Poetry reviews: The strangeness of being just one person

The verdict on collections by Elaine Cosgrove, John Murphy and Trevor Joyce

Elaine Cosgrove's Motorway begins like a response to Simon Armitage's interplanetary Zoom, "It starts as a communication: four trees in an arc-like bow, on a hillside in the sun". But where Armitage's poem reflects on language and infinity, Cosgrove's zoom lens turns our attention inward, and what she finds is equally mysterious, "riding the (seemingly) direct motorway. / And as [the scenes] hurdle by, an overlay of my face stares back – waiting to disappear." Throughout her debut collection, Transmissions (Dedalus, €12), Cosgrove returns to that elusive, "disappearing" point of view: her best poems try to figure out and communicate the strangeness of being just one person.

Cosgrove's poems admirably (for the most part) dodge smoother rhythms or panoramic views. It doesn't always work: Hush and Fall Asleep to Fantasy, set in "Galway on Ladies Day", indulges stray, looser rumination, "This is the apocalyptic discipline we give over / on a vision of 'class' for one day"; in A Stab at Love the material is, conversely, forced into emphatic line-ends ("brush-drum rattle" following "popped-rock tongues"). But Cosgrove forges a sound of her own in poems such as Rumi with Shams ("A forecast for doom is in your transit – / is in your up-and-leaving all the time.") And in Yen, it feels as if she is twitchily testing rhythms and vocabulary as the poem impressively shifts tones: "You need the bluster blur of cars / banging past on a town road / to act as a backdrop to the scene / of yourself / heliolatric and bijou, / still as a painter's portrait hanging out / on time you've made organically. // No one is expecting a deadline; they are in silent mode profile."

John Murphy begins his second book, The Language Hospital (Salmon, €12), with an admonition: "Do me a favour: shut up about your father." (Bird). In spite of this opening line, he does include tough poems about fathers and various kinds of turf war. There are literary fathers, too, in this allusion-packed book, although a poem such as Augustine on the Beach remains too august, and not as alert or vivid as poems about family and memory. In Flights and Lotus, stop-start opening lines set up something tender and expansive:

No one knows you. And you know no one.


Not even your children. But life and history

are lived one day at a time, and rather than lie alone

on your bed with an unlit cigarette, go to your children,

tell them a story, someone else’s, or one

that comes to you like a long forgotten song

your mother sang, days before you were born.

In Map and Atlas (Salmon €12), Joan McBreen writes from a similar, injured perspective on family and landscape. The book travels the world, but most often dwells on a familiar, west of Ireland landscape. April in Rusheenduff sets out the tone and mood of the book: "among snarls of weeds / and rough stones, / garlands of mountain creeper / weave their black roots." The title poem recognises solace in this bleak landscape: "Only a handful of flowers would do – / bird's foot trefoil, selfheal. // I put these wildflowers / of the west in a stone jug / on my windowsill. Without map / or atlas I send them to you." McBreen's poems are nagged by "afflicted lives / of others" (Nights), although the book's most ingenious poem is Wood Pigeons, who "think their endless / coos are worth // all there is to sing about", who "steal the sounds / of even black crows" and "believe / there are no rules".

Trevor Joyce is more historically relativist in his approach to the landscape, and to language. His latest is the punningly titled Fastness (Miami University Press, $17) and "translates" the closing pages of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. In his introduction, Joyce tenuously outlines his family connections to Spenser, and also discusses vocabulary he has used as "beyond the precincts of the Queen's English […]an artificial dialect."

The result is a rapid sketch, A Dummy’s Guide with extra jokes, which has the benefit of clearing up the story but loses Spenser’s subtler effects. Beautifully produced, with Spenser’s original stanzas on the facing page to Joyce’s “translations”, the reader can’t help glancing across from, say, Joyce’s “Startled, Diana rushed / out of the treacherous/ waters, and by the echoing / bellowing, found him / in his illicit hide, and trapped / him like a dazzled lark there” to Spenser’s “The Goddess, all abashed with that noise, / In haste forth started from the guilty Brook; / And running straight whereas she heard his voice, / Enclosed the bush about, and there him took, / Like darred Lark.”

Michael Symmons Roberts, winner of Forward and Costa Prizes for Drysalter (2013), returns with Mancunia (Cape, £10). Like Trevor Joyce, he is conscious of history's shifts and in the under-the-radar slippages of language, but is more than a satirist, trusting puns and homophones to take him, in this book, from Mancunia itself, via Utopia, to Manchuria, Manuka, Manichean, Manumission and Miss Molasses, which describes, on one level, the transformation of Salford Quays.

It is also one of the book's many scenarios where what is invisible, Miss Molasses herself, is credited with as much presence as the physical world: "our best guess is / some mesh of sun, brine and cargo-spill at the mouth of the Mersey / where it lips the Irish Sea, an accidental alchemy of salmon smolt / and roach, tobacco, sisal, mangrove bark, cotton seeds and copper, / this all conjured her, our shy chimera". The alchemy is typical, as is the magician's cloak of I Shake Out My Coat, which doubles and redoubles in size, "trench coat, cloak, / black wedding train, tarpaulin, tent", as Symmons Roberts, a poet who reaches for transformations, situates a terra incognita at the heart of the visible world.

John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing