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Poetry round-up: Audrey Molloy’s curious sensuality makes even the difficult moments deeply pleasurable

Plus new poetry from Justin Quinn, Catriona Clutterbuck and Andrew McMillan

Audrey Molloy's The Important Things (Gallery, €11.95) begins with a game, "…called Musical Wives/ and she was ahead. We sat in our bias-cut slips,/ sipping vermouth in bare feet and lipstick,/ and she told me his genitals looked different…" (The Apprentice). This is Molloy's signature note, tactile, playful, rueful. There is a sense of explosions ahead, yet death and divorce are brightened by Molloy's curious sensuality which makes even the difficult moments deeply pleasurable:

There's a word in Scots Gaelic – sgrìob 
which refers to the tingle on the upper lip
just before you take a sip of whisky.

We are talking – after the burial,
now they've allowed funerals again 
across a table no bigger than a dinner plate
about those we've lost to the virus…
(The Important Things)

Part Two begins with an epigraph from Bernard O'Donoghue's haunting translation of the medieval poem The Move, "No one knocks any longer to ask/ how she likes her new house/ or how she has arranged her sweet furniture." Its main subject is Molloy's mother, who died in Ireland as Molloy's late pregnancy prevented her from travelling from Australia. That birth is as painful as it is exhilarating, "…A boy, the doc/ says, aren't you clever, as if this were my doing, and he/ looks at me with his hard, blue eyes that say, you see/ now, what would have happened if the shock brought/ it on? And so, Mother, you have a grandson. You, who/ longed for a big family of sons and had to make do with/ two girls — a perfect, pinked-up, rose-madder boy."


In poems such as Debutante Dress and His Hybrid Tea Roses, Molloy’s verbal dexterity pays tribute to her mother’s artistry:

When my mother taught me how to knit
I practised until I could turn out blackberry
and trellis in my sleep.
She also taught me how to debone lemon sole:
split the flesh along the spine,
lift the lattice bone.
(The Irish for Yes)

who was it showed you?
who gave you the key?
your not-self sick-self
the long worm body
of your blood wrapped
tight around your brain

Astray in history

The years go by in millions in The Metals, the last poem in Justin Quinn's Shallow Seas (Gallery, €11.95). His title comes from this fine poem, a meditation on the Dublin coastline, but European forests dominate the collection. Iambic pentameter and a recurring deer motif bring Wyatt to mind. There is a sense of Dante too but if Quinn is lost, he's revelling in being astray in history, among the trees and wild flowers.

As Quinn stares at the deer in Heart Song, a slow-motion moment centres the poem:

But for a while we're here. Stock-still. Alone,
except for swarms of polyphonic insects.
It lays down beats to do with dying and sex,
beats I can't hear (I only hear my own).

The “beats” are particularly felt and resonant as the poet confronts the real-life muse and as the poem pulls to its rueful halt very much in the 21st century:

I take my pills years after it is gone
and hang around here trying to catch the words.

In Platform, as Quinn contemplates the palimpsest of cultures along with the flora and fauna – past and present – of the ancient Austrian mountain village of Hallstatt while running laps, “I heave in air and then exhale./ Out of my mouth, wraith after wraith.”

In one of the finest poems in the collection, classical mythology is grafted imaginatively with science as dryad speaks from the heart of an oak tree – chilling and exhilarating in its strangeness:

Stories, sex: they don't apply to me,
not any more. Perhaps they never did.
The grid beyond the mycorrhizal grid
is vaster, older, like necessity.

There are no stories: there is a green height
and black earth. Between these, only processes.
Trees stand around the place oblivious.
To you at least. They're busy. They eat light.
(Oak Song)

Daughter’s death

Catriona Clutterbuck's narrative of embodied grief, The Magpie and the Child (Wake Forest University Press, $13.95), is rooted in the physical, a sharp visceral presence as the "cloudy black sloes", cause "the dry mouth/ that I'd forgotten for years./ I sucked at it over the Island's bridge…" (The Dry Mouth).

Beginning with her own farming childhood, she moves through spots of time reminiscent of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, showing the growth of a poet’s mind while foreshadowing the death of her 11-year-old daughter:

This is the second hand that scales
the air of thirty years
old cracks in the ashes of the fireplace back,
grained in. We do not, then, carry
this world on our backs –
oh the world, this day, is carrying me.

Unflagging in their strength, these astonishing poems engage with the unbearable loss in Part Two: Threnodies for Emily. Reflections in glass set up an intricate metaphor as the eponymous magpie pecks “with such fury, such dark intent at the shape/ of the other that only you can see in the glass:/ yourself poor bird…” to this prophetic moving image:

Years later I saw my young child running outside in the dark –
my lungs clamped shut, suddenly locking me out
till I realised that she'd been passing right behind my back,
her ghost in the glass the escapee that mocked my fright.
(Trompe De L'Oeil)

Images and form mirror a grief so exact and physical, the reader is compelled to keep vigil, enter into the ritual on the page, as here in the anaphoric quatrains from Threnodies for Emily:

Holy then, the texture of your bare feet
in our last moments with you after our arriving,
as one by one, I slipped from them the white socks you'd put on
and covered you with the blanket they'd provided.

Powerful imagery

Andrew McMillan's Pandemonium (Cape, £10) opens with dramatic intent, with terror, its untitled poem asking "…how many years/ had you carried it/ before you felt it…". McMillan makes that vague word "depression" real, almost unbearable, while the beauty of his powerful imagery grips the reader.

It’s impossible to look away. McMillan’s mind is concrete, physical, architectural, part of the body:

and without its wall of bone behind it
the skin becomes too sensitive to touch
and the brain begins to crease
into smaller and smaller squares making
itself less visible.

Passion play sets the scene close to the beginning, “open audition to be held/ in the corridor of a one-bedroom flat”. Mental illness disconnects, “I say something unconsidered and you lay down/ weeping in the hallway curled up/ by the door like a draught excluder”. And yet the narrator’s body acts as a poignant metaphor striving to close the gap, “I sleep on the tiled floor like a dog/ by your bed.”

This disconnected connection moves through the seven sequences, includes a newborn’s death, “…coffin the size of a pillow…” ending with Knotweed, a sustained sequence of 14 sonnets reflecting the wilderness and disarray within the relationship, “when I made up my mind/ to leave you when the lit windows of each house the train passed broke my heart”. But the “mind” does not feel like a separate entity here, even the house is some kind of body, “had settled as though on its knees”.

Physical and mental journeys criss-cross the sonnet, tangled as the knotweed, reaching a hard-earned satisfying redemption. “Ben I am not/ sure what I mean by this but I’ll spend my lifetime/ coming home to you.”