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New poetry collections: five poets reviewed

Róisín Tierney, Nithy Kasa, Jim McElroy, Paul Tran and Denise Riley reviewed

In her second collection, Tiger Moth (Turas Press, €13), Róisín Tierney crafts poems of great curiosity and energy. With an inquisitive eye for strange and sometimes unsettling detail, the poems take in an array of animals, plants, insects, and intersect them with considerations of childhood, drunkenness, grief and the heat of sun-drenched vistas. The effect is to bring the human within the animal, to demonstrate not only the quirks of our bodies and the bodies of the natural world, but also the psychological differences and similarities in memory, behaviour, and (il)logic.

In Low Babies, a memory of childhood brings the speaker towards earlier inhabitation of the body in which “we could flap along/and be the little birdies as we sang”. In The Stuff of Legend, a drunk couple on holiday mime “the long and hairy ears” of a donkey, braying before bewildered Greek locals.

Throwing out a battery of sometimes clashing, sometimes harmonic associations, Tierney’s ecological imagination is not bound to a single or even consonant imagery. In these poems, the joy of language is put in service of describing minute and uncanny detail: a wren’s tail is “an exclamation mark”; the wren itself is “a little troglodyte” whose skeletal structure eerily mirrors that of people on a lunch break in a park, all breathing the same “pestilent air”.

There are echoes of Fiona Benson's beautiful recent pamphlet of insect poems, Bioluminescent Baby, here, and also of an impressive pamphlet by Jim McElroy, We Are the Weather (Smith Doorstop, £6.50). A fellow traveller in the dark pastoral, McElroy, like Tierney, attends to the violence of nature and humanity, all the while keeping a formal elegance to his verse. In one vivid and disturbing poem, an exploding bullfrog, the victim of a cruel act of brutality, sends its innards splattering across a yard, where "its blood clots hung like fuchsia".


Alongside translations from the Spanish, Tierney delivers poems about a jar of preserved brown moles, a bat, a hen, and a brilliant “reverie” on insects, full of contrarian, sexual, almost alien behaviours:

neither can I say I never hanker
after my own insect-gown, or beetle dress,
to put to shame the rufous, dull, sere
attire of my rivals as I enter a room,
sundry candles lit up in its green glimmer,
a chitinous bristle and crunch as I dance,
the whiskery feel of my antennae
tenderly stroking your face

The American poet Paul Tran's debut, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, £12.99) ,also considers the body, science, sexuality and desire; however, instead of the cacophony of the non-human, Tran turns their gaze to ekphrasis, history, abuse and the investigation of trauma.

The collection features two sequences, close to the beginning and end, named Scheherazade/Scheherazade. These poems act as a key, not only to Tran’s brave act of recollection, but also their poetic style. “I found in violence a voice”, they write:

Like Scheherazade my mother and I cleave to and from our story.
Like Scheherazade ours is a story of refrain.

The word refrain means not just resist but also repetition. The pendulum between resistance and repetition in trauma both personal and historical moves throughout this striking collection, which is full of mirrors, pictures, paintings, and retold myths, as though trying to articulate the unspeakable from various angles.

Night after night
I returned to the room. Windows closed. Drapes drawn.
Neither spring nor starlight
to ignite the air. Only his breath lingering on
the pillowcase. His face
in the mirror like the image of a swan
in a lake. I was the lake
doubling and doubting his image.

Tran takes intense notice of optics in these poems: the light, the mirror, the lake, the reflection, the real and the projected overlaid and doubted. Though often nightmarish and dark, there are flashes of abandon, starlight, and moments of shimmering release that extend from costume to cosmos, so that by the end the speaker is running “naked but for my snakeskin coat/ so fast through wind I become the wind”. It is an auspicious debut.

A master of form and the philosophical lyric, Denise Riley continues to deliver poems of a fierce, funny and mind-opening range in her latest collection, Lurex (Picador, £10.99). A deadpan, understated irony courses through the poems here: the separation of humanity into separate, "sequestered minds, embodied" is described as "a theatrically bad arrangement"; a short poem, Person on a train in August, begins with the cutting line: "I was alive, but I paid for it heavily."

There is sometimes a fascinating detachment in Riley’s poems, as though she makes use of two levels of consciousness: the direct, experiencing “I” of the poem, and then the pitying lens through which the speaker observes themselves in the act of experiencing, sometimes chastising, other times glumly shaking their head at old mistakes.

The past has a grip on this book, and its most moving poems try to navigate a way through personal anguish, the complexities of history, and the vast, animated world of memory and grievance. 1948, one of Riley’s brilliant sequences, deals with adoption, child abuse, and trauma, and is fierce and blazing in its reckonings. “Your past can’t tell it is the past,” the poem begins: “How to convince it that’s done with, now?”

This is attentive, engaging, beautifully modulated poetry, moving between the simpler lyric and the complex intervention with surprise and brio. It is a testament to the supple power of Riley’s voice that these works contain such a flux of registers and still seem so entirely her own. From the darkness, too, comes a light-filled love of the world:

I've no companion
bar a shadow
pointing backwards.

Dear life, don't ghost me yet!
Find me a home
through stumbling rain.

Arriving as part of a trio of new collections from the Galway-based Doire Press, the anticipated debut of Nithy Kasa, Palm Wine Tapper and The Boy at Jericho (€12), is rich with folklore, and draws unsettling and illuminating connections between the experience of women and the non-human world. Kasa moves between the flowing and the truncated line, disrupting her syntax on occasion into striking imagistic clauses. In Dragon Blood Tree,

The bole is the cord
that links it to its mother.
Branches – the veins,
to flower like fimbriae.

In the way of the best imagery, Kasa draws links here between the tree and the ovaries, defamiliarises both while simultaneously bringing us closer to the apprehension of connection, which in its way asserts familiarity.

Son of August, an incantatory monologue, addresses a man who has no chance for reply, but who, through Kasa’s erotic blend of romance and warm, archetypal imagery, is conjured into a god-like figure. “We entwined, long before the gods became one.// I remember us drinking ale on the frescoed alleys,/ a blue moon, the double-bridge-harp-lute kora soh.”

The richness of Kasa’s poems in this book comes from this gorgeous blending of the erotic, the bodily and the folkloric, which brings both striking, earthy imagery and a skilled narrative impulse. Traversing the landscapes of both the Congo and Ireland, it is memorable, tensile and full of mystery:

Lower an ear on the ryegrass
when at Clonmacnoise,
for the phantom chants,
missioned to the halls
of the pollened bogs,
to the orchards, hallowing.