‘I write the privilege. I write the guilt’

Poet Anne Tannam on her new collection, Twenty-six Letters of a New Alphabet

There are two definitions of crone in the Cambridge Dictionary, an unpleasant or ugly old woman and in stories, an old woman with magic powers. You can smell the fear. Since my last collection, I've slowly been developing crone powers.

I’m walking slowly towards her, some distance away but can make her out.
Gnarled and scrawny, brown limbs motionless, soot black eyes taking everything in.

Mam passed in 2013 and when Dad died in 2019 at the age of 97, the last of his family, a growing sense of urgency came into my life, and with it the embodied knowledge that I too will die, and the life I’ve been taking for granted will pass.

The flip side of that is an awakening to nature, the gift of fresh eyes, and a deeper appreciation of humanity’s small and precarious place in the scheme of things. The 54 poems in this latest collection are an attempt to map this new terrain honestly, and a call to take ownership of this mundane, singular, privileged life I’ve been given.

When I turned fifty-two last October
I saw the knee-high hazel tree
planted there in our front garden,
and took to watering it every week,
took to chatting with it,
took to admiring
its tightly held secrets

I sometimes miss my old life. I miss my predictable body. I miss being a daughter and I miss being the planet my children once orbited. I write the day the house is empty of children. I write the relief. I write the grief. But this time of life is also offering up compensations and freedoms that my younger self would have wept with gratitude to possess. I’ve grown into a body I’ve been dismissive of since my teens, and it’s forgiven me for all the snide comments and unfair comparisons I’ve thrown at it. I’m revelling in silence and my own company, glimpsing heart stopping beauty in everything and everyone, leaning into the hard edges of living.

Awake half the night,
hot flushes, the steep hormonal
rise and fall I could well do without,
but it’s a small price to pay for this bounty
the universe leaning across the table,
gesturing with both hands,
eager to fill me in.

Unlike the previous two collections, Twenty-six Letters of a New Alphabet has seven distinct sections, a choice the poems themselves made when I was working on the collection’s arc. No matter what way I laid them out on the floor or moved them about in a Word document, poems ended up in distinct clusters, orbiting a particular theme or experience.

Poems dealing with my father’s decline and inevitable death span two sections of the book, and all but the last poem, written just days after his death, are written about rather than addressing him directly. Using ‘he’ rather than ‘you’ in those poems permitted a certain emotional distance, allowed me to write about this version of him who by now was more helpless child than father.

He speaks only in tongues
to us now, finding new ways
each day to tell us he’s leaving.

His death paradoxically gave him back to me, releasing vivid and sustaining memories of the strong supportive father he was. His final poem, In Conversation iii, completes a triptych of poems; the first two addressed to Mam; and his poem rounding off my goodbye to life as a daughter. I write the grief. I write the love.

I missed your final breath, sitting outside in the lounge, catching my own,
but you were in good company with Donie holding your hand, singing you
softly out ‘sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away.’

The universe, it turns out, is quite the talker, insistent that it’s all about the wider perspective, the hidden detail, the long game. This collection includes a series of poems that are both love letters, and letters of apology to the planet and all who share it with us.

I knew there were birds before
I’d heard them singing.

Not like this
not like the earth depended on it.

Another series of poems grapple with the precarious concept of home. Poems written from the security of my own four walls while down the road, people are living on the streets. Across the world people are fleeing their homes, travelling dangerous distances to find safety, while I cover in easy footsteps the distance between the triangle of homes I’ve lived in. I write the privilege. I write the guilt.

When you have a home
the morning beckons.
/
When you lose your home
you lose the morning light.

The experience of growing up and living as a woman in Ireland is reappraised in the collection.

Or the lovely neighbour
when we brought home our firstborn
who said, upon hearing she was a girl,
‘You’ll have to keep trying for the boy’
spoken in jest, I’m sure,

so why then the tightness in my chest?

I look back at the years from childhood to early motherhood, choosing small, seemingly insignificant moments that taken separately don’t hold too much heat. But as they accumulate and fan out to take in the wider implications of a society where women didn’t matter as much, or at all, begin to crackle and spark. I write the envy. I write the anger.

But don’t forget about joy, the universe reminds me, as they get up to go, don’t forget to write the joy. And so, I write the joy. I write the wonder.

and on the final stretch of hushed road
an unexpected encore:
a fox appears on the footpath ahead,
crosses the road in front of you,
the music of her movements a song
in the back of your throat

Twenty-six Letters of a New Alphabet is published by Salmon Poetry as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations. To purchase your copy, go to the Salmon Bookshop. The online launch is on at 7pm on Thursday and this is the link to register.