old crones step, leap, and charge their way from the page, retaliating against the matrix of social challenges, expectations, and disappointments that women are too often expected to meet with a demure mixture of acceptance, acquiescence, and, most importantly, silence.

Tangible earnestness and tacit sincerity characterize many of the new poems.  From regaining a sense of hearing to reclaiming a sense of self, Uttings moves easily between diverse themes and ideas, joining them with confident and beautiful imagery. Silent loss is prevalent here, and Uttings’ careful poetic structures do justice to the strictures of dignified, unspoken grief:

 

You have your reasons, so I’ll let you go, quiet

as lambs, not a peep or a whimper, while I stay

here, tight-lipped against the almost of you

 

The poems taken from Striptease tantalisingly pivot around the naked female form.  An object of the male gaze in ‘Striptease’ and ‘For the Punters’, the ogling audience are far more naked in their intent and depravity then the women at which they gaze so lasciviously, while ‘The Bathers of the Ladies’ Pond’ fiercely protect their naked bodies from determined, unwelcomed eyes:

 

Each day before they slip their frocks and stockings off

and naked slide like knives through satin water,

one by one they shake the chestnut tree and wait

for any peeping Tom or Dick to drop like plums

 

These poems are followed by a triptych of female speakers enjoying their own bodies, be it the self-aware sensuality of ‘Hinged Copper Poem Dress’, wherein:

 

The ifs and buts of it are sharp against my shoulder blades,

at first its run-on lines strike cold against my belly,

buttocks, nipples – all the skin parts that it touches,

then the heat of circulating blood begins the chain reaction

 

or the reclamation of pleasure in ‘Lolita Paints Her Toenails’:

 

                        turning nails to pearls,

to my oyster satin pink instead of his red

 

or the reaffirmation of self in ‘The Artist’s Model Daydreams’:

 

My head is a spoon that dips and scoops

fine sugar from a china bowl, remembers

 

These poems remind us how often, in the fight to avoid the male gaze, women forget to gaze upon themselves, to experience the wonder that is their own body.

Houses Without Walls focuses more on the place of a woman either or out of a relationship, both statuses prey to harsh social scrutiny. The closing down of curiosity in ‘Catechism’ comments on how we treat little girls, fussing over their appearance and manners, while stifling their appetite for knowledge:

 

whose name was then chosen by men,

who taught her to lower her eyes, press

her lips, narrow her throat, swallow words

down; who taught me the power of hush, hush, hush.

 

‘For herself’ stands in marked contrast to this enforced passiveness, and highlights the ultimately oppressive performance that is buying flowers:

 

today she’ll celebrate

the lack of shilly- shally buying tulips

for herself, the absence of he-loves-me-

loves-me-not

 

It is telling that such a simple act is worthy of comment, that it is still considered something of a defiance, a revolution, a cause for celebration.

The final section, taken from Fair’s Fair, returns to the thematic diversity that opens the collection. These poems slip between having and wanting, trading and bargaining, gaining and losing. They are reflective and intimate. ‘Naked’ beautifully illustrates the raw anguish and vulnerability caused by loss, and is complemented in this by ‘Wanting the Moon’:

 

The sky is as wide as a sleepless night

and I miss the moon. I want it out

 

while the hope of ‘Fair’s Fair’ is counteracted by the despair in ‘The Things’:

 

For want of some rhythm, muscle,

blood, for want of a voice, the things

stilled themselves, quietened, fell apart.

 

Read this collections for its imagery and its voices: defiant, determined, intimate, and fierce with life.

 

 

On Balance: A Review

 

On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey.

Carcanet Press 72 pp; £8.99 ISBN: 978 1 784103 60 6

On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey’s sixth collection, is a rich, intertextual collection that engages and challenges the potential of form as signifier, pushing the visual field of page poetry into new and challenging spaces. ‘The Mayfly’ opens:

Conspicuously mis-christened- what chink

            in the general atmosphere, what sudden

                        lift of bones and breath

 

                        allowed you to stand up straight in mechanic’s overalls

                                    (skirts are out of the question) and plot

                                                your escape into the sky?

 

                                                Like the right foot of Louis Blériot,

                                                            trapped beside one of his overheating

                                                                        engines, like the umpteen previous

This pattern is repeated ten times, with the last and first lines of adjoining stanzas being the only ones to share indentation points. This pairing elicits a sense of relationship and understanding across the empty spaces: a relay of stanzas pushing the boundaries on both sides of the page. Through this structure we see the determination of Lilian Bland (the first woman to design, build and fly her own aeroplane) to succeed, and of Morrissey, to perpetuate her feat of excellence.

‘Das Ding An Sich’ is again a poem whose meaning is carried, indeed revealed, through its form:

a pig    two cows                     a dray horse     geese

by the back door                     a gaggle of grandmothers

kiln-dry barns                          hay until summer

gardens tucked into an orderly slumber

This is a structure that communicates as it miscommunicates. Its opening stanza gives the reader a sense of pastoral calm and the expectation of some higher truth from its sedate, prosaic images. The spaces between the words come as contented breaths: the disconnect between thoughts and words, ideas and semantics; until the poem’s final stanza reveals the gaps to be those of knowledge and understanding:

                                                                    or nouns

unmoored                                from speech

in the blistering static                          of Grossdeutscher

Rundfunk’s                              final broadcast

 

The reader discovers that these spaces are not empty, but filled with atrocities, unknown, unheard, and unobserved. Morrissey, through her restraint and form, forces the reader to confront their ignorance, fill in the blanks and, furthermore, to seek out the uncomfortable truths, to question, always question, those channels through which our knowledge of the world is formed.

‘The Wheel of Death’, in contrast, dazzles and dizzies the reader. The relationship between form and content is a playful one: the balance between anticipation and disappointment, fear and excitement:

 

we can’t undo

(though we don’t want to).

Wind lashes the outer awning

like the last of days,

we watch you rise

to the ceiling

 

in a wire-strung

cage – & then run

the length of its radius, round

& round, as the trussed

massive apparatus

rebounds

 

each time

from its own blind

hurtling momentum down & lifts

you through & high

& over & wide

of the lip

In the Wheel of the Death, the rider pushes back against the rules of gravity. To succeed they must travel at high speeds in confined spaces and retain complete control over their motorcycle. Any mistake could be fatal. In much the same way, the poet must retain full control of their form as they push it to its very limits, or the reader will be left unimpressed and uninspired.  The tension here is a thrilling one that stops the vibrant experience fading into static sepia. The poem is a moving one, inviting the reader not just to read it, but to watch it.

II

On Balance is not a collection of multiple narratives, but multiple dialogues: filled with poems that intersect with other poems, respond to other lives and art forms; poems that bring the reader, not poetry as product, but poetry as process; not rhetoric, but conversation. There are multiple poems that touch on similar topics, and series of poems that focus on a single topic from multiple perspectives. And they are all talking: to us, and to each other.

It is in ‘Articulation’, about the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo, that we get the strongest sense of this aesthetic of discourse:

 

for however long he lasts before he crumbles,

portal, time machine, skeleton key

to what cannot be imagined. Who could resist

 

Morrissey provides the bare bones: the reader reconstructs the objects mentioned, the events alluded to; but in doing so, we inevitably temper our renditions to our own experiences by the breed or colouring we assign its long-gone body, by the addition or subtraction of socks and saddles. The poem on the page, therefore, is never the same as the poem in the hands, and eyes, and mind of the reader.

III

A key component of this collection’s balance is that every topic, no matter how ancient or modern, universal or individualistic, is treated with the same gravitas: be it a grandfather’s internment, a treatise on a wasted life, global warming, or the role superheroes play in shaping a child’s perspective. Nothing is seen as underserving because: the eternal and ephemeral are companions here, not competitors.

This is a collection that can appear intimidating at first glance. It is strong, and unashamed of its strength. The confidence espoused through form and subject matter shows us, not just what Morrissey is capable of, but what poetry can do when we push and expand our definition of poetry. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and a reader of poetry.


To date, On Balance has been:

  • Winner of the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection
  • Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Choice Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Poetry Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2018 Pigott Poetry Prize

 

If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form in the ‘about’ section in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.
  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.
  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

 

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