Poetry: Opening the world in intimate, surprising and revealing ways

The title of Sara Berkeley Tolchin's What Just Happened (Gallery, €11.95, €18.50) catches the way in which her poems emerge out of events and moments when the poet is caught unawares or somehow reminded of another life, as when she sees, in Swan Geese, "two geese/ fly honking over the hot cars/ in the Target parking lot", an image which leads her to observe: "Something should arise / from their regal passage over/ the cheap jewellery of Vintage Oaks/ mall and parking emporium, / even if it's only this."

Berkeley Tolchin’s sense of vocation is both process-based and serious. If something happens that can be made into a poem, she seems to be saying, it is her work to make that poem, albeit she couches the ensuing poem in modest terms (“even if it’s only this”). That sense of openness informs all of her work and it is no surprise that so many of her poems take place in in-between spaces, in car-parks and on beaches, or that she is often mid-journey when she writes, flying across the US, driving or sailing. Getting a grip on the ordinary locations where life is lived, she runs a risk by using language that is humdrum until she turns her attention to more philosophical questions:

Should I grow older

and the light more distant,


small animals hiding under the skirts of


I’d like my heart

to be without conditions,

to crack each day a little more open.

(Cracking Open)

And this poem, like many others in the book, is strengthened by an undertow of sadness which the poems acknowledge without being overwhelmed by, as in fine poems about patients she has nursed, a pair of elegies, The Last Word and On Not Scattering Michael's Ashes in Death Valley, and a series of poems about mothers and daughters. St Laurence's Ward powerfully imagines one scene,

When I hugged my glass mother with her

slippery slopes

one time before she gave up her ghost

she was pulling at dawn’s chains, she was


at the children only she could see at the

end of the ward.

Jane Clarke's first book, The River (Bloodaxe, £9.95), is carefully made and clearly describes a place in which the poet's memories of her parents are rooted: farm buildings and the fields around them. Taking her cue from Patrick Kavanagh's line that "Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge", Harness Room recreates: "the tattered coat on a hook by the half-door,/ the bucket of beastings, infra-red lamp, / the can of crimson paint and C-shaped brand// for the furrowed skin of newborn lambs", while White Fields ends with a forceful series of images of a father who, "When the children came, stayed longer / outside, always a lamb or a calf to mind, / a fallen wall that needed him."

Occasionally, Clarke pushes her images towards a symbolic closure which subsumes her well-observed images into a more schematic argument, as when the child speaker of The Globe drops the classroom globe, an image the poem does not need to gloss with its closing line, "a crack, a hush, a broken world rolls". The telling clarity of her images is better utilised in a wry poem like Back of an Envelope, when the poet's mother rings to say her father left a note – "gone herding, won't be long", to which the mother responds by saying:

Where did he think I’d think he was


All those years if I asked where he was


where he had been, he’d act like I had

tethered him

to a post, and then today he leaves a


Such sharp observation would not be out of place in There Now (Gallery Press, €11.95, €18.50), Eamon Grennan's 10th book. Grennan's style is so distinctively textured, one perception following another, that readers will feel as if they are at his shoulder or in his place as they observe, in With Rainbow and Two Ravens,

the opening fanning rising

into such breath-taking long glides they


to shout for the sheer joy of it . . . or so I

imagine –

keeping sky-watch through binoculars

from my own plot (grounded below their

high jinks)

and plotting (one eye fixed on that fading


the ever-shifting distance between them.

The confident detail and concrete scenes and situations of Grennan’s poems have a curious double effect. While we can see the ravens, sky and birder and understand Grennan’s interest in turning our attention away from human and social concerns to a “bigger picture”, there is also a hovering sense that this poem is also concerned with something else, that it is suggesting a way of thinking about our human relationships.

If Grennan's style is to sketch a scene as he goes along, he does occasionally offer something more "complete" without losing his characteristic freshness, as in a beautiful four-liner such as Gone:

The little house grows quiet now she’s

gone from it –

so he’ll set small orange embers of

montbretia in a vase

before the bedroom mirror although its

petals can behold

no more than themselves in the cold

truth-telling glass.

And there is also, as in Berkeley Tolchin's poems, the clear sense that the process itself, the act of writing, opens the world in intimate, surprising and revealing ways: Things in the Vicinity asks why he makes poems at all, its closing image adroitly intermingling allusions (Cezanne, Keats) into a world Grennan both reads and writes for us:

or simply it’s the fact that one minute

in the life of the world this autumn


is as Cezanne says going by! Paint it as is!

that makes me bend again to the page

my live and accidental hand is


John McAuliffe's fourth book, The Way In, is out from The Gallery Press. He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing