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Glittering lines, fine lyricism and sharp wit in three new poetry collections

Poetry: New work from Vona Groarke, Maureen McLane and Gabriel FitzMaurice

How Do We Get These Lives? asks the second poem in Vona Groarke's seventh poetry collection Double Negative (Gallery, €11.95). "You want to be gentle, of course you do, /to slip through as your body does . . ." Then Groarke characteristically turns and the volta answers with eight terrifying, glittering lines of an extended metaphor:

But someone has stitched these little traps
like tiny mirror sequins to your clothes
so every time you move you think
you can't afford the glare.
When you shut your eyes, it's as if
the white sheet all this flickers on
slips down an inch inside its clips
and the clips don't move at all.

Groarke’s fine lyricism and sharp wit are present as never before, the humour more mordant, the vision darker; yet the poems are so exact and fine, it is an exhilarating read. Like the cartoon rider “on a horse so real” in Against Anxiety, we know “nothing about tomorrow’, moving on “to the next bit of road and the next,/past fury, exhaustion and bafflement/ as he drags with his ears a shaft of light/from a moon he thinks is real.” This beautiful, visionary rollercoaster is steered expertly to earth: “I suppose that’s the thing about cartoons:/everyone sees the punchline coming/ except the one who’s about to get punched.”

Double negatives count as positives, played out in several more poems which are also “against” as in Against Boredom or the terrific Against Nostalgia with its poignant, ghostly women with their “bunions and bills” and “missing back teeth”. Groarke’s familiar haunting domestic interiors are here too, her trademark colours of yellow and blue performing as brightly as ever. But the road feels more dominant both as a metaphor recalling her fine La Route from her last collection X, but also as real tangible entity in The Mancunian Way or Against Monotony with its “two-hundred-mile drive and nothing/ at the end of it but a glass of merlot/and a radio fugue for voice and clarinet/which is a lot/when you come to think about it.” This is a collection to exult in.


New York poet Maureen McLane's What I'm Looking For: Selected Poems 2005-2017 (Penguin, £12.99) is also cerebral and funny, but the voice is perhaps closer to the conversational tone of Frank O'Hara or Robert Creeley, who haunts these poems. They tend to begin in medias res, jumping exuberantly through narratives in short, quick enjambed lines, as in From Mz N: the serial:

one day after sex
in a century of bad sex
the other one asked Mz N
did I leave you
on the edge
never having had an orgasm
as far as she knew
she sd
quite definitively
how would she know
such an edge
are you sure
the other persisted
Mz N thought again
She could say quite definitively
oh yes here I am on the edge
where you left me

This is surprising, addictive poetry with delicious, seemingly wayward lines. Yet a vast knowledge and love for poetry underpins McLane’s work, as the ferocious heat of passion rises from the page. McLane is a true Romantic, rooted in tradition while leaping and exulting in her originality. Envoi explodes from Chaucer with such immediacy and truth: “Go litel myn book/and blow her head off/make her retch and weep/and ache in the gut/make her regret everything about her life/that doesn’t include me.”

Her response to Akhmatova’s Song of the Last Meeting is true to the spirit of the original, yet she makes it wholly her own. Later poems are more concerned with the environment, yet, when she responds to sublime nature, her unique take is both witty and true: “Everyone knows/what is happening/They disagree why/&what then./It turns out/the world was made for us/to mesh.”

And while she is an expert in the up-close and personal, she can pull back for striking longer shots as in Night Sky: “as admen brand the stars/and men sell shares in space/the multiverse contracts/to a single implacable place/where nothing you can imagine/will never not take place.”

From his home in Moyvane, Co Kerry, Gabriel FitzMaurice has been charting a vanishing rural world from its centre all his life. Although we hope otherwise, FitzMaurice declares A Farewell to Poetry, Selected Poems and Translations (Currach Books, €19.99) is his "final book. The job is done."

A local schoolteacher, FitzMaurice experienced those changes at first hand, not least the “new curriculum” where “the inspectors swooped like flies . . . the new dark ages care/more for ticking boxes/Than for a teacher’s flair.” Described as Ireland’s AA Milne, Fitzmaurice’s signature rhymes are clear and true, injecting a joyousness into hilarious, subversive poems such as Counting Sheep, when a school inspector asks:

Son, in a certain field
Are a hundred sheep when, suddenly
Fifty run to a field nearby –
How many sheep are left, my boy?'
'None, sir,' is the child's reply.
'You know nothing about maths,' the inspector snorts,
'Nor you about sheep,' the child retorts.

Fitzmaurice puts his strong rhyme to darker use too in the sonnet My Father Hired with Farmers at Fourteen:

My father hired with farmers at fourteen –
He worked, a servant boy who farmers deemed
Barely worth their shillings and a bed . . .
I was mean:
I'd never know the places Dad was at.

Fitzmaurice’s strong suit is form coupled with a vernacular which breathes new life into old poems, such as this translation from Dáibhí Ó Brudair:

Just my luck I'm not pig-ignorant
Though it's bad to be a boor
Now that I have to go out among
This miserable shower.

His ability to hold opposites in tension shines in his memoriam to two members of the Moyvane community, one a Republican, the other “some sort of Loyalist”, both killed during the War of Independence:

. . . Galvin and Vicars,
I imagine you as one –
Obverse and reverse
Sundered by the Gun.

From one small patch of Ireland, Fitzmaurice expresses grief, joy, faith and doubt, his poems proof that the universal shows itself most clearly in the concentrated particularities.