Unrecent Reading: Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Emma McKervey

Bloodroot, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-58-2, €12

The Rag Tree Speaks, Emma McKervey, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-55-1, €12

Sometimes a parcel of books comes through the letterbox and then slips through the cracks somehow, and this is what happened when Doire Press kindly sent me these two titles about 18 months ago. Still, better late than never.

Ní Churreáin’s debut collection has been widely and very positively reviewed, and it’s easy to understand why; she writes interestingly about matters of great importance to our idea of ourselves as a society, specifically the appalling treatment meted out in the relatively recent past to many unmarried mothers in ‘Catholic Ireland’. She writes with conviction about the Kerry Babies, Ann Lovett and the scandal of the so-called ‘mother and baby homes’, which were far from being homes and paid scant regard to the mothers and babies supposedly in their care. However, it would be an injustice to paint Ní Churreáin as a poet concerned with just these issues, her range is wider than that.

The book is divided into three numbered sections. The first of these is primarily concerned with the idea of coming of age, seen from multiple angles, a set of journeys from childhood to maturity, not all of them happy, set in what are often mythic landscapes.

a stream of girls,
wet hair trailing
a scent of apples

in the left-behind air,
imagined us

fetching from wells,
pitchers of silver equations,
poems, plant names.

[from ‘Sisters’]

This section opens with a poem, ‘Untitled’ (called ‘End of Girlhood’ elsewhere) that is a kind of inversion of the Daphne myth; here, rather than being absorbed into the world of nature by losing her humanity and becoming a tree, the young female protagonist becomes perhaps more fully human by being integrated into the natural world through a process of imaginative sympathy:

The first time
a tree called me by name,
I was thirteen and only spoke a weave of ordinary tongues.

There are poems of female isolation, cut through by friendship as in the poem ‘Sisters’ which she can be heard reading here. Also in this section is the title poem, which concerns the incarceration of Ní Churreáin’s grandmother in Castlepollard home, an event that has clearly helped shape the poet’s own world view. In the poem, we see her trying to conjure some kind of truth from the ruin of the past:

Home, if I press my lips to your ruins       three times

and circle the ground like a beast,        if I say my root

to this earth

who will hear            when I speak?

The second section takes up this summoning of ghosts in a set of poems that treat of the stories I mentioned earlier. Again, the background of a mythic landscape is used to give historic depth to the foregrounded events:

and each night I dreamed Saidhbhín,

who, betrayed of a human form, hooved

hiding in the woods,


the blood-hounds

of Fionn.

[from ‘Saidhbhín ‘]

It is tempting to say that Ní Churreáin is recovering these narratives, but that’s not quite the case, as they have been aired to a far wider audience than poetry readers in the media over recent years. It’s equally tempting to think of her giving voice to the women whose lives and deaths she is exploring, but she knows more than to patronise them in this way. Rather, it strikes me that she’s asking difficult questions about what these stories us as a society with a history – a long history – of mistreating significant sections of our citizens, and how we might learn to genuinely mourn for the victims of this neglect.

In an interview in The Irish Times, Ní Churreáin points the finger at the state as the villain of the piece, the poetry is wiser than that, seeing a wider picture:

The villagers did not unite

in outrage

but instead, they set about their days as usual,

posting letters, buying fruit, forming queues in the bank after lunchtime.

The sad truth is that while Irish people had a number of ways of responding to pregnancy outside marriage, too many parents shipped their daughters off to the dreaded mother and baby homes, knowing exactly what they were like.

The state was certainly at fault for washing its hands of this and outsourcing the management of these ‘fallen’ women to a church that all too often completely failed to act in accordance with the precepts of love and charity it nominally promoted. This was not simply a failure of the state, it was a failure of an entire society.

The central poem in this section of the book, and of the book as a whole, is ‘Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’ which gets its title and the first lines of each of its six stanzas from a classic scientific paper on hand hygiene for medical practitioners. Ní Churreáin deftly weaves the idea of a method of personal hygiene with that of a society ‘cleansing’ itself of the supposed moral stain of uncontrolled sexuality and its outcome:

Rub palm to palm, fingers interlaced and around the wrists

to erase all trace of fathers. Never mention cuffs.

Never mention scars. Raise your head against the sky

and let the violet clouds overfill your eyes as the names

of these men become again unknown as birds.

When you see a wing, like a realm of thumbed pages

fluttering, take this as a sign: the fathers are no more.

I’ve seen Ní Churreáin’s writing described as ‘angry’, but while it might evoke anger in the reader, it’s actually controlled, clinical and dispassionate in its dissection of the process of erasure through which the experience and lives of so many women and children were simply erased from the record.

The third section represents a moving on, both from trauma and from Ireland in poems of travel abroad, neat, well-constructed anecdotal poems that relate more or less interesting epiphanies on beaches in Goa or weddings in Florida. It’s a genre that is, to me at least, unaccountably popular, ubiquitous even, and in the context of this book represent something of a falling away from the intense power of the first two sections. Nevertheless, this is an impressive debut by a clearly gifted poet, and I’m only sorry I didn’t get around to it sooner.

Emma McKervey’s The Rag Tree Speaks is also a debut collection, and there are some overlaps with Ní Churreáin in the use of myth and a certain focus on female experience, though McKervey’s interest in myth is as much Greek as Irish:

I preside over the marital bed of her winter hibernation
fallow, with her legs spread wide, waiting for Spring.
She has forgotten the pomegranate was held in my hand
long before she spat its seeds to the earth and claimed it as her own

However, her work is quite different, both technically and in terms of its central preoccupation. The latter is best captured in a quote from McKervey’s blog:

My writing follows two different processes, one which is a felt, emotional response to a situation, and the other which arises from hours of research and intellectual engagement with the subject matter, a process of contextualisation and distillation. Of course each process informs the other.  What I was searching for, and continue to do so, is what Cy Twombly would describe as ‘the thingness of the thing’, the capturing of an essence, ‘un-anthropomorphised’ as I write in Totem, which arises from a wholly humanist stance in the world.

This striving for ‘thingness’, whether seen in terms of Kant’s ding an sich or some variant on Dun Scotus’ ‘haecceitas’ or ‘thisness’ is both extremely difficult and, I have argued elsewhere, entirely vital in the face of impending environmental catastrophe. There are those who argue from an Idealist position that there are no things unless we humans observe them, but McKervey comes at the world from a different, more humble (in the best sense) perspective. The result is a poetry that is refreshingly short on metaphor and simile and long on a kind of post-Imagist power of patient observation.

McKervey’s ambitions require her to interrogate the place of language in our mapping of the world of things, a process that begins with the opening lines of the first poem in the book, ‘An Sciathán’:

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,

suggestive of the dexterity of the limbs as a whole;

The difficulty involved in what McKervey is attempting is apparent in the book’s title poem, in which the poet attempts to give voice to the rag tree, that once commonplace liminal space on the Irish landscape:

Cerebus uses me to urinate against:

he releases his stinking stream of piss, one head

watching its trickling through the crackles of my bark,

the other intent on whether the chrome yellow trail

can reach the river’s edge where the ferryman waits.

The writing here is strong, the music underpinned by patterns of repeated ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘k’ sounds carries the reader along, but the Idealist might object, quite reasonably, this is a human voice, a human mythos, imposed from the outside with little enough to do with the treeness of the tree in question. At her best, she overcomes this by a process of close, dispassionate observation, as in the poem ‘Seaweed’:

The seaweed dries slowly, small decorative curls

which have been artfully spread amongst the stone

and shells scavenged from the beach.


As the seaweed dries salt crystallises on the rubbery skin

and as it dries farther and the moisture evaporates entirely

the tiny crystals drop and lie without direction on the sill.


Inspection shows how precisely formed they are –

cubic solids on a minute scale. Midst careful arrangement

of conch and pebble this fallen saline is perfection.

Here the ‘artful’ human agency is present but not dominant, the process of observation discovers rather than creating, the complex ‘thisness’ of things in themselves. The rhythm and patterning of sibilant consonants tend to slow the reader to the point where we are also engaged in this process of observation. It’s a fine poem from a collection that has many such carefully won moments.

It strikes me that poets living and working in the North find themselves in a position analogous to that faced by most Irish poets a century ago, writing in the shadow of a dominant exemplar; for Yeats then, read Heaney now. If the poem ‘The Rag Tree Speaks’ owes too much to Heaney’s example, then poems like ‘Seaweed’ seem to address the question of influence by ignoring it. At her best, McKervey writes as if she had never read the older poet, the result is an invigorating freshness.

Doire Press are to be thanked for publishing these two fine debut collections in serviceable, nicely designed paperbacks. Having come to them late, I’m left looking forward to seeing what both these poets do in the future.


John Wilkinson and Waqas Khwaja: A review

My Reef My Manifest Array, John Wilkinson, Carcanet, 2019, ISBN: 978 1 784106 91 1, £11.69

Hold Your Breath, Waqas Khwaja, Onslaught Press, ISBN: 978-1-912111-72-5, 2017, £10.00

John Wilkinson’s most recent book consists of five longish poem sequences or cycles plus a set of individual poems that we might call lyrics, for want of a better word, gathered together under the heading ‘Fugitive Sheets’. The publisher’s note on the back cover tells us that the poems are informed by a return to the Cornish landscape of Wilkinson’s youth in the wake of the death of his sister, and certainly themes of settlement and flux, the transitory and the fixed, run through the work.

The opening sequence, ‘’On the Destruction of Temples’ is built around fragments of disjunctive language, little tesserae that form a kind of abstract mimesis of destruction:

What of the silica cues

forwarding to their devices

fingers catch on winking stars –

what of graphite grass square


or storms of bells crossing slate

and clay tablets, aggressive

trees and virulent entabled


Against the destruction we get glimpses of nature, invasive and quietly triumphant, the indestructible temple:

A yellow butterfly visits heavy blossom.

Bees rise and fall on airy

plummets. Tables of law flit cancelled.

The second cycle, ‘To Coralize’, takes its title and epigraph from Richard Crashaw’s ‘An Elegy upon the death of Mr Stanninow fellow of Queenes Colledge’:

What more than winter hath that dire art found,

These purple currents edg’d with violets round

To corralize, which softly wont to slide

In crimson wavelets, and in scarlet tide?

The Crashaw is apt, both because the poem referenced is an elegy, as befits the underlying tone of this book and because as you read on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Wilkinson’s method in here is essentially Metaphysical, a poetry of paradox, complex, subtle and ‘difficult’, but rewarding, exploring philosophical concerns through controlled Baroque language games, with elaborate simile to the fore.

Much as a limpet glued with single foot slyly hops

one to another square, stakes a claim on shiny clinker

taps too for energy, gone to ground they don and doff,


out of devilment…


…Now electronic

tags report a break in parole, gluing them by ankle.

These opening sequences read somewhat like a tentative prelude, and the book really comes into its own with the third cycle, ‘Chysauster in Mist’. Chysauster is the site of an Iron Age/Romano-British village in Cornwall, and, as such, a kind of substratum of the poet’s childhood home. The poem circles around the idea that, on the appropriate timescale, all human settlement is temporary, everything is flux and we are all, in the end, travellers. We live among past, present and future ruins, and nothing is really built to last.:

Somewhere between the ring-road and inner circle wrecked tenements fill with bobbing gulls and oystercatchers


Limpet-like amid the falling plaster, children practice hand-stands as security services talk you through the steps

The return of sorts to Cornwall continues through ‘Bodrugan’s Leap’. As the back cover again helpfully notes ‘[i]n 1487 Sir Henry Bodrugan, pursued for treason, leapt from a Cornish clifftop into a waiting boat and fled to France. Bodrugan’s Leap, as the clifftop has come to be known, lies close to John Wilkinson’s childhood home’; so the return is also a movement towards exile. The writing proceeds from a classic ‘linguistically innovative’ method of paradigmatic disruption (‘Green sticks to its functional, mindless sexual spur’) where articulation is implied but must be earned by the diligent reader towards a more tentatively conventional articulate sentence structure, under the pressure of emotion, as in these lines from a section called ‘Facing Chesil Beach’:

Wind heavies, waves lean into sloped

ledges, under-

tow of pebbles

growls shaking sprung bed and turf,


noisy shingle warps banks of filters,

bass-traps shape

barest meaning –

winds mantle dragged off the ocean.

The last cycle, ‘Birth Pangs’ continues in this more explicit vein, with a set of poems that drawn on flower and colour imagery, flowers that are colours, colours that are flowers, the lyric, speaking ‘I’ apparently as much the thing as the poet, in explorations of birth, death and the pain of self-discovery between those twin poles.

This is followed by ‘Fugitive Sheets’, a selection of individual poems that circle around much the same themes and approaches as the longer cycles.

When we shall be indigenous,

bitumen sanctioned, rhinoceros horn, horn of

stag beetle,

indigenous to an airport with

all resident arrivals

fanning out boarding cards with priority access

keeping our place

so we can state with assurance

This is our place. This is it.

Whatever wherever.

The idea of being indigenous to a state of being transitory, to something like an airport, is the fundamental paradox of Wilkinson’s Metaphysics in this book. The airport lounge is our Chysauster, only more so, as it is built, as is so much of our ‘modern’ world, on no longer being here. My Reef My Manifest Array makes no pretence at being an easy read, because the questions it wants to ask are not easy questions, but they are necessary ones.

One of the great pleasures of reviewing is that you get to encounter work that you might never have otherwise come across, as happened when Waqas Khwaja kindly sent me two of his books, the 2007 No One Waits for the Train (a bit too old to review) and Hold your Breath. The former is a very moving exploration of the enormous disruption caused by the 1947 Partition of India which resulted in the creation of Khwaja’s native Pakistan, a country he left to live and work in the USA. This great rift is, I think, at the root of much of the writing in the latter, too.

Which is to say that, like John Wilkinson, Khwaja is concerned with exile and displacement, though he writes within a very different set of conventions to those behind Wilkinson’s work. Chiefly, I think, these are the conventions of Urdu poetry (Urdu phrases run through many of the poems in both books), especially, to my untrained and uneducated mind, the Nazm, a genre of argument poems, and of Sufi mysticism, a practice of self-perfection that has produced much of the very finest Islamic poetry down the ages. There are poems that evoke the spirit and sound of classical Urdu singers and poets, poems of childhood memory, and one, ‘Kughu Kohrray’ (Clay Toys) ostensibly about the clay toys and utensils of the poet’s childhood that is really an ecological hymn to the idea that the earth provides what we need, if only we let it.

Khawaja’s religion is inclusive and aware of the world as it is, and many of the poems here embrace struggles for LGBT rights and women’s reproductive and other freedoms, and the fight against racism and political oppression. Both the book itself and the closing title poem ‘a breath, a word’ are dedicated to Eric Garner, and the interfolding of Garner’s last words (which the dedication describe as ‘the most potent metaphor for our age’) with Urdu phrases that echo them is typical of Khwaja’s way of looking at the world as continuous, not separate:

ek saans hae

ek lafz

aap kay saath baantnay kay liyay


I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe


ek lafz jo lay na saka


I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe


[the Urdu seems to translate as: ‘I can’t breathe/a word/to share with you’ and ‘a word that can’t be taken’]

Of course, working primarily in English and living in America, Khwaja’s poetry is also engaged with the western tradition. At times the writing has the copious bagginess of a Whitman, but with the American’s optimism flipped to a darker tone in the face of the realities of the world seen by an outsider:

I was born an enemy, but I did not know it then

The Sandman came and shut my eyes

The Clatterer lurked in dark corners waiting to pounce

And only a sacred verse kept it at bay

In the morning I was the sparrow and its mate

In the afternoon a dog looking for shade

Come evening, a woman whose glimpsed hair flashed in the sun’s dying light

As she flung it back bathing in a stall without a roof

At night a mouse pretending to be a lion’s companion

Sometimes a prince dispossessed of his State

[from ‘I Was Born an Enemy’]

At times the poems in this mode seem a bit too copious, a bit too wordy, but against that you have the mantra-like complex simplicity of ‘Primer’, in which sacred names from a range of religions are plaited into each other in a thin column down the middle of the page, or several pages, more accurately. The first few lines give some idea of the effect achieved:





















Even a secular reader cannot fail to be impressed by the way the language enacts the idea that all religions are fundamentally one religion, how the idea of the sacred is interwoven with the way language is used to express it, and with the poet’s determination to include, to give equal weight, to diversity, here as elsewhere. Crucially, the varying strands of the culture of the Indian subcontinent are brought together in the kind of imagined unity that has, unfortunately, proven more difficult in the real world. Khwaja’s central concern, it seems to me, is not just to give voice to the ‘Other’, but to de-other, to give quiet expression to the fundamental humanity of those who suffer in this most unequal of words. It’s an admirable project, admirably executed.

British Poetry of the 1940s: Some Twitter Thoughts