Subscriber OnlyBooks

Poetry reviews: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Luke Morgan, Mina Gorji and a two-for-one Irish anthology

Seán Hewitt on Quiet; Beast; Scale; and Cnámh agus Smior/Bone and Marrow

In one of the final poems in Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s brilliantly accomplished debut collection, Quiet (Faber, £10.99), women gather in the night garden, breaking the world and rebuilding it. Their actions are “mycelial”, accompanied by laughter and by tales: “they braid the future like a child’s hair / singing & / sewing bright dark seeds into it”. Throughout Quiet, these powerful forms of connection and production give a pulsing, immanent sense of the power of collective endeavour and also of joy.

The collection opens with Declaration (there are other poems with the same title in the book), a rousing statement of intent. Living in “the heart of empire”, the speaker might corrupt the power hierarchies and dismantle them from within: “if I live the belly of the beast, / let me beget sickness in its gut.” This sense of being “within” the beast suggests, first, the possibility of a well-timed and overdue attack (and this positioning does recur in the book); what is most potent, though, is Bulley’s interest in, and advocacy for, interiority. This does not only mean the interiority of the self, but the powerful collective of a community: “it is better to speak a language / among those with whom / it might be shared”.

Among more outward-speaking poems, then, there are moving, shimmering instances of romance, quiet and beauty. Of the Snail & Its Loveliness balances love lyric and ecopoem with real skill; and Whose Name Means Honey is wonderfully tender. Hoping to remove a fallen eyelash from another’s face, the poet writes:

& still it is there, I would like


to be the one who says hold on,

come here, let me, one minute, stay there,

almost, there we go, all done, perfect. & when

you look up & now it is gone, swept

absent-mindedly off the face of the earth

by your dark hair, oh I am sad

to have missed my chance.

It is rare to find a debut collection that launches a complex and compelling vision quite like this one.

Moments of wildness

In his second collection, Beast (Arlen House, €15), Luke Morgan searches for animal disturbances and moments of wildness in the human, housing confessions and personal revelations within the lives and behaviours of various creatures. As with a medieval bestiary, the poems here traverse fauna real and imagined: hydras and mandrakes share the pages with rhinos and armadillos; the púca (who appears on the book’s cover) sits alongside tapeworms and whales.

There’s a real ambition on display, and Morgan has a good eye for an image. A bull has a “smoky anger”; kids see a local man lead it like “a giant black cloud on a leash / into the field at night / where it waited”. In the best poems, these images show a striking, energetic imagination with potential to charge a poem with enough voltage. Self Portrait as a Mandrake, and Eight Arms show a poet with the ability to construct skilful and stylish pieces.

Occasionally, the narrative drive overweighs the poems, so we lose the music and the clarity of the images. There are brilliant poems inside all these poems, but some needed to be unearthed more fully. In Godmother, for example, the opening lines show a lyric drive that is striking and unsettling:

First thing I remember

is the pond in Nutley Lane

she saved me from.

Lilies and willow pollen

formed a skin that bobbed

when I touched it,

and suddenly, I was underneath

in a murky bloodstream,

frantic rosary bead bubbles

carrying the last of my air


Sonic attention

Mina Gorji is a poet who knows exactly what to say, and how to say it. Continuing her fascination with brief, imagistic and rich works, Scale (Carcanet, £11.99) is a book of deep sonic attention. Gorji — who is also a Cambridge academic with a specialism in Romantic poetry and aurality — carries her fascination with sound throughout this book. With an immense skill in crystalline language, Gorji can paint a landscape, a soundscape and an emotional core with breathtaking brevity. She draws our attention close to the page: “the wood frogs lie in wait, / frozen so hard / if dropped, / they’d clink.” There are tremors of personal experience here: the early days of sleeplessness after a newborn child are traced in a haunting image of “a baby’s face, / cherry blossom / seen through glass”. Sometimes unsettling, registering sounds almost out of earshot, Gorji’s poems are crafted through the technology of listening. Their scales moves from the personal to the global, from the real to the dream-like, in unnerving and beautiful ways, as in Thaw:

As what point

Does a life

Held in ice

Begin to cease?


A woodsman

Carrying a heart

(still warm)

Out of the forest.


I am standing

At the forest edge —

Where foxgloves

Will appear.

Ground is hard,

White with frost.

From the acute work of Gorji to an expansive new anthology, it is impossible to do even a small justice to the rigour and value of the work undertaken by Samuel K Fisher, Brian Ó Concubhair and their team of editors in producing Cnámh agus Smior/Bone and Marrow: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern (Wake Forest, $35.95). Each section of the book, of which there are 14, is edited by experts in the poetry of the era, and is introduced with brief and informative contextual material. Not only that, but each poem is given its own introduction, outlining its importance, its interest and something of its particular use of metre, rhyme or style. We begin with one of the most famous poems in the language — “Pangur Bán” — and trace the evolving styles and contexts through Bardic poetry, plantations, Jacobite poetry and the penal laws, the Famine, the Revival, all the way through to the present day, with poets such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, who brings us full circle with her Manach Eile agus a Chat (Another Monk and His Cat).

Not only the poems, but the prose in the book is given in both Irish and English — really, this is two books in one. Still, the effect is to try to complicate the power relationship between Irish and English. Fisher and Ó Conchubhair are keenly aware that translation, particularly from a minority language to an imperial, global language, “easily becomes the blade separating past from present or the paver flattening cultural difference. It runs the risk of destroying what it ostensibly attempts to make accessible”. Not only this, but “it risks a situation where the translation supplants the original and effectively becomes the text of the poem”. With this in mind, Cnámh agus Smior/Bone and Marrow has a liberal approach to translation: no one model is preferred, and where some poems are given in “literal” translation, others are more freewheeling. We are always keenly aware of the originals, even if our Irish isn’t good enough to parse them fully.

This is an indispensable anthology, one rich enough to repay the reader years of close attention. In bringing an ambitious collection of Irish-language poetry together on this scale, Fisher, Ó Conchubhair and their editorial team trace a vibrant and detailed arc of history told through the voices of some of Ireland’s most eminent and attentive witnesses.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic