Poems about life forces, Magdalene laundries and birds, and reflections on Spain

New publications from Jessica Traynor, Maureen Boyle and Patrick Kehoe

Jessica Traynor's second collection The Quick (Dedalus Press, €12.50) opens with The Life a typically fine-tuned lyric describing a brief moment when life leaves a body: "Halfway across the Hogarth Road/the life flew out of me." When it returns, "cool wanderer/pressing against my skin", something has changed. Traynor is a master at delineating these almost imperceptible but vital changes. Death or, more appropriately, the dead are the main subject here and, as the epigraph from John Berger states, they are not abandoned. Characters from the 18th-century jostle with characters from the more recent past such as Archbishop McQuaid and Lord Haw Haw and those who have been wounded by the Catholic church. In an impressive sustained response to Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, a sequence of poems address poverty and immigration, both delicate and sharp, these lines really sting as in IX The Waiting Table, "somewhere, amongst the piled fruit, the cyan floss of rot./But you will never need to paint this;/it comes to you whenever you are hungry, the polite and comforting ritual of slaughter… the other diners murmur to each other,/and you know you and your fatted heart/will never be alone." The accomplished The Artane Boy's Band sets up its subject beautifully with a child's legs dangling over a gate, mirrored by the "matchstick boys" who "made music because they were outlaws,/ each cymbal clash a cry of mea culpa…" Traynor's fine delicate lyricism belies a social consciousness that subtly bleeds through several poems. Swarm, another poem where the dead mingle with the living, is also a poem of alarm, warning us that if time is running out for the bees it is running out for us too. The title poem The Quick with its themes of blood and inheritance, pulls the string tight at the end with a reply to the opening poem. We hold the dead in our bodies yet the life's force is strong and terrifyingly beautiful:

“the cut at the heart of you

that tore with your umbilicus

the half-moon in your fingernail


the sickle of your DNA

your blood’s starfish sprawl

and the heart of you plum-heavy

built to stagger on.”

The Work of a Winter

Maureen Boyle's The Work of a Winter (Arlen House, £19.95) is a substantial first collection. Here too, a number of poems explore the lives of others – by coincidence Hildegarde of Bingen appears in both books and there is a particular interest in the lives of women with a similar strong sense of haunting. Weather Vane is a fine dramatic monologue in the voice of a young woman incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry. It opens with such vivid immediacy we are drawn in, "I am on the roof this breezy day,/in the sixth month of my pregnancy/picking off the moss and lichen and tossing them/in soft bouquets to the ground". This is a cinematic poem which rises above the cruel "punishment for vanity/For finding my face in a bucket of blue…". The voice soars, "I talk to the baby up here./We're not supposed to but the wind/takes the words away." Comparing herself to a "billowing blown crow", the speaker is a bird watcher like Boyle herself and there are several well-observed and delightful poems about birds in the book. Boyle's cinematic style adds narrative movement to the ekphrastic poems breathing vivid life into the female subjects of Roger Van Der Weyden, Pierre Bonard and Conrad Faber. But there is humour here too notably in The Witch in the Wall where two archaeologists visiting west Cork in the mid-20th century come face to face with Sheela na gigs, " . . . first thought they were the Catholic Sacred Heart,/the chest walls held open for divine light to shine through/but then someone saw what it was hard to see, something else,/something they must be delicate in writing home about." But it is perhaps in the opening long sequence Incunabula where humour is at its richest as the remembered details of a childhood mass together to unroll a reimagined vanished world, ". . . we would . . . marvel that the Osmonds lived in a place called Provo". This is perfectly reflected in one of its closing images of a "scroll of summer, the back of an old roll of wallpaper on which I'd charted/ambitions . . . could now be rolled up as time was parsed again . . ."

Places to Sleep

Narrative is much more elusive in Patrick Kehoe's collection of travel poems, Places to Sleep (Salmon, €12). The central thread of the collection is series of imagistic poems tracking Kehoe's first visit to the city of Barcelona in the late 1970s. The past commingles with later visits to the city while other poems describe Almeria, Murcia, Madrid. But the dream city is Barcelona. Imagistic highly lyrical poems build glancing pictures in glimpses and hauntings. The poem Gold City operates as a coda:

Gold city, gilded with summer light

Obscure in the shimmering street

Ever-elusive, rarely where it should be

Always about to arrive

And a dream may go down with the sun.

Kehoe's strength lies in his ability to recreate a mood or atmosphere in the tightly constructed lyrics. "A yellow cloud/pours from a wall vent/at the end of the Ramblas" in The Gitano's Lament summons up a place and a time with precision. The poems have a knack for succinctly expressing our imperfect memories, how little is needed to make a lasting impression as in Pueblo Seco, "Memory of a granja, a dairy/But no memory of a street;/Just the open door, the steps down/The guillotine slide of shade." The guillotine acts like deadly pendulum slicing off time – we are forever chasing tantalising glimpses from a maze that could be more a reflection of our own minds than a concrete reality:

To make a myth of a particular street

Its ache and pang – a friend in Spain

Looks at a photograph and writes:

“So maybe this is not the place at all,

It would be further back down the street.”

Maybe this is not the place at all…

And his words echo

Down the street recalled.