Poetry reviews: great unmaskings and disappearing acts
New collections by Tara Bergin, Elaine Feeney and Siobhán Campbell explore the ways in which people play with their identities – and become trapped by them
Tara Bergin: ‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’ is an exhilarating read, daring, original and very funny
It won’t help if I tell you this but it might.
I was making this mask for the children.
I was holding the white face in my hand,
its underside around my palm.
I was painting it.
It was not at all frightening.
But as I was doing it I was thinking,
This is interesting.
This is like a physical manifestation of what I do.
I mean: what I do daily in my room.
I held the face in my hand and painted it.
Then I tried it on and said What do you think?
So begins Mask, one of the outstanding poems in Tara Bergin’s brilliant new collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet, £9.99).
Bergin won both the Shine and Seamus Heaney First Collection prizes for her debut, This is Yarrow, in 2014, a book in which her command of voices and ability to generate dramatic momentum seemed effortlessly convincing. So too her new book. Mask dwells on the uncanny power of poems which can put a finger on anxiety and crisis and, somehow, stand back and admiringly dwell on this achievement. That poem continues:
Everyone squealed and screamed.
They all wanted to make one.
Some of the paint got on my hair.
No one cared.
Soon all the kids had made a mask.
They put them on and went around screaming.
Some of them got paint on their hair.
No one cared.
They were both themselves and strangers.
That’s all they wanted.
Bergin likes to try on masks, but she understands that it is not the mask so much as the act of masking and unmasking which is potent. And if the “paint” rubs off on the poet, so much the better.
One of a number of poems about “taming”, Tamer and Hawk, speaks to the opposite dilemma, of being trapped in a single identity:
The bird is wired with little bells.
It won’t take fright:
It doesn’t want to hear the jingle-jangle,
The tamer keeps the hood on.
And Bergin’s masks in this book, which the poet can slip on and off, include other “trapped” figures, one of whom is Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, sociologist and translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose death, by her own hand, was modelled on that of Madame Bovary.
The image of the hand recurs, and, in The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands, Bergin presents us with six translators’ versions of one line of Flaubert’s novel:
If he asks me for her I’ll give her to him.
If he asks for her, he shall have her.
If he asks for her, I’ll give her to him.
If he asks me for her he can have her.
If he asks me for her, I’ll give him her.
If he asks me I shall say yes.
It reads like a puzzle – the pronouns switching places, commas appearing and disappearing from one version to another – but Bergin’s arrangement is deliberate: the climax is the final line, from which Bovary (“her”) has been entirely removed. It is the kind of dramatic erasure Bergin consistently notices, not just in the Marx poems but in other scenarios the book describes, where we encounter a hairdresser, a bride, Hansel and Gretel, Jane Austen, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and a whole series of characters we only know by their first names (Bergin has a genius for such naming, and for titles, as in Making Robert Learn Like Susan).
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx might sound gloomy and, as a title, even mock-Shakespearean, but it is an exhilarating read, daring, original and very funny. Already shortlisted for the Forward Prize, alongside the work of her older and more established peers Sinead Morrissey and Michael Longley, it would be no surprise to see it win. A book this good and this enjoyable ought be part of every reader’s summer reading list.
There are erasures and absences too in Elaine Feeney’s Rise (Salmon, €12), erasures which Feeney is determined to counteract. “I spent one full hour convincing some friends that women said poems in Ireland before / Eavan Boland”, she writes in History Lessons. “The women friends are suspicious. / They have English degrees.” Feeney’s talky humour and chutzpah (see that verb in “said poems”) are naturally fitted to raising issues, including the Tuam mother and baby home in a poem which knows but will not listen to the instruction, “Close over the concrete slab, quickly, blank your thoughts, bless yourself.” (The Harvest).
The book explores darker, more autobiographical areas, too, in poems about illness. The title’s response to trauma is an injunction: “surf the waves rise into them / ride out of them,” she tells her readers, and the verb is moreover a response to the centenary of the Easter Rising, an inheritance of which she is sceptical in Oak, which declares, “I’d like to spend Easter 2016 / birdwatching on the Isle of Wight.”
Siobhán Campbell, too, in Heat Signature (Seren, £9.99) laments a gapped, discontinuous tradition. The Shame of our Island is, she writes, “that we killed the wolf. / Not just the last / but the two before that.” But the poem’s shame and anger lead her to ask, “Is this a wolf with its bared teeth / and its lairy smell / and its fetlock tipped with white? / Is this wolfish?”
In packed, jangling lines, Campbell admits discomfiting (“lairy”) words and images, which predict apocalyptic natural catastrophes: bees are “A brouhaha / if ever you saw one. Tumult of absence, uproar of lack” . . . “Castrati singing in our ears while we sweltered”.
And the poems, like Feeney’s, are situated in a public, national context, which offers an almost formal structure for their experiences: “In this genre beware of a creeping nostalgia. / Nothing grows resentment better than an acre of stones. / An island passport might land you a tax haven. / Then again it could cost you an arm and a leg.” (In their high cheekbones run the veins of a nation).
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing