Avoiding the lure of the idyll


POETRY: Cross-TalkBy Siobhán Campbell Seren, 71pp, £7.99

SINEAD MORRISSEY’S Through the Square Windowis already a Poetry Book Society Choice and short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize: and rightly so. This grown-up, serious volume dares, as writing in these islands rarely does, to range from European history (“a territory so seeming rich /and decorous”) to motherhood, by way of speculations on the nature of Matter, and dark “found” stories, from Arkansas or “our back door”. Though one might expect a Belfast writer to deal with political history (is there any other kind?) and, as a woman, in family narratives, it is a mark of Morrissey’s poetic authority that she gives no sense of going through the usual confessional motions. This collection is authentic, instead, to a confident, inquiring intelligence that makes itself felt on every page.

In Electric Edwardians, boldly revisiting the territory of Philip Larkin’s great MCMXIV, Morrissey notices children “simply staring back at us, across the lens’s promise, //as though we still held Passchendaele in our pockets /and could find a way to save them”. Her poems of pregnancy deliver an equal existential drop. In the extraordinary Matter, which moves through “the laws of spontaneous generation” to observe a contemporary conception, “I still think /of our lovemaking as a kind of door /to wherever you were, waiting in matter, /spooled into a form I have not yet been shown”. This slip into abstraction is executed with such grace that we believe we’re reading about empirical science – then find we’ve imagined conception afresh.

“Love, the night-watch . . .” is equally generous in the world it recruits to make sense of the moments of birth: from radio call-signs to its metaphor of the mother as a haystack “collapsing almost imperceptibly /at first, then caving in spectacularly”. Nothing compromises the beautiful diction of this touching poem – and yet there is a wry self-knowing, akin to humour, on display. The Hanging Hare, which might have settled for straight observation of the creature’s “foxglove fur”, instead shows us what it stands for – a capacious vision “of unimpeded air, /of whitethorn-quartered fields”. A sequence of dark parables – Vanity Fair, The Innocents, Fairground Music, Telegraph: none of these titles innocent of resonance – confirms that all is not sweetness and light in Morrissey’s imaginary; and with this new dark note, threat or promise, the collection promises yet more for the future.

Siobhán Campbell brings the characteristically soft diction of the Irish lyric tradition to her third full collection, Cross-Talk, where one man ploughs “a fairy ring” while on the next page another, “her father”, lays about hedgerow foxgloves with “the stick he acquired when he was lamed”. These studies of fear and violence, both domestic and political, are peopled by beaten wives, and girls tarred and feathered “for loving /from the wrong camp”. Yet they’re also full of the soft furnishings of the pastoral, in which sows must farrow, mangels be weeded, and hay made. The reader pauses; registering again the nostalgia for rural tradition which informs the work of poets as various as Bernard O’Donaghue, Maurice Riordan, or even later Durcan (to say nothing, of course, of Heaney).

But women’s experiences in traditional communities differ radically from those of men. Though the strategies of women writing in Ireland today are various, most avoid the lure of idyll. Campbell’s own cunning sideways take on the masculine pastoral has Mother Ireland as a furious farmer’s wife, while These Women is her tribute to the work-hardened women who “make happen the full wake, /the kettle hopping, the oven warm”. As she says, in a poem to which she gives her own name (camhaoil), “It takes a softened tongue to fill a twisted mouth”. If her consistent pessimism occasionally palls, that’s a risk Campbell may have calculated. More worrying is a tendency to poeticised understatement so hermetic as to be codified. In Hinterland, “A bout of wintering /along the outer rim /where Antrim makes intention /or else we learn to sing” might address political betrayal, but can only do so if the reader supplies both context and secondary meanings. It will be interesting to see what comes from Welsh publisher Seren’s grafting of this writer’s characteristically Irish tropes onto the equally-established national traditions of their own list.

Fiona Sampson’s latest books are Writing Poetry(Robert Hale) and A Century of Poetry Review (Carcanet), both published last year