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New poetry: Romany culture celebrated and moments of magnificent solace

David Morley, Fury; Eamon Grennan, Plainchant; Kerry Hardie, Where Now Begins

David Morley, an ecologist as well as a gifted, powerful poet, gives voice in Fury (Carcanet, £10.99), his latest collection, to both the imperilled natural world and to the Romany communities of past and present Britain. The result is a rich and musical collection with a sharp political bite. One astonishing poem, After the Burial of the Gypsy Matriarch, ends each line "in mirnomos", or in silence.

The zhukûl peers and peers from the wûsh in mirnomos.

The Roma rake and rake the skrúma in mirnomos.

Pàrrâ tower to their kríza, collapse in mirnomos. […]


What the Roma do not say to each other is buried in mirnomos.

Their vardos circle the field. They vanish in mirnomos.

This anaphora of endings, in which each thing sinks into silence – the flames of the burning possessions, the unspoken thoughts of the people – has a hypnotic, incantatory effect. As with many of the other poems in Fury, this one comes with a glossary of Romany words; but there’s something magical about reading the poems first for the sheer verbal play of the language, the sparking, luminous sounds it makes in the mouth and paints on the mind. The soundscape of Starling Roost in Swansea, for example, has a Hopkinsian phonetic power, a rush and movement that makes standard English seem bare in comparison:

Andesára of starlings. All of them sleepy head

chiriklòs barikanò, buff-glossy

on zhútso and rukh bicker to wavver

in their tenement wesh of Swansea têmnomós…

Occasionally, the longer poems lag about the middle: the beautiful, sometimes obscure imagery of the lyric voice gets lost in narrative detail, and in the mechanics of plot. The Thrown Voice has some of the collection’s strongest, most memorable images – a nightjar is “a soft scar of sound/as if a lone tree’s bark sang the night’s wound” – but the imagistic intensity gives way to narrative and loses some of the poem’s voltage. These are only rare moments, though.

Fury has an enormous range, and handles its politics with sensitivity and power. When I heard the calling of the birds, a poem written for Towfiq Bihani, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, is searing and has a religious tenor to its hailing of the birds.

Like the unaccompanied singing of its title, the poems in Eamon Grennan's Plainchant (Gallery, €11.95) reveal moments and encounters that create or reveal their own sanctity. Each is held together in an unusual form of prose poetry. The first line of each poem determines the length of all its subsequent lines, so the poems appear as blocks, justified to their own margins. This ingenious collaboration between shape and line creates a form in which Grennan can move skilfully between the understated and the sacred, and gives him room to experiment with a heightened register without ever appearing purple, or overly poetic. So, swans can be "sailing wide-winged and stately on the name-/less lake of painted blue on which their whiteness/glows heraldic", and something about the prose form means the reader never recoils from the awe-struck pitch of the language.

The collection opens, memorably and breathlessly, with an encounter between the speaker and a hare. Given in one near-perfect sentence, Grennan earns his full stop like few others.

Knacky keen and swift was the flighty hare

That flitted almost up to me in Fogarty’s

near field where I tried to stand still as a

post so he might stop and stare at me with

his basalt-black burning eyes…

The collection’s blocks of texts are like small windows on to the world at once real and consistently shone through with a sanctifying light. Plainchant is almost a screen of icons, each offering a pathway through to some other world of meaning. The poet stands waiting, like the seals in Seals off White Strange, Renvyle, “patiently for something, anything –/anything in either world – to happen”.

This almost-tangible otherworld creates an elegiac tone for the collection; the poet as witness to a world that approaches and encounters him, but is still distinct and wholly itself. There are ghosts and remembrances, sudden manifestations, and images of gorgeous clarity.

A lark, for example, has “long silver ribbons of song the bird/braids as if binding lit air to earth”. Above all, this is collection – one of the best Irish collections of the year – offers moments of magnificent solace. It is in the lines of the final poem, Hare at Dusk, that we see, perhaps, an image of ourselves as reader. The hare leaps off into the dimming light,

where it can listen to its heart’s quick

insistent little drumming as it gather itself

into the blood-warm cell of itself: its form

and refuge till the big dark blows over.

Kerry Hardie's Where Now Begins (Bloodaxe, £9.95) is full of a dark, exact lyricism. The poems here circle around absences and emptiness, moments of transformation, and seem acutely attuned to a sort of metaphysics wherein the immaterial becomes material, formal, or verbal through attention and craft. Often, the signifiers of the poems are absent – these are lyrics built around fear, or loss, or joy, or the past. Hardie's poems are not recoveries of these things; rather, the images she constructs point towards the absences they are built around. Into Light sees the poetic form as a sort of incantation out of darkness, "splinters of feather and bone,/that flicker and spin and are gone".

Hardie wrestles with the lyric “I”, complicating and undoing it. In both Inhabitants and Now, the various selves of the speaking voice compete, unravelling the idea that there is any one fixed self from which these poems arrive. The “war/continues – unresolved – among the mes”. Other poems, such as Peace is the root of all wars and the Letters from the Dead (which asks “where then ends/where now begins”) capture a moment of precarious balance, between statis and chaos, between one world and the next. These, certainly, are poems which speak skilfully to (and from) our times.

Seán Hewitt has been shortlisted for Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year for Tongues of Fire