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Poetry round-up: Colm Tóibín’s secret maps of Dublin

Plus collections by Jessica Traynor, Emily Berry and Warsan Shire

The first September of the pandemic.
The sky's a watercolour, white and grey,
And Pembroke Street is empty, and so is Leeson Street.
This is the time after time…

Colm Tóibín's Vinegar Hill (Carcanet, £12.99) begins with his signature light touch; confident, uncluttered strokes set up an eerie scene on a Dublin street. An assured sonnet, September moves to its wickedly funny, terrifying ending when Tóibín encounters a "sprightly" masked elderly man – on the corner. The poet's eye meets:

His watery eye for a watery moment.
Without stopping, all matter-of-fact,
He says: 'Someone told me you were dead.'

We’ve arrived in the Underworld – although Tóibín has been caught in its undertow since the death of his father in childhood. Another fine sonnet, Father & Son, mirrors the father’s illness in the son’s speech impediment. Vinegar Hill is a book of parallels – imaginary and real places merge in Eccles Street, where Tóibín is “Getting the chemo/ In my left arm./It does not make A sound, The liquid. /It might as well/Be Lucozade,/Or Twinings’ nectar tea.”


The Mater Private stands on the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom, a real address containing imaginary lives, “No ghosts lurk here/The room has been sanitized/Against hospital bugs //As much as against/The transmigration Of souls.”

Maps are as important for Tóibín as for Joyce. While young Dublin celebrates the new legislation in Dublin: Saturday, 23 May 2015, two elderly gay men reminisce. The “excitement” is gone, yet their conversation bristles with details of negotiating that earlier underground city, “Secret places with their own/ Rules … That toilet was busy/ On Sunday afternoons … The judge … There were fellows went home/To die …” Now “They texted each other sometimes/And met mid-week in a quiet bar.” A wry dark elegy, a chilling reminder that memory is part of imagination too, “…memories would fade./ The city would become a map/ Of another city/That only they could read.”

Sense of uncanniness

in these dark times when our men
are driven by swallowed sorrows
to make a butcher's block of the hearth
(A Plea for the Sanctification of the Ditches of Ireland)

Reading these lines in the wake of the murder of Aisling Murphy feels uncanny and it is that strong sense of uncanniness throughout Jessica Traynor's Pit Lullabies (Bloodaxe, £10.99) that marks it with distinction. The eponymous Pit Lullabies – there are 10 in total – form a wild, exhilarating backbone to this collection where bone is a key word. A book about motherhood and birth trauma, "your shoulders shut in the door-jamb of my pelvis/what strange skeletons we would have made" (Lessons), its roots are firmly entrenched in the natural world. This is a dangerous world where plants are powerful poisoners, "As she smiles, her shadow gathers/ around his ankles, a pleated skirt" (Hellebore), a world where:

The clever child will carry nothing but their breath,
because the answer to the riddle
of what is safe is nothing no one nowhere.
(Cuckoo Pint)

Dialogue is understated, funny, "The guy at the till says/can't put that back love, it's been touched –…" (Plastics) and descriptions are beautifully, physically precise:
I lower the baby's fist towards her chest
as it unclenches,
only for it to spring back blackberry-firm…

This strong, precise physicality gives shape and architecture to an existential dread that feels close and real. Traynor’s poems, like those of Walter de la Mare, are most deadly when they are pared back, almost child-like:

Mog sat in the dark and thought dark thoughts,
I say, because it is the only thing in any of your books
I recognise as true – a beast, alone out of doors,
and far from home.

Anchored in grief

Get comfortable with death, he said, for we are all
dying. You want something permanent? he said.
There you have death, the only permanence.

says a spiritual adviser in Emily Berry's Unexhausted Time (Faber, £10.99). The mostly untitled poems are heavily anchored in grief, "The past is parked next to me … a dirty van with messages fingered in the grime ..." yet always leavened with Berry's idiosyncratic dark humour and insight. Technically brilliant and coolly assured, yet utterly vulnerable, she is a master at evoking feelings:

What can I do. What can I do to change.
I won't change. I won't change till the day I die.
Downstairs a baby's fury sounds eight,
nine times a day. Her parents break out into
the courtyard to weave the pram in circles…

Structured around responses to other writers, musicians, film-makers, the book’s title comes from an Anne Carson essay, “ ‘Attempts at description are stupid,’ George Eliot says, yet one may encounter a fragment of unexhausted time. Who can name its transactions, the sense that fell through us of untouchable wind, unknown effort – one black mane?’ ” Berry searches for that “black mane”, sometimes hopelessly, “The mind’s self-deceptions inspire awe./Its mountains. Must I walk there/alone, without a guide?” Leonora Carrington casts a heavy shadow across the central section of savagely surreal lyrics but Berry sweeps the reader through the despair with humour and nerve, ending with a joyous summer poem:

…they wouldn't do anything except listen to the songs in their
heads which were sad ones like nearly all good songs…
(No Name)
Never has existential angst seemed so vibrant:
A metaphor is a spell cast to keep us away from the source.
But we go on lowering the bucket into the well.
Afterwards, perhaps, we don't feel so all alone.

Ecstasy through trauma

Powerful metaphors characterise Warsan Shire's Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice in Her Head (Chatto, £9.99), a book of blessings, of ecstasy through trauma, in particular the trauma of the refugee: "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark … No one would choose to crawl under fences, beaten until your shadow leaves you ... Go home blacks, refugees, dirty immigrants, asylum seekers, sucking our country dry of milk, … I want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark." Incantation is intensified by anaphora and the insistent use of the word "bless" in poems in such as Bless the Bulimic or Bless the Ghost. Ghosts are particularly relevant here because to be a refugee is to be haunted, "We never unpacked…" and permanently marked:

The refugee is sure it's still human but worries that overnight,
while it slept, there may have been a change in classification.

Marked by the flight from war-torn Sudan, the narrator’s mother is at the heart of this collection and the blessings, ecstasies are hard-won:

Holy Mother, Goddess of absence,
Our lady of leaving children with strangers…

Are you there God?
It's me, the ugly one…

Bless the Type 4 child,
scalp massaged with the milk
of cruelty, cranium cursed …
crushed between adult knees…

Mama, I made it
out of your home,
alive, raised by the
voices in my head.
(Extreme Girlhood)

But tenderness is expressed in the onomatopoeia of Hooyoo, the Sudanese word for mother. Buraanbar describes a traditional poetic form composed by woman, accompanied by dance. It feels like Warsan’s absolute source. “She whirls… spinning endlessly… tufts emerge from her shoulder blades. The women chant ii kacay, dhiigaa ii kacay, it’s rising… her foot a beak hammering the ground…Adorned in borrowed gold, my mother the child bride sits, unsmiling, unbreathing.”