Migration, crises and our wired, online world

Poetry Review

Eavan Boland at Dún Eochla on Inis Mór for the Aran Islands Poetry Festival. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Eavan Boland at Dún Eochla on Inis Mór for the Aran Islands Poetry Festival. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 01:00

Political art is a contrary creation: its occasion, which gives it its initial impetus, can exert a drag that unbalances and overwhelms the poet’s transforming imagination. Alan Jude Moore’s fourth collection, Zinger (Salmon, €12), plots his poems against geopolitical migrations and crises. “The names of conflicts sometimes change,” Moore writes in Texas Once Was Mexico, but his poems’ urgent eye for political crises, which marks their quickfire returns to the Russian scenes of earlier collections and the book’s longer sequences, runs the risk of flattening out their different subjects.

Sometimes Moore does achieve a shocking immediacy: in this year of the Russian Winter Olympics, his poem Krasnodar’s scene of whitewash is brief and well judged as it recounts a bombing “halfway to Sochi” and a “woman from Stavropol / painting the ceiling white / in the bright bright hotel”.

Eavan Boland has always been interested in marrying ethical and aesthetic concerns, and her New Selected Poems (Carcanet, £12.95) will refamiliarise readers with her three best and most acclaimed books, The Journey (1987), Outside History (1990) and In a Time of Violence (1994). In substantial selections from those books her distinctive style – short, heavily punctuated, end-stopped sentences, and her approach to subject matter – revisionist, feminist and historical – lay out an argument about women as poets rather than just the subjects of poems: the anthology favourite Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth, typically, draws attention to how a story (beguilingly) misrepresents the world, even as the poem retells that story itself.

As a counterpoint to such “metapoems” Boland wrote fine poems such as Love, Nocturne and The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, among others, which newly inhabit and find freedom in domestic and transitional spaces.

The selections here do justice to Boland’s achievement, and also include those books’ reflections on a period the poet spent in London as a child, years that sharpened her outsider sense of Irishness and led to significant poems such as The Emigrant Irish (“Like oil lamps we put them out the back, // of our houses, of our minds”).

In succeeding collections Boland continued to rework these themes, often projecting them on to historical subjects. The excludedness of the emigrant was, though, increasingly and not always convincingly conflated with her experience of being a woman poet in Ireland.

The juxtapositions of Still Life, for example, do not quite gel: the Irish-American painter William Harnett, “a famous realist”, left Clonakilty in 1848 “in the aftermath of Famine. In // the same year” (my italics) as an etching of a starving woman with her dead child was published in the London Illustrated News, an image actually published in 1847. If the facts seem made to measure, does the poetry seem too much like a rhetorical exercise? A poem’s arguments can petrify and neuter the careful detail and pointed realism that elsewhere strengthen Boland’s style.

The main interest of New Selected Poems, though, is the way it flags up how Boland, 70 this year, has developed a new late style: in poems for her mother (An Elegy for My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears and And Soul) and in To Memory, Boland’s worried self-consciousness about the injustice of any act of representation is still present, but it is now set out in talkier, run-on lines whose fluid, drifting syntax discovers surprising images. The book’s closing set of previously unpublished poems feels recharged and refreshed, turning away from an imprisoning past as when, in Cityscape, the word “elver” suggests

a delicate migration –

a fine crazing healing in the tiles –

the sky deepening above a city

that has always been

unsettled between sluice gates and the Irish Sea

to which there now comes at dusk

a translucent visitor

yearning for the estuary.

Billy Ramsell’s strikingly presented, large-format second collection, The Architect’s Dream of Winter (Dedalus, €12), establishes a winning tone at the outset, where its acknowledgments section invents an ABC of literary journals (from the Alpha Male to Zither) in which its poems have supposedly appeared, at which point the reader might expect a jokey book of pastiches. In fact, while Ramsell’s book does include a share of good jokes and witty conceits, it also offers something new in Irish writing as it takes our wired, online world as its starting point.

The title poem’s architect is a god who watches, like a programmer, the virus-ridden world spiral out of her control as she dreams of starting over: “All the while, of course, her error had spread itself / corrupting sector after unrelated sector of the program. / Crusaders. Defenestration. Total war.” Here and throughout the collection Ramsell draws his ideas and images from the ways in which machines have remade our relations to the world and to one another.

This is not, however, a doomy collection: the poems relish the cyborg-like quality of our daily life. Henrietta Street is distinguished by its description of a ventilator; Dear Heart recounts the installation of a “titanium time piece in your ventricle wall”; the looping repetitions of Your Call Is Important to Us are a perfect fit for the call-centre conversations it records.

Music, live and electronic, recurs as another kind of essential mechanical resource: Repetitive Beats is a terrific, panoramic festival poem, while The Silence Bar offers a menu of “silences”, each described like a wine and coming with a different price tag. The language of consumer technology and artifice makes its way too into Ramsell’s love poems so that in Glitch:

You were the one hit wonder of
summertime

I was your throwaway b-side. [ . . . ]

They made stained-glass walls for the cottage you wintered in.

I was the dark.

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