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A poet for the world: Vona Groarke delivers a terrific, spare collection

Poetry: An ecopoetry anthology from Ireland and Galicia is among the new collections

In Vona Groarke's Link: Poet and World (Gallery, €12.50), 26 lyric poems are partnered by 26 prose conversations between the Poet and the World, a devilish character who constantly wrong-foots the Poet. Link begins as the pandemic begins and the World takes up residence in the Poet's house, which has been "rescued, whitened and simplified (though not of course by him). There he decides to live a home-school sort of life with a radio instead of feelings, one stool by the stove."

The waiting, the lonely uncertainty of the pandemic is expressed in terrific, spare lyrics:

Even on a bus home through dark country
with Christmas lights strung from town to town,
gatepost to gatepost, shop to shop and every
last door closed, you think, what else is there?

But “World has decided to take an interest in my poetry . . . ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’” He leaves a note:

Believe in me. At least until you find something more worldly to believe in. Then, when you're done with that, come back to me.
Whatever they say about me is true except this: that I care any more about you than a road does, who's travelling on it.
That day you spent turning a blanket on the clothesline so every side and corner had its share of sun? That's the day, I tell you, to model all others on.
(Good Advice )

Link is experimental and witty, full of Groarke’s signature intelligent exactitude. Painterly flashes of colour light up the monochrome limbo, “World” passing “a satsuma hand to hand” or twirling “a ring with a red stone around his wedding finger so it snags the light”. The Poet struggles to write. “Look, look at the screed of notes,/ the clumps of print-outs, the strike throughs!” But, as World observed as she turned that blanket, “Knowing her she’ll try again./ What else would she do?”

Maurice Riordan's The Shoulder Tap (Faber & Faber, £14.99) begins with delight, very much in the present but also in the past, in mythology:

I'm working at night by the light of my iPhone
like I'm copying that feat of Fillan the Culdee's
copying the Gospel by the light of his arm-bone.
And it flits through many time frames.

The Changeling sets the scene:

After they found me hiding in a fork of the yew
I climbed into the chimney of the derelict house.
Curled in the bend, I saw the blue hole of the sky.
I liked silos, undersides of bridges, fields of dense maize.

The trickster element pervades this dark, powerful collection, preoccupied with mortality and sex and a very unsettling sense of the corporeal. The Narcissist begins, “I was never one for looking in mirrors . . .” An old girlfriend could not persuade him to “look or not for long” because “I was the narcissist. And it’s true, all my life I’ve harboured/ this selfie in my head . . . one that’s blurry and soft-focus.”

Then he’s “back with that ex”, naked again, utterly vulnerable:

I could hear her intakes of breath . . . smell her warm skin.
. . . I opened my eyes as instructed. Or dreamed I did.
I understood what I saw in the mirror was my corpse.

Riordan needs every bit of his wit to balance that crowding darkness. A poem about Trump, I Was Woken By the Leader of the Free World, begins with a joke, moving from dream to the past to the present as real helicopters thunder overhead, ending poignantly with a perfect cinematic shot, as Riordan gets out of bed, “to watch the leader of the free world become a silent birdlike dot in a glorious dawn sky”.

An evocative epigraph from Mark Roper's Keep-Net – "Oh voice, this world/ you'd catch and keep/ shines and slips through/ each word you shape." – opens a fresh, vital, tri-lingual anthology from Dedalus, A Different Eden: Ecopoetry from Ireland and Galicia (€14.50). Roper sets the tone of humility. How can we write about the world? How can we remove our egos from our response to nature? 38 poets ask in Galician, English and Irish.

Moya Cannon’s Oysters typically goes to the heart:

Perhaps the oyster does not dream or think or feel at all
but then how can we understand
the pull of that huge muscle beside the heart
which clamps the rough shell shut
before a hunting starfish or a blade
but which opens it
to let in the tide?

A Different Eden is edited by Keith Payne, Lorna Shaughnessy and Martín Veiga; their excellent introduction traces the historical and geographical similarities between Ireland and Galicia. “Translators have always had to engage with the issue of extinction: the ongoing disappearance of languages is a by-product of the environmental degradation that has resulted from colonial, neocolonial and neoliberal economic practices.”

A roll call of Irish poets rub shoulders with their Galician cousins. Paula Meehan’s great lament, The Field, is here: “The site to be planted with houses each two or three bedroom/ Nest of sorrow and chemical, cargo of joy/ The end of dandelion is the start of Flash/ The end of dock is the start of Pledge . . .”

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhaigh’s Bó Déin has all the delicacy and precision of its eponymous ladybird: “How/ does such a creature so tiny/ heft the weight of our wishes/ and still/ be able/ to fly?” Daniel Salgado’s haunting Crows asks, “how do they determine where to alight,/ why do they know the city inside out,/ but nothing of its historical process.”

Lupe Gómez brings us back to our animal bodies in a handful of words:

At the river
I drank
with cow's lips.
River water
penetrating
and penetrated by my body
(At the River)

Lorna Shaughnessy's Lark Water (Salmon, €12) is deeply rooted in the natural world and, while it celebrates birdsong, it is driven by a dark awareness of the difficulty of dying. A signature poem, Sky Lullaby, poignantly and implicitly draws a comparison between heavy-footed man and the vulnerable skylark:

There is no smoke in the skylark's house,
no fire to betray its whereabouts
just a cup of grass and hair underfoot.

Dedicated to her father, James Shaughnessy, who died in 2020, the poems about his death are rather like that “skylark’s house” – minimalistic and effective: “At the foot of the stairs/ they tuck a hospital blanket around/ my boy-sized father, pupa in cocoon . . .” (After the Third Fall). In Bottom’s Dream, the poet is “enticed into the tent by travelling players . . . smell cut grass and sawdust”.

There is brief respite in the “charm” of watching A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but when she opens her eyes “everything blurs” and in the next poem she’s back in “Ward 7B”.

The lark’s nest comes to mind again, as she collects her late father’s belonging from the hospital: “This small, black holdall with your name/ on a label written in my sister’s hand . . .” The lark’s presence is felt throughout, “its only defence is its song to the sun”. Dallying expresses that brief joy beautifully.

When O’Shaughnessy’s mother is late for school because she “stayed in the meadow to listen to the larks”, the teacher removes her glasses to look at the sky through the classroom window “as though trying to remember what it was she left there”.

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