Earth Music, Eithne Lannon, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-71, €12.00
Exposure, Julie-ann Rowell, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-9-5, €12.00
So Long, Calypso, Liz McSkeane, Turas Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-9957916-0-2, €12.00
bind, Christine Murray, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-4-0, €12.00
Crunch, Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-9957916-2-6, €12.00
White Horses, Jo Burns, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-5-7, €12.00
Turas is a relatively new independent publisher based in Dublin and, on the evidence of these books, open to a diversity of approach that is refreshing indeed.
Eithne Lannon’s debut collection is primarily imagistic in style, and she captures the actuality of moments in space and time with an admirable economy:
The wild meadow weave, the strand,
places of late summer, autumn-
a stone skimming water, suspended
in air, its slow motion glide punctuated
by the drop, touch, rise of a ghostly presence
(from ‘Thin Places’)
She also focuses on the relationship between language and sensory experience, a searching after the most apt syntax in which to frame our experience of the world. In a typical Lannon poem, some fact, some person, place or thing, is posited as a site of enquiry and then unfolded in words, a process of verbal opening out, primarily through accumulated analogy:
Take the river’s curl, the ocean’s wave,
the never ending trees, the sway of a meadow,
the roll of the sun, the scattered stepping stars.
And take last month’s silver bud of moon
now come full to the sky, her mouth is wide and open,
white lips brimming with a soft wet light,
month by month, she gives her widening
emptiness to the earth, holds the planet in her orbit,
washes ocean after ocean over sand
(from ‘Moon’There are risks with this approach, especially when the analogies lapse into overly-easily achieved similes or metaphors that are, on the whole, more conventional than revealing:
And while he searches the shores
of her heart, its chambers
dark with old blood, his fingers
touch the braille of an occupied
life, his tongue is tinged
with a salty metal sweetness.
(from ‘The Kiss’)
Lannon’s poetry is at its very best when the sound and flow of the language do more of the work than the prose sense:
My people are river-ripples, fishing nets cast
beneath dark mottled skin. They are rocks
and pebbles and sand, shape-shifting through grief.
Their sound is the sea’s constant voice,
its wild tongue unloosed in the air, a wind-cradle
wrapping its wide arms around me.
(from ‘Song of My People’)
Here, the object of the poem is achieved not through comparison, but by becoming; the people are not defined by what they do or where they do it, they are these things. This is a fine achievement.
Julie-ann Rowell is a Devon-born writer who spends a lot of time in the Orkneys, a biographical fact I mention only because it is central to the work in Exposure. These poems are largely
explorations of a kind of ideal polis, one where belonging and silence are valued and respected, by a tolerated outsider whose perceptions are necessarily not the same as those of the native Orcadians:
We must bow to the greater god,
perpetual, exhaustive. I don’t hear
the voices of the dead like some do
only a bulldozer shifting up a gear.
Death is a constant presence in the book, not least in an interspersed thread of poems dealing with the illness and death of what appears to be the poet’s father-in-law. The last of these poems, ‘April Committal’, reflects the particular nature of Orkney society, the validation given to every life event by the community:
Only when they over the rise of the hill
the people of the town in their winter coats
to join us by the graveside did I nearly break down.
Rowell knits the human into the fabric of the islands partly by balancing two very different timescales. On the one hand, there’s the human-scale shifts of the weather, an ever-present context:
The air is full of water, in the south they’d call it rain.
The black sheep are at the gate again as we walk to Harray Stores
neither of us talking.
On the other, the long, suprahuman time of sea and stone:
At Brodgar a single stone has been cleaved by lightning,
Even so it’s survived thousands of years
facing each day’s turn stolidly.
I’d like that kind of stone for a soul,
that even dynamite couldn’t shatter me.
(from ‘Stones o’ Stenness’)
Of course, these standing stones form part of the human world of Orkney, a continuity with the cemetery of ‘April Committal’, and the temptation to anthropomorphise them is hard to resist. But Rowell’s vision of the islands is at its sharpest when she looks at things as they are, without the filter of simile or metaphor, as in these lines from ‘An Ending’:
The sun will be on your neck,
while on the opposite shore men
will plough the fields with steel ashine,
there’s incremental washing on the line.
Men will be baling too, perhaps, in this
strange puffed out time of empty skies.
The adroit, quietly effective, balance of vowel sounds running through these lines shows a poet’s ear at work; for instance, the way ‘e’ sound in ‘men’ folds into ‘incremental’, then recurs and finally appears in ‘empty’ or how the ‘ashine/line’ rhyme is presaged by the ‘while’ a line earlier.
What shines through these poems is Rowell’s careful affection for her adopted landscape and its people, whose ways and traditions are shown as forming a whole with the place itself.
Liz McSkeane is the founder/editor of Turas as well as a widely published poet in her own right, with So Long, Calypso being her third collection to date. The blurb points out that one of the key
themes in this book is aging, and this is certainly true, especially in a strand of poems featuring the (mis)adventures of Angela, her emergency button, commode, falling TV set and nosy neighbours. But there’s more to the book than tales of diminishing faculties. McSkeane is preoccupied with memory and movement and how they both reflect the transient impermanence of experience which belies the persistent endurance of the world:
There must be something solid and unchanging
in the realm of things,
something that withstands the advances
and the crumblings of time
unless the constant flicker
Is in a self which sparks from life
to many lives.
You can’t go back.
You don’t need to, it’s there,
It is an eternal present.
The mode she mainly deploys is short-to-medium-length narrative, but there are a number of loose sonnets and one overly-long dystopian fable, ‘Visiting Monuments’. But for me, at least, the most interesting poem in the book is ‘Remembering the Child’, especially the deft construction of its second stanza:
So what? Well, quite a lot and maybe all
that matters. When you wake up, every day
the big adventure, what’s new, bring it on
and stay surprised, still wonder at the way
the radiance of nothing much can call
up joy: whatever else might change, hair grey,
jaw slack. brain cells decayed, waist run to fat,
when all the rest is gone – hang on to that.
These lines demonstrate all the strengths and weakness of McSkeane’s writing. The firm, Audenesque tone, the quiet, unintrusive effectiveness of the rhymes, speak of a poet who knows just exactly what she’s after and has the ability to achieve it. And yet these very virtues can lead, as here, to an impulse to over-clarify, to tell us too much, with the result that by the end of the verse we’re left wondering just what it is we’re being enjoined to hang on to. It could be argued that this piling up of detail imitates something of the aging process it relates to, but you can’t help feeling that a little more editing might have made it even more effective. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting poem in an interesting book.
Christine Murray is well-known as a champion of women poets via her Poet head blog and the Fired! project. It would be all too easy for this activity to obscure the fact that Murray is a poet in her own right, and on the evidence of bind: a waking book that would be a real pity. It’s a book in five sections, each consisting of short named or numbered poems that trace overlapping natural and temporal processes: the day, the seasons, the unfurling of a leaf, the pun on ‘waking’ in the subtitle, as both mourning and morning. The poems imagistic, fragmentary and echo the tensile logopoeia of Mina Loy:
cinquefoil the amberlight
purelit / renders in ‘leaf’
fur, not claw,
can render her nets
Murray uses spacing and typography to serious effect, with a special focus on the use of the pipe symbol and italics and faint or greyed fonts as devices to (de)emphasise fragments of text, as in this couplet from the ‘Dawn’ sequence:
winter is a hard place,
winter is a hard place.
But the most striking aspect of the book, to me at least, is her use of pronouns. The third person dominates, with ‘my’ appearing occasionally and ‘I’ not until the last few pages. The effect is to decentre or even deny the speaking voice as medium for the poems. In fact, the predominant pronoun is she/her and this female third person is frequently identified, directly or otherwise, with the natural world:
she awaits yellow spring
willow is the first to don her light-robes
plain and ordinary.
The image of the fallen leaf, and specifically the recurring phrase ‘a leaf fallen is always a poem’, lends an autumnal, almost mournful, tone to the book that might be seen as appropriate in this era of ecological crisis, but Murray is not a bleak pessimist, it seems, and images of spring and of the rising sun point to a cautious optimism. Not that Murray is intent on using nature as symbol; her focus is on the world as-is:
the image of a bird
the real thing of it
grasps onto a branch.
And the result of this focus is one of the more interesting books of Irish ecopoetry I’ve read recently.
Anamaría Crowe Serrano also uses typography in her book Crunch, with font size and colour to the fore, along with visual elements, including text-as-visual work. Indeed, the second page is a visual text representation of a ‘tempting’ apple, which sets the tone for what is a reading of the Biblical myth of the fall.
The book draws heavily on images and phrases in that initial visual text to emphasise the appleness of the Edenic apple, and Serrano retells the familiar story as something of a simple tale of female wisdom:
when she looks at me
she can tell there is
more worth knowing
than the pampering
that goes on in paradise
which is fine to a point, but there is a danger with this kind of conceit of toppling over into an overly-simple view of things:
as far as I’m concerned
it was just an excuse
to wield some power
In Eden before Eve
and reclaimed the lot
The reality of Judeo-Christian history indicates that, for good or ill, Eve and her daughters didn’t reclaim that much power, on the whole.
Serrano is at her best here when the writing is less didactic, more allusive, as in these lines from later in the sequence:
it cannot be described –
the sky inverting
in her smile
saying it all
Jo Burns’ White Horses is, in terms of page count, the most substantial of the books reviewed here, coming in at well over 100 pages. The book is organised in four coherent sections, the first of which, ‘Eclipse’ has, as epigraph, a quote from Pablo Picasso: ‘Women are either doormats or goddesses.’ Burns then goes on to refute this statement through a series of poems that give voice and complexity to the artist’s lovers, wives, models muses, daughters and friends and patrons. These include a deftly-imagined put-down of Picasso’s poetry put in the mouth of Gertrude Stein:
You write only as a painter writes
and merely give back what an ego
writes, which glibly puts a stamp
without thought on giving back.
Is it that easy, Pablo, simply writing?
(from ‘Gertrude Stein reacts to Pablo’s First Poetry Recital’)
The second section, ‘Oceans’, centres around questions of place and identity, as we move between Germany, Southern Africa and the North. There are poems here of coming to terms with other languages, a process of coming to terms with the nature of language itself:
The elusive verb you need is a holy grail, so
you prise adjectives up, searching under rubble.
When you lift it, dripping its pronoun entrails,
only then do you know what you were doing at all.
(from ‘Abseiling in German’)
But the main focus is on the complex nature of identity in a society (or societies) characterised by movement and migration:
We flitted over antipodean green land
chimera brained, our gorgets plumed,
of Rhodesian and Scottish descent,
we landed in the bowls of Saskatchewan.
In vibrant flight paths of coriolis,
we flew from torpor in circadian thread.
We gulped in the gyres of new-found cultures,
squinting into smog which swallowed the sun,
Language burst our ruby syrinx throats,
and some of us even chanted as poets.
In another poem, Burns talks of being brought up on a poetic diet of Sassoon and Tennyson, but in ignorance of Heaney; our literary horizons are part of the identity boundaries our upbringing tends to enforce on us.
‘Gravity’, the third section, opens with another epigraph, quoted from Israeli writer Esther Raab: ‘Blessed is he who made me a woman/that I am earth and Adam/a tender rib’. The poems in this short section reflect on motherhood, and on the illness and death of a child, and the tone, the overwhelming maternal drive to protect their offspring compounded by the sense of loss as they grow up and away, is reflected in the closing lines of ‘Places your Children Should Never’:
Children, close your eyes to the cold gravity of our moon.
I’ll switch the clock back to when you had it mild.
Climb back. Curl softly into my womb.
The last section, ‘Revelations’ returns to Picasso for its epigraph ‘The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?’ The poems that follow reflect the mess that is a world where it takes ‘[o]nly a minute to spread false news’. They are political poems that engage with the rise of Fascism, ecological catastrophe and other contemporary political crises that have served to undermine confidence in liberal values and social progress:
I’d rather write about blooming hope
or ending patriarchy. You see, I believe
in women. But Ulster, you’re wilting
under two who may foster your drought –
a limp languish of shrivelled intentions.
But it is these ‘shrivelled intentions’, the refusal of simple answers or ideological comforts that give these poems their strength. White Horses is a very strong first collection, full of fine moments and rich in promise.