‘X’ marks a new place for Vona Groarke, and for Irish writing
Vona Groarke: her new book moves away from the "given note" of Irish writing
In her inaugural lecture as Ireland professor of poetry, delivered to a packed hall at University College Dublin last month, Paula Meehan reflected on a poem’s original creative force, drawing on the Irish-American poet Marianne Moore’s definition of a poet as a “literalist of the imagination”, someone whose power lies in making things up in order to see things as they are. Moore’s “imaginary garden with real toads in it”, Yeats’s “empty house of the stare”, the “nothing” that WH Auden said “poetry makes”: each of these imaginary spaces was a source, Meehan argued, where poetry happened. Vona Groarke’s new collection, X (Gallery Press, €18.95) offers more powerful proof of Meehan’s argument.
Groarke’s sixth collection marks a departure. The title is deliberately roomy and open to interpretation as a sign for a kiss, in place of a signature, a mathematical symbol, or the mark where treasure is buried, but also as a pun on “ex”. The book finds ways of following up each of these senses, but the title poem unequivocally declares its “ardent solitude” against the backdrop of the end of a marriage, “Brushstroked husband / and brushstroked wife/ finding in skewered union / a defence of loneliness”.
Most strikingly, Groarke’s book inhabits the empty space it describes in a way that feels new in Irish writing: the poems tell a story of reclaimed and recovered spaces, albeit haunted by memory:
and open windows, a garden planted from scratch.
I am floor-length curtains and bookcases, rooms that listen nicely to each other.
I am doorknobs and reading lamps, blue glass bowls on window sills, family photographs, corners with silence in them, that sly peace, a contrivance to which my blue and white hours and too much clean bed linen give the lie.
Groarke’s ability to conjure place and feeling is characteristic, but the poems’ emphases on transience and the feelings they evoke and prompt are both fresh and familiar, even though the landscapes in which the poems occur remain almost entirely unnamed.
One of the ways in which Groarke’s new collection marks a turning point, in fact, is in its movement away from place names, away from that “given note” of Irish writing and from the associated, public themes that are conjured by the use of proper names. Groarke, with whom this reviewer works in Manchester, is much more occupied by time than by places in X .
This is all the more noticeable because she had devised, in previous books, a distinctive way of dramatising public narratives: longer poems such as Imperial Measure , Or to Come and Athlones laid out a template for poems that somehow remade history without being just history, while sidelong lyrics like Parnell , Flight and Archaeology acted as a kind of critique of grand narratives. Those poems sparked, and were part of, a continuing generational interest among her contemporaries in writing narrative poems, although hers, with their typically lyric flourishes, had their own distinctive look and sound.
That look and sound are intact in X but now serve a different imaginative imperative. “Beautiful” is a word that does not sit easily with contemporary poetry, and it is not, either, a word that usually describes a book whose subjects include absence, a break-up, a suburban garden.
Growth and change
But beauty characterises what this book finds in or, better, makes of its subjects. Groarke’s long “ Garden Sequence” i s a superb addition to the tradition of such writing, its images of growth and change offering reconfigurations and dark illuminations to its speaker:
so my heart (that dogged, little thing)
learns to accept itself as autumnal
in a plangent, bulb-lit sort of way.
No telling when one thought
when the very idea
of the garden in winter
slips into the notion
that life, on its own,
is not nearly enough.
(The Garden in Winter)
X closes with a group of poems that look to other art forms: these ekphrastic poems invent another set of images and emblems for the book’s concern with the hard-to-pin-down feeling of time passing.
Architecture presents “Words like stones with sunlight on them”; How to Read a Building begins “Don’t. You might as well say a morning convenes / in panelled reflections of itself. Or call the way / a roofline predicts its likely outcome, fate”; The Yellow Vase declares, astonishingly, “Say its open mouth must be // an antonym to every flower / kept from it all this while” while Taking an Interest in the Decorative Arts , before it calls time on its “enlivening art”, magics a world into being around its speaker:
I choose to wear for you this day summers
a meaning of itself from every hall or landing
we walk through: blue words for sky or sea
and cornflower; yellow, for corn and heat.
The closing “Hammershoi Sequence” projects the book’s themes on to the Danish painter’s work, whose “doors open as / unanswered questions through which / life and the opposite of life / pass into each other as sunlight / happening upon itself”. This sequence, like the rest of this brilliant and original collection, gathers silence around itself.
The poems are completely at home in those silences, and the notes they strike there will reverberate for quite a while.