Poetry about intense heat, the unsaid and an orang-utan in a suit

Reviews of poetry collections by Pat Boran, Moya Roddy and Anne Casey

US president Donald Trump. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

US president Donald Trump. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

 

Pat Boran’s seventh poetry collection, Then Again (€12.50, Dedalus Press), is described by the publisher as a mini Odyssey. The poems travel outwards taking in Paris, Sicily, Cyrus and Ireland, often focusing on paintings in galleries and churches or objects in museums. A magnificent prose poem for “an old friend … who fell in love with compost” meditates on “Death and the remaking of the world”. The fermentation and renewal that occurs in compost layers, especially “the gradual return” of growth, is central to Boran’s odyssey.

Like Homer’s, the journey is all about return. This is beautifully, neatly expressed in The Password, where a couple try and fail to remember a password, then “ … somehow, with the cuff of my shirt sleeve/I manage accidentally to touch Return/and as simple as that it opens and we’re in … ”

There are many returns here. In Virgin of the Crossroads poet turns a bend “to find her/stood there still/ in this winter’s night, a solitary girl/waiting for her bus,/her face beatific/in the light of her mobile phone.” There is a tremendous amount of warmth here in fine elegies for friends and all humanity. Boran’s gaze is equally tender resting on the fellow travellers in Stalled Train and Bus Stop or a 19th-century Indian painting as he finds parallels across distance and time.

In Race Meeting, Baldoyle, a photographed couple spring from the page, “He smokes, she holds/something beneath her nose, a sprig … ” the ending miraculously conjuring “the one thing that the photograph commemorates/ but has no chance of capturing: their breath”. References to breath and lungs recur frequently in these existential poems. Desire is a visual, convincing argument for human connections. Boran’s characteristic light touch is exquisitely deft. He opens intriguingly, “Lift the roof off this row of houses/and who might we prove to be:” before an assortment of characters appear and then, the sonnet turns or “zooms in … that could be you and me down there, /waltzing around our steam-filled kitchen/as if on the deck of an ocean liner/inching outwards through the thickening fog.”

Poet and playwright

While she has been writing and reading her poems for years Out of the Ordinary (Salmon, €12) is Moya Roddy’s first collection. Pared-back and precise, these poems quietly dramatic, not surprisingly, as Roddy is also a playwright. Most poems barely fill half a page, leaving space to ponder what is not said. Subtext is the playwright’s home ground; it is, after all, the silences that really make a poem unforgettable, beautifully expressed in Picking Blackberries, “... we reach … whoop as the first berry/touches base, a sound that’s not/ a sound as cans fill up.”

Which comes first, the poet or playwright? It is hard to know but it is clear that Roddy is deliberately working with the unsaid in final lines of Watermark – about a walk on Trá Bán – “I will remember this walk/because so little happened/and we never spoke about it”. This haunting crystallises around a large number of poems about Roddy’s Donegal mother who haunts the book from the first beautifully understated poem Miracle, where Roddy remembers praying for her mother to wake up from her afternoon nap:

Around five you’d rise,

unwind the long scarf

worn to protect your hair,

bring wan lips to life

with a dab of lipstick –

then sally forth

to get something in for tea

– eggs or a piece of liver –

waving and smiling,

waving and smiling

as if you’d just risen from the dead.

And then having risen from the dead, this Donegal outsider exiled in Dublin, continues to appear throughout the book. The family’s “country ways” a source of shame during Roddy’s childhood turn into “fruitful seeds,/an ear for sound, a body tensed to write”. Everything is passed down as towards the end, poems about Roddy’s daughter appear; the haunting reaches its apotheosis when the mother “is in the hand gripping my daughter’s shoulder.” We are brought full circle when the poem finishes with an eerie reprise of the poem’s title, “It was the first time I saw my mother:/the first time I caught a glimpse of myself.”

Intense heat

In contrast to Roddy’s economy and intense focus, Anne Casey’s Out of Emptied Cups ranges far and wide both in subject matter and sheer distance. Casey, who is originally from Co Clare, now lives in Australia, and her visual poems are infused with intense heat and Australian flora and fauna. In A Sunburnt Country is a lament for the kangaroo:

shot through

at sunset – their sorry hides

blanching over bleaching

bones for

daring to outrun

the culling gun

on

this new battlefront

where parched and starving natives

are run

aground swarming from

new deserts carved out

by men

busily at work where wild

boronia once grew

rivers running rapidly through

and wallum frogs once croaked

in their thousands

In A Sunburnt Country is one of several stirring eco poems but gender politics dominates here, with Donald Trump casting his shadow in more than one poem, although he is never actually named. I wasn’t sure if the amusing sideshow was about Trump:

an orangutan walks on two legs

wears a suit, learns a grimacing smile

to form words that make people follow

in awe and fanatic adulation

Although if it is about Trump it hardly seems fair on the orangutan. Sexual abuse is faced down in more than one poem, although the neat understatement of for all the #MeToos might be more powerful, “i can’t help but feel/ there should/be a #MeaCulpaToo”. The ugly unfairness and double standards of the “world of men” is passionately expressed in M Is for Monster – “it took him a year/of persistent single assaults/ topped by one allied attack/to teach her his place/for a woman…” and each stanza is a fierce bite leading up to the final disturbing unanswerable question:

what’s in their heads, these men –

as they let go their daughters

each day – do they pray

that someone won’t show them his place

for a woman, in a world of men?

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