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