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Poetry round-up: Leland Bardwell, John Kelly and Denise Saul

Neil Astley and Brendan Kennelly additionally select 100 classic poems

There's not one wasted word in My Name Suspended in the Air: Leland Bardwell at 100 (Lepus Print, €20). Leland Bardwell's diamond poems cut and sparkle more than ever – set beautifully here by editor Libby Hart with reflections from 33 women; some relatives, some good friends, mostly poets. Each choice, each introduction rises beautifully to its own occasion. Typically, Mary O'Donnell chooses the zany, rebellious A Prayer for All Young Girls, placed first like a tuning fork, ". . . Dear God, make me easily bored,/not tolerant, hard-working, energetic . . ." working succinctly through its nine short lines, ending:

Dear God, make me rich, taxi-minded, expeditious,

vicious at the right times.

Make me please, dear God,

a thorough-going sex-ridden bitch. Amen.

This is Leland Bardwell, hilarious and wise, her ear sharp. True humour is allied to hurt and darkness, and when Leland draws back that curtain in her own inimical theatrical style, it is breath-taking:

A dog should die outside, the others said

but I had taken her

scrunched up in my arms,

hidden her in the shed.

We lay together in a shroud of hay

holding death aside

like the curtain in a theatre.

But then it came: the blood.

It spurted from her mouth,

spurted on the flagstones

like a string of beads…

(First)

Her dramatic sense is impeccable, often reminiscent of Anna Akhmatova and indeed her love of Russian literature is mentioned in many reflections here. Here is Leland at her theatrical best, opening yet another curtain, We Don’t Serve Travelling People, chosen by Fionnuala Gallagher:

The barman attacks the counter-

his dry cloth bolting in fury

along the plastic beam.

His eyes like electric studs

fasten on to me –

I feel the familiar pain.

‘We don’t serve travelling people

or prostitutes . . .

Leland travels on, a true voice, more relevant than ever, much loved.

John Kelly

Saints are never just local colour in a John Kelly poem, they earn their place in a dense pattern of meaning. In Raygun, the first poem in Space, (Dedalus €12.50), a young Kelly prays for a mink's safety , summoning "a black Peruvian Saint" – St Martin De Porres, protector of animals – linking him neatly to the "shadow of a Martian craft". Space and magic jostle against reality and wildlife in particular:

There’s a touch of alien craft about the woodcock –

the helmeted head, the set of the eyes,

the bill a transmitter and probe.

(Woodcock)

This woodcock could be an emblem for Space because this is a collection buoyant with flight and wings and all kinds of craft – and again the skilful use of the double-meaning “craft”, adds density and surprise. Like all soul music, Kelly’s poetry works because it gets down in the dirt, it deals with the concrete, transmitting and probing very ordinary moments with precision. Here in Woodwork, his mother removes a splinter from his carpenter father’s hand:

Quietly, he’d watch the news

but I’d see him bite his lip

as she worked some skelf of spruce

gone in awkwardly and deep.

One of two long stand-out poems (the other one is about the death of his mother), St Joseph of Cupertino “aka the Flying Friar –/Franciscan ecstatic and carpenter’s son” is working very hard here, a terrific symbol for another carpenter’s son concerned with flight, “My father loved the story of Icarus/ He’d tell it with a sketchpad on his knee/ so he could draw for me, with a 2B pencil, the falling boy.” A story of inherited “craft”, it ends, close to the Earth in a “banjaxed” shed, “My father’s tools are stored here now/ some bought with his first apprentice wage./ With this hacksaw, rule and mortise gauge/ I could make myself a holy picture.”

Denise Saul

There you are, beside the telephone stand,

waiting for me in a darkened room

when I force open the white door.

There you lie, behind it.

Here in the title poem of in The Room Between Us (Pavilion £9.99), Denise Saul strikes her minimalist, eerie unforgettable note. A true stylist, Saul is somehow both delicate and bold, her prose poems studied, her lines impeccable. The primary carer for her mother after her stroke and subsequent aphasia, Saul breaks language right down to the barest bones, "I said clopidogrel and you said cabbage./ In the afternoon, you mentioned cardigan and did not budge/ from this word." In that plainness, complicated love blazes, "I rub handcream into the back of her hand, starting at the wrist and working away from the heart. The nurse told me that it was better to massage away from the heart . . . opens her left hand . . . I pour . . . cream in her palm. She massages the back of my hand." A strong mystical note freights each poem, "Even the wheelchair carried her presence in its arms and back." (On Sitting).

Ultimately as in a fairy tale, language is power and sometimes withholding is the only power left to the patient, “The women hid their tongues when men did not listen to them . . . //The women answered questions with their feet and eyes.//I looked for comfort at my sister but she was reading the leaflet.” (The Meeting). One juxtaposes the scientific discovery of “Australopithecus afarensis / More shovels arrive in the morning.// . . . workers dance to The Beatles/…/They drink a bottle of Shiraz; they christen her Lucy.” with a mythical grandmother who leaves a village against advice, wearing, “black obsidian/even though the desert cracked beneath her feet./The belt was carved from the upper delta/and an emerald stream ran down her back.” Like Lilith in Eden, Saul doesn’t name like a coloniser, she listens, her silences are powerful.

Various

The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me (Bloodaxe £14.99) – 100 classic poems, chosen by Neil Astley and Brendan Kennelly – is all about the conversation. "Poems are usually talking to somebody, something, some feeling . . ." Kennelly writes in his key essay on Delmore Schwartz's The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me. "This . . . bear . . . this disheveller 'In love with candy, anger, and sleep'' weighs down Schwartz, "'Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar' . . . because he's aware of 'the darkness beneath' . . . the poems in this anthology are based on . . . poetry (as) a kind of dialogue . . . to . . . something other . . . beyond or within the self . . . a . . . passionate . . . private connection in a world characterised by . . . disconnection."

The conversation between Kennelly and Astley, which began in 1996, spawned a special collaboration, showcasing Kennelly’s signature passionate stance. “Some of the best poems in English . . . are built on an I/You relationship – the rarest and most difficult there is . . .” Astley writes movingly in his turn about those conversations. Kennelly’s failing health meant that their work was unfinished – yet this is a substantial biography. Beginning with Thomas Wyatt, ending with Eavan Boland, each poem is accompanied by a rich, insightful slice of biography from Astley. Because there was no time to work on the later poets, Astley regrets that it is “not as representative as we’d hoped it would be for the modern period”. Not every poem has a commentary from Kennelly but the existing commentaries are charged with Kennelly fire. His Houseman poem was chosen because it “steps outside . . .” Housman’s “customary heroic nostalgia . . . when I found this one, I believe I found Housman . . .”

Good creatures, do you love your lives

And have you ears for sense?

Here is a knife like other knives,

That cost me 18 pence.

I need but stick it in my heart

And down will come the sky.

And earth’s foundations will depart

And all you folk will die.

(Good Creatures)

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