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Poetry: Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Grace Wilentz, Wanda Coleman, Patrick Cotter

Martina Evans on the best new poetry collections

Side A is an apt label for the first section of Sonic White Poise (Dedalus, €12.50). Patrick Cotter's poetry has always been indebted to the music, the music of language as well as direct references such as "Lost in Music by Sister/ Sledge and Good Times by Chic" left playing in an empty room as "an offering" in Music for Ghosts.

That there isn’t a Side B is also typical of this deeply absurdist poet who claims: “The dog down my street knows Morse I swear... I know him by his barks alone.” When the dog sings of the Yellow Bittern, readers might suspect this is a portrait of the artist as a dog: “Maybe the dog is not the author of his own words but prodded into barking in Morse.”

Dog Morse is one of several canine poems – Lost Tiger balances fabulously, hilariously between the real and surreal:

The neighbourhood lost-pet pole, like an emerged
periscope from a subterranean lair of despair...
this week a lost tiger, with peregrinating detail
about girth, stripes and a little asymmetrical
white mark...
as if there was a chance a different lost tiger
roamed the neighbourhood. Fifi she answered to,
apparently; could be 'awkward' around Jack Russells
and weighed so much 'can cause damage when playful'.

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Again, in the beautiful Prayer Service, dedicated to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Cotter’s imagination is at its transformative best, travel fare becoming a banquet “At Heuston Station the chef/ of the Galway Hooker spooned champignons, white pudding,/ ham, onto my wide-brimmed plate before I left for the mosque...” before moving quietly to a graceful ending:

...you, praying now above me in the high gallery
with all the other scarf-covered women like some old scene:
an Irish church you and your beloved were banished from.

It is not often that a poetry collection uses white space with such effective intent, but to open Doireann Ní Ghríofa's To Star the Dark (Dedalus, €12.50-€20) is to see a negative of the night sky, spare black type starring the pale page. Mirroring abounds, the use of the archaic "o" in particular in the haunting Brightening, a reimagining of Austin Clarke's The Planter's Daughter, is writ large in the concrete poem Dancing in the Demesne, which consists of one sentence in a large ring.

History is circular and how we inherit and repeat beautifully enacted in the repetitive form of Triolet in an Inherited Plastic Laundry Basket: “but the garments you fold aren’t yours, are they?” Eggs recur, capsules of fragile life beginning with While Bleeding, in whichNi Ghríofa tries on a red vintage winter coat “...far too expensive for me,/ but the handwritten label [1915]” and meditates:

This pocket may once have sheltered
something precious: a necklace, a love letter,
or a fresh egg, feather-warm, held gently
so it couldn't crack, couldn't leak through seams,
so it couldn't stain the dress within.

Science and technology (there are two fine poems about mobile phones) provide hard structure, a concrete reality – “Suppose the professor explains: derelict/ workhouse – Famine-era – a mass grave/ In his fist, a broken grin.” (A Jaw Ajar) underpinning tremendous expression of enigmatic time, never so terrifying and exhilarating as when it trumpets its alarm from another laundry poem:

all I could see was washing machines,
as though many clock-faces had sprung open
to give a glimpse of cogs and springs,
all spinning, all whirring in foamy momentum,
every Tuesday afternoon, when I lived in the distance.
(Hearing The Boatman's Call in a Boston Laundromat)

Grace Wilentz's debut The Limit of Light (Gallery, €11.95-€18.50) is quieter yet shares many concerns with Ní Ghríofa, not least a keen eye for where the line should end:

The line is the line,
sometimes it runs without stopping –
it's a different line if you stop.
(Doodles)

Three powerful lines, especially in this collection about the life and death of Wilentz’s parents. The opening poem, On a Gallery Bench, begins with a directive: “Picture the world without you in it – / two figures on a gallery bench,/ in a chamber of the Central Park Zoo.” It ends with “a snake sliding up a branch”, a foreshadowing of her father’s early death. Later, in a trip taken by Wilentz with her mother during the latter’s cancer treatment, the reptilian image returns in reality:

At the till the proprietor asks –
did you see the shadows
all along the gravel shoulder?
They're 'gators.
We recall what we thought were
the blown-off tyres of eighteen-wheelers.
(The Everglades)

Wilentz drops bombshells quietly; every observation has meaning and direction. The central section is a daring reimagining of her mother’s cancer treatment where Wilentz’s mother’s calluses are smoothed with a stone from Vesuvius, a potent metaphor for her father’s sudden death in The Deal. As with Ní Ghríofa, inheritance is key theme, the past always present even when “Equilibrium returned through kissing...” as Wilentz begins to heal and make new connections even when the lovers are mugged at gunpoint:

And when finally I slept I dreamt
of repeating the words:
please don't hurt him,
how my rucksack
floated from my shoulders,
and the disappearing rain,
then woke to you feeling
for the calluses on my fingertips, smiling, saying:
from where you hold the pen.
(A Year with Two Springs)

"Should you have only one life, live it as a taboo," says Wanda Coleman in I Ain't Yo Earthmama, from her new collection Wicked Enchantment (Penguin £9.99). Coleman isn't anybody's anything; she's Wanda, cutting through shame and inhibition with blazingly original wit. Wanda in Worryland opens the door to a collection like no other:

...i have gone after people with rocks
i have cursed out old white lady cart pushers
in supermarkets who block the aisles in slow motion...
i have gone after people
with poems
i get scared sometimes
and have to go look into the mirror to see if i'm still here
(Wanda in Worryland)

Within Coleman’s particular work is an overwhelming universal feeling. Her inventive voice never rests, she covers the personal, political, historical in sonnets, monologues, ballads, comic strips, even a Male Order Catalogue:

red-violet green & white synthetic polished cotton-look, angel
sleeved
maternity-topped pantsuit, size 12. Ray. munchies. cognac and
purple haze. psychedelic soul. $15.00. stoned at the laundromat
he came over to tell me how good i washed/his eyes

She is introduced as “a great poet, a real in-the-flesh, flesh-eating poet who also happened to be a real black woman” by the poet Terrence Hayes, editor of this just and significant collection. Her poems go off like flares, more relevant than ever:

They came knocking on my door at 7 a.m.
they had a warrant out for my arrest
'what's your name? where's your identification'
i was half naked so they didn't come inside,
figuring they'd caught me mid-fuck
they were right
coitus interruptus LAPD is a drag
i showed 'em alias #3
they said 'oh, well where is she?'
i said, 'man, she was staying here, but she
hooked up with some niggah and split'
'ok. ok.'
they left
i went back into the bedroom
you were naked and still hungry, curious
'what was that all about'
'nothing'
i laughed, took off the rag i was wearing
eased into the sheets next to you
we started fucking again
but things had changed