Eileen Casey reviews some recent poetry collections
American poet Billy Collins in Introduction to Poetry* writes about the merits and dangers of analysing poetry. Collins requires critics to ‘waterki/across the surface’ allowing for transcendence and transformation but also that magical X Factor (Emily Bishop describes it as hair standing on the back of her neck). However, to Collins’ chagrin, ‘all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it’. I mention Introduction to Poetry as I’m about to delve into three new collections from three respected publishing houses, Salmon, Dedalus and Turas Press. All of these publishers are Irish, all have International status and all are on a level par regarding quality of production and presentation. Also, just to say: no poems were harmed during this review!
A regular columnist with Senior Times, Eamonn Lynskey is a multi-published, award winning poet. His fourth collection ‘Material Support’ (Salmon) `is described as “masterly in its interrogation of the wide spectrum of ordinary – and not so ordinary – experiences and how poetry might address them,” (Fred Johnson). The poems are somewhat concerned with how memory underscores the day to day, a form of osmosis, present and past sliding into each other. Time and its relentless passing looms large, even those hours when the poet is only ‘technically’ living. (Prayer). Prayer is a shock of recognition, how so much time is spent without purpose, ‘all those wasted ages hunting car keys.’ The closing line is supplicatory, ‘Lord, please hear my prayer’. In exchange for such useless waste, the poet seeks ‘A celestial credit note,’ a novel idea and just one of the many redemptive outcomes occupying Lynskey’s considerable poetic intelligence. Measured and controlled, language strays into unexpected territory, offering surprise and sensitivity. This Turning Hour and Everything Intent details gratitude for being allowed another day, the beauty of nature awakening evokes the following response, ‘I see/a flake of sunlight slant from branch to leaf./and raindrops wink among the clothes-pegs.’ Yet, for this other day to arrive, ‘night is trembling on the cusp/of morning, blade and bark awakening/and every moment dying towards the dawn’. The poet, in true Blakean tradition, sees the duality of existence.
This Janus like ability is also present In The Where, a poem about missing women. Those tragic days are remembered as ‘Unremarkable’ yet ‘a mainstay in its superstructure/didn’t hold – a bolt came loose,/a strut, a fret inched out of place’. While able to inhabit the events preceding the disappearances, before ‘something cloven intervened’, the perpetrator’s mind-set too is explored, ‘And darker than the deed itself/the heart that hides it, will not tell.’ Unusually in poetry collections, Lynskey gives a comprehensive listing of inspirations to guide the reader through individual poems, demonstrating scholarship. Lynskey is a prolific reader as well as writer. These listings, while adding to the reading pleasure, are not strictly necessary. But we learn, for example, that Prayer, mentioned above was composed in a dentist’s waiting room. Ironically, no time wasted after all, the experience resulting in a fine poem. Also referenced are the scaffolding devices, including mythology, philosophy and biblical references, together with other sources; an echo of Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. A particular personal favourite is He Walks His Several Cities. There’s more than a Joycean flavour in the notion of an individual traversing the city. This opening poem, lays down the poet’s concerns regarding transitional bridges (both real and symbolic) between ‘past and present/and then back again’. The poem skilfully negotiates architectural memory, ‘a maze/of little Jewish garment factories/instead of restaurants and pizzerias’. The past, its many excursions, can take him down blind alleys also, a poignant trick of the senses; a realisation ‘he is like a refugee who cannot/shed the memory of what he’s lost’. He Walks His Several Cities is an ambitious poem, peeling back layers of personal and historical memory; back to Burgh Quay. In a companion poem Lesson Street Bridge, Evening, there is a change of mood, an attempt to move on, to: ‘try/to resurrect a semblance of the self -/the lights are green again.’
‘Material Support’ is a collection where the poems more than “waterski across the surface”. Often poignant, sometimes amusing (Lynskey has a wry sense of humour), always thought provoking, the poet’s keen observant eye ensures we gain insights into what it means to be human (and ageing) in an ever changing world
‘and hold it up to the light/like a colour slide/or press an ear against its hive’, (Introduction to Poetry)
Based on this criteria alone, Eithne Lannon’s ‘Everything Gathers Light’ is a feast. For all the senses. In this gorgeous collection, Lannon inhabits the liminal space, literally breath to breath. She distills and decants language, offering meditative maps for mind, body and spirit. With exceptional deftness, in this, Lannon’s second collection, she takes us into a deeply personal interior world, exploring emotional shifts perceived through perfectly balanced siftings of light and shade. Or, once more to use a Blakean comparison, her ability ‘To see a World in a grain of sand’. (Fragments from ‘Auguries of Innocence’).
The Sound opens with ‘This is the moment/you hear it again, along/the forest floor,/deep in the valley/where the walls/of the world open – /mushroom, moss, wood, fungus, old memory’. Lannon uses nature and its myriad contrasts and parallels as conduits for her deep connection with the natural world. These poems aren’t purely exquisite description (which they certainly are) but testimony to a finely tuned awareness of even the minutest shiver of chiaroscuro. Words caress, whisper, detonate wonder, serve as luscious poetic fruit, juice-filled. Ripe. Music fuelled. These poems are symphonies of pattern and rhythm the body recognises as either pulse, breath itself or heartbeat. There’s an urgency here, a commitment, demonstrated in the last line of the collection’s opening poem (The Sound ),a call to us that ‘now you hear it. Now.’
For Lannon, physical self is a landscape interchangeable with the natural world. Rowing in Eden writes the body into ancient oak, ‘tongue the sound of rippled rain,’ the body itself is ‘the body of the woods,’ and the poem seduces with phrases such as ‘in the river of your inner life’. This collaboration interpreted ‘through the syntax of skin/so many unhatched mysteries waiting/delicate in their shells’; results in a recognition of ‘the lost alleluias’ and ‘the dark forest of your heart/where the wild birds sing’.
Of ‘Everything Gathers Light’ Maurice Davitt says: “Anchored in the rivers and seascapes of North County Dublin, the precision of the language sets a spark of recognition that is universal, reinforcing the sense that one of the primary ambitions of outstanding poetry must be to take the reader home.”
Davitt is accurate in his claim. ‘Everything Gathers Light’ works as a journey through time, place, memory. Each poem hangs one to another in a seamless way, like the branches of a greening tree. Titles act as spiritual guides, You turn /towards shadow take direction/from light. ‘the body leaves its island’,(Sometimes). There is wisdom here, old soul knowledge, sacred pathways beyond the tangible. In Mysticism for beginners, ‘When the new moon is by itself you can be/with what has gone’. I find Lannon’s world view comforting, her poems bring consolation. She is aware of adverse forces also and how necessary shadow is. In Homecoming, the flight of an Arctic Tern over the ocean is thus described ‘And though she flies beyond/the unchartered sky, we are brushed/by the same breeze, she and I,/shaken by the same uncertain/winds.’ Homecoming, like all of the poems in this collection, has such awe inspiring descriptions that this reader continues to savour them, descriptions such as ‘in the scalloped shell of dawn, clouds coral-spun/and crumbling. ‘Everything Gathers Light’ is without doubt a necessary bible for lovers of poetry everywhere.
“I say drop a mouse into a poem/and watch him probe his way out,’ (Introduction to Poetry)
In Amy Abdullah Barry’s case, it’s not a mouse gets dropped into a poem but a tiger (sometimes multiple ones). ‘Flirting with Tigers’ is Barry’s wonderful, life-affirming debut collection. It carries traditional debut material i.e. mother/father poems, homeland, rites of passage and daily life rituals. Jane Clarke hails Barry as “A distinctive new voice in Irish poetry, a poet who evokes people and place in rich sensuous detail.” There’s no argument there. This poet, although delivering her debut, has served her apprenticeship over a number of years, evidenced by her impressive list of acknowledgements. Originally from Penang, Malaysia (now living in Athlone), Barry’s poems are filled with sensory, sensual details. The Breath of the Rainforest, her opening poem, tells of ‘slithering snakes’, ‘The ash glow of the sky’, ’the cinnamon air,’ ‘the echoes of jungle creatures -/tarsiers, toucans, tigers.’ There’s also mention of an encounter with another wild animal, ‘and I am squatting eye to eye with a boar./Its skin is shiny-black, rough and thick,/designed for fighting’. Yet, tigers feature and often. They arrive into these poems, in various guises. In I Unfold My Own Myth tigers appear as divine forces in unexpected moments of terror. As when ‘one sweltering afternoon, my uncle/a twenty-year-old soldier, surrounded/by three Japanese from the Imperial Army.’ The tigers rush to her uncle’s aid ‘to send them running for cover’. There are other events evoking tigers (Barry clearly adopts them as her muse and spiritual totem) except for some strange reason in Ireland when ‘no tigers appeared when my brother was assaulted,’ (I Unfold My Own Myth). The tiger however, also provides Barry with poetic inspiration. Thinking of ‘A handsome Malayan tiger,/eyes amber, irises black as burnt clay’ puts Barry in the mood to ‘Turn the pages of my notes,/and write hormone-fuelled dreams’ (Music Flows on the Marble Island). In the same poem, she announces ‘I flirt with tigers’, a jungle cat prepared for in the opening domestic scene where ‘Pablo, my tuxedo cat’ is referenced. A memorable phrase among many in this collection, ‘tuxedo cat’ perfectly capturing Pablo’s monochrome markings. Barry’s poems, for all their fluidity, are nicely organic, they converse with each other, creating a medley of mood and atmosphere. Throughout the collection, evocation of place and people is a particular delight; ‘the snow-robed Himalayas’ (A Himalayan Bus Ride), ‘above me, a zebra dove-singing,’ ((At Ferringhi Beach, Penang) and (Delhi), ‘People are sleeping,/their mouths open, swallowing shadows.’ At Grandma’s presents an unforgettable portrait of a woman whose dwelling rests; ‘On stilts, a house above the sea’. Her visiting grandchildren, among whom is Barry, enter into this world ‘shoeless’. When it’s time to leave, ‘After a flurry of kisses,/she stands framed in the open door,/tiny in her floral Nyonya blouse,/Her hair is sun-baked sand, /her curls white-tipped waves.’ Barry’s grandmother is a reminder of older island Irish women long ago, finding independence in their own small spaces, smoking their duidín (clay pipe). In Barry’s grandmother’s case, ‘She blows cheerot smoke/with a regal air.’
Poems from Barry’s adopted homeland are also present. She ably infuses the Irish landscape and neighbourly relationships with memories of her birthplace. In Remedies, she describes the countryside as ‘roaring verdant wild nettles/hymn the air, an invitation to harvest.’ A neighbour’s remedy for arthritis brings Barry to her father (Papa) and his many remedies – ‘cinnamon in boiled water,/to relieve aching muscles,/betel leaf to stop nosebleeds./ginger for a healthy heart,/. The poem closes on a scene where Barry makes familiar food, ‘fried rice,/tinged with chatters/of ginger and scallions.’This dish is not complete without the addition of the ‘steamed nettles’, a charming unification of two distinct but different places. Symbiosis, a desire to find common ground is a recurring theme within these pages. Barry’s poems are undoubtedly love letters to her roots but through the prism of her adopted homeland.
All the above books can be purchased in reputable bookshops or directly from the publishers at the websites below