Hunkering down near the rim of the world

Sat, Jan 14, 2006, 00:00

Poetry: Sara Berkeley has been living in rural northern California for more than a decade since the publication of her last book of poetry, Facts About Water, (new and selected poems), in 1994.

The rich pleasures of this fourth collection derive from the skill with which Berkeley internalises this natural landscape as an emotional territory, at once exotic and intimate, to be charted with wild surmise. Smoke From Oregon Fires sees her drive out with her infant daughter to the "farthest parking lot,/ close to the cliffs . . . " This night drive is typically cocooned from, but also finds transcendence in, the elements around her. The closing incantation makes good use of rhyme:

Up north of us the firemen are losing ground

to fire; their smoke comes down this far

and smudges out the still October air,

and in our car I'm listening,

and I'm noticing her hair,

the way it's still so fine and fair, and I am listening to her breathe, and I am

listening to her breathe,

and I am listening to her breathe.

Like Louise Glück's The House on the Marshland and Medbh McGuckian's earlier work, these poems choose to "hunker down near the rim of the world" for their images, where they lucidly criss-cross boundaries between the speaker's emotions and the landscape without succumbing to pathetic fallacy or becoming tritely confessional. For instance, the description in Harmless of returning home from the courtroom where her marriage has been officially dissolved is unsparingly exact:

I've stopped at a simple place,

the rinsed fields, the boats hung to dry.

Out of a threadbare fog

I come into light of my own,

I lie on my back, unharmed,

tinkering with the shades of it.

Occasionally, Berkeley's desire to find a sacramental significance in the passing moment leads to arch diction (eg "where my hunger for flight is appeased") but mostly her abstractions read as hard-won and justified by the complexities of her material. In such poems as Dragonflies, Strawberry Thief and Still Life, Yellow Quilt, the balance of plain statement and sensuous description creates lines of delicate beauty, as in this to her daughter: "the earth is warm, and if I can help you bloom/ you will be pollen for the bees."

Celia De Fréine is one of those strangely rare creatures of contemporary Irish poetry, a poet in both the official languages. Scarecrows at Newtownards is her first English- language collection, including several of her translations of poems that were first published in Irish in Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha. It may be that this creative traffic between languages is responsible for the colloquial ease and flexible syntax that are so welcome in De Fréine's work, and perhaps it is responsible also for peppering her fables of contemporary life with odd but compelling medieval allusions. Either way, the more surreal the mixture, the better it works. The Daniel O'Neill painting which gives the collection its title provides a good guide to what lies within:

There are no bad fairies at Newtownards,

no poisoned spindles, only wise men in

rows who hiss in the breeze.

A few of the satires here are too obvious in their targets and conclusions, and while sonnets serve her well, the intricacies of sestina and villanelle constrain rather than serve her often humorous talents. As Benchmark (one of two poems about flashers) indicates, the force of her social critique is very strong when she relies on the cumulative power of her imagery. With these reservations, this is an enjoyable and angular successor to Fiacha Fola.

Nearly a century ago, TE Hulme wrote that "images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language". Louise C Callaghan holds tight to this imagist dictum in Remember the Birds, her second collection, allowing the significance of birds and plants to stand mostly for themselves. Ways of Mourning is a short sequence for the death of her infant granddaughter which puts these observations to best effect: "her face-bones, the bare/ dainty stillness of winter birch . . ." (The Wake).

The water-colour palette of Callaghan's volume contrasts with the thick impasto of The Bowspirit by Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons. It also records a strong sense of loss, here for her late husband, the poet James Simmons. Nature is large, elemental and pagan in this, her third, collection which attests not just to grief but the poet's drive to recover her own sense of vitality. Narrative driven, expansive in tone and rangy in line, it is the dramatic force of this vitality which remains the lasting impression of a volume that immodestly closes by summoning an impressive cast of dead poets to offer consolation and welcome her among their number.

At the centre of Nessa O'Mahony's second collection, Trapping a Ghost, is a sequence of verse letters, set during the War of Independence and Civil War. It is based on actual correspondence found after her grandmother's death, from her first lover, who fought with the "Irregulars" and then fled to America, and from the Free State sergeant who arrived to question her about her lover's whereabouts, and whom she later married. It is a terrific story which carries easily over from one poem to the next; it would be interesting to see how this project might also be expanded in prose or documentary form.

Selina Guinness lectures in Irish literature at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dún Laoghaire. Her anthology, The New Irish Poets, was published last year by Bloodaxe (2004)

Strawberry ThiefBy Sara Berkeley, Gallery, 63pp. €11.50

Scarecrows at NewtownardsBy Celia De Fréine Scotus, 76pp. NPG

Remember the BirdsBy Louise C Callaghan, Salmon, 70pp. €12

The BowspiritBy Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons, Lagan, 60pp. £7.95

Trapping a GhostBy Nessa O'Mahony, Blue Chrome, 82pp. NPG