Internationalism looms large in new poetry collections
Julie Morrissy’s playful and wry debut Where, the Mile End; new work from Ciaran O’Rourke and Eileen Sheehan
Detail from Sean Scully, Landline China: Ciaran O’Rourke’s The Buried Breath responds to a range of paintings, including Sean Scully. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist
The Arts Council’s Next Generation scheme has run since 2016 and supported exceptionally promising new writers including Nicole Flattery, Kevin Breathnach, Victoria Kennefick, Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Julie Morrissy, whose first collection, Where, the Mile End (€12), is now out from tall-lighthouse in the UK and Book*hug in Canada.
Where, the Mile End is interested in naming different places: Morrissy insists on cosmopolitanism, which may now be as much a set part of Irish poetry’s repertoire as our vaunted “poetry of (one) place”. However, Morrissy’s internationalism is wry, dispersed and at an angle to many of the usual places, even as it regularly traverses the distances between Dublin and Canada, where she has worked and studied.
Her poem Ca(non) is typically playful from its title’s pun on being non-Canadian, to its declaration, “it might be time for us to stop / meeting new people / who perpetuate blandness while we sit on faultlines”, and there is nothing bland about the poem’s subsequent surreal turn to other examples of seemingly unnatural creatures: “at Chernobyl, albino storks swing / while wolves and wild boars vibrate / through the red dust forest”.
Morrissy’s book includes more than one orientational nod to Seamus Heaney: “nobody is from where I’m from”, she writes in Wake, an image set against “the men in sensible brown shoes / gathered at the soft mud of Mossbawn,” or as she puts it, more forcefully, in Landscape:
there is no turf where I’m from
no sponge fertile ground
my landscape is a tarmacadam road
at the foot of the Dublin mountains
my childhood home a four-bed semi
If Morrissy has a clear sense of “where I’m from”, in relation to other kinds of poetry, the most surprising and enjoyable aspect of her work is the deliberateness with which she stakes out a poetics of her own, with a mobile intelligence and wit which is not just a reaction to other voices.
The untitled prefatory poem is a marvel, and so is her work’s continuous return to and faith in its ability to breathe life into particular, disarmingly casual situations: “we write from the site of the crash”, begins The Anonymist Manifesto, “oxygen masks abandoned at the last second”.
The Line imagines a poetry never quite at home and none the worse for that: “I know approximate locations // somewhere here / in the space between / the oven and the new French doors”.
Ciaran O’Rourke’s The Buried Breath (€12) is the first publication of new Irish publisher, The Irish Pages Press. O’Rourke’s book, like the publisher’s journal Irish Pages, also draws on a wide, international range of reference, albeit the foreign visits here are mediated through translations of Latin and Latin American poets, including Catullus, Roque Dalton and Rubén Darío.
The book also responds to a range of paintings, including Sean Scully, whose pattern-making is imagined sympathetically in Coyote: “let hands pursue / the pulse, the fading trails, / and when / the final ordinance prevails // you plant the vista / in the humming grid.”
O’Rourke’s own poems too have a grid-like look, often rolling out pages-long sentences which are split into two- and three-line stanzas of short lines, offering a smoothly glassy forward momentum, to which alliterative patterning acts as a kind of brake. Crucifixion (Matthias Grünewald, 1516) ends:
and god is lit
by fact and myth
that vision draws
from twisted sheets,
from the dirt, from the dark,
from bone and limb,
from the earthen lips
that meet and stiffen,
and the weeping feet
as huge as heaven.
It is a distinctive style, and slides across the material, albeit sometimes the poems’ occasion and scenes dip in and out of a specific purchase on their subject. This is not the case in a brilliant calligram, For a Garden Slug (“The / long / vowel / the grass / makes / of your body”) or The Prisoner, his poem for the English poet of the second world war, Keith Douglas, where precise images successfully shift the poem’s point of view away from the poet and the kinds of abstract ideas his poems set out to destroy: “history / is an insect, caressing skin, / and what poetry there was // vanishes.”
Eileen Sheehan’s third collection, The Narrow Way of Souls (Salmon, €12) is a thoughtful, ruminative book, which situates the poet between us, her readers, and different kinds of inherited ancestral knowledge.
Sometimes, this three-way interchange is very personal, as in poems about her mother and her father, her caring for them and their deaths and transformations, so that the mother becomes again, in The Greatest, a young boxing fan: “my mother / springs from her chair, declaring Clay / to be as pretty and mouthy / as she had ever seen”, while My Father, Long Dead has become, among other things, “grass / on the road to the castle// Become mist / on the turret / Become dark-haired hero in a story / written by a dark-haired child”.
At other times, piseoigs are enlisted, as in Remedies, which resembles Peter Sirr’s classic poem Cures, and also offers increasingly improbable recipes: “For a sore head / weave a close cap out of ivy. / Wear for three days and three nights.” Less alarming are others, including a set of graveyard visits and a memorial, By Hedges, where “She taught me the time by a dandelion clock”.
Odd, dreamy narratives also punctuate this varied book, like Dead Reckoning, which begins, “The road home is as strange to me / as on my outward journey” , or a brilliant poem which also works like the best flash fiction, Her Running-Away Money which begins: “A girl-child can hide a small frog / in her cupped fingers. // Her best ribbon / inside the pages of a book. // A bird feather / between pillow-slip and pillow.” And ends “Big, brown pennies / down the slit in her mattress: // the running-away money / that enables her to stay”.