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Poetry round-up: Motherhood, mythology and consuming the body

Reviews: Aoife Lyall, Victoria Kennefick, Inua Ellams

Aoife Lyall's debut, Mother, Nature (Bloodaxe, £9.95), explores pregnancy, loss, motherhood, hospitals and grief in moving lyric poems that amount to an extended sequence – the thematic resonance of the collection is detailed, and shows a thoroughness in its consideration of small moments of private grief.

In the tradition of Leanne O’Sullivan and Rebecca Goss, Lyall has a skill for delicacy and a disarming attention to the body as both porous and isolated by grief. The somewhat exhaustive treatment of the theme means that the collection lags in the middle, its effort to leave no stone unturned creating a repetition that dulls the effect across so many poems, but the voltage and intimacy of the earlier poems is undeniable.

Sometimes, it is in the stranger phrasing, the more unusually punctuated lines, that the poem are most effective, as in No flowers: by request, where the loss of a pregnancy transfigures the speaker into an uncanny and disturbing figure of the earth: “A wake/ for weeks I am the grave they send/ the lilies to.”

One of Lyall’s most effective techniques is the exploration of paradox, the volta-like turning of the lyric and its imagery which makes the best poems here particularly devastating in their contained forms. In Month’s Mind, which charts the mourning of a lost pregnancy, rituals are enacted, painful domestic griefs explored, and the isolation of the parents is reinforced by the in-between of losing a child before birth: “the house you never lived in/ is overwhelmed by all the people who didn’t know to come.”

In another raw and vulnerable poem, Octopus, the image of mother and child is inverted to devastating effect. A crocheted octopus, given to the premature babies to stop them tugging on the lifelines in the neonatal ward, becomes a symbol of lost intimacy:

They find instead the thick pulsing twist
Of an umbilical octopus, and wrap their fists
Around its tentacles, calmed by the curling
Thoughts of their absent mothers.

So I tell the man behind the till it's for you
this plush octopus all tentacles and soft stitching.
Home, price pulled off and care label cut,
I rest him on the marbled coral of my stomach.

Heralding the arrival of a distinctive and assured voice in Irish poetry, Victoria Kennefick's Eat or We Both Starve (Carcanet, £10.99) is daring, visceral and replete with unsettling images. It begins, startlingly, with the speaker eating their mother: the heart, the lungs, the eyes, and finally the brain, which "tastes/ like the sound of sirens you don't know/ are screaming until the suddenly stop". Few collections arrest a reader with such intensity from the opening poem, and even fewer manage to hold that thrill over the course of many poems, but Kennefick's undeniably does.

Desire is conducted through these poems with a sickening force, with Kennefick darting between the surreal and the disarmingly vulnerable in verse that ranges from the lives of the saints through hunger strikes, the Famine, communion and the experience of the female body, all the while keeping the connective thread of hunger.

One of the most arresting explorations in this collection is its consideration of the eucharist, and it seems as though this might be a central motif for understanding Kennefick’s fascination with consuming the body:

Burying my face deep into the pelt of my mother's coat, musk
tussles with the sweet incense of prayer. My head rises as the priest lifts the host –
I see the cut of it, that tiny moon –

I don't want to eat
(any body)

This central image leads to a nuanced attention to the ways in which other things become flesh: not just God, but also the past. The transformation of history, of the lost, the ephemeral, the spiritual, into the material, is handled with skill.

In Beached Whale, the speaker stands astride the dead animal and thinks of her mother crying in a dressing room, “The weight of her past made flesh on her hips,/ the scars of our arrival barely healed”. In this way, the eucharist, the host, becomes emblematic of the ways the body “hosts” the other: communion, from here, can be expanded into a multiplicity of desires and traumas, with bodies commingling across time.

It is a testament to Kennefick’s skill that Eat or We Both Starve can balance this intelligence inside poems that are also great fun to read, full of surprising images, formal dexterity, and a voice both consistent and pliable.

Kennefick's work is also included in the recent New Poetries VIII anthology (Carcanet, £14.99), edited by Michael Schmidt and John McAuliffe, which includes introductions by each of the 24 new poets. Along with Irish poets whose names will no doubt appear in this column again over the coming years (such as Conor Cleary and Padraig Regan), the anthology introduces us to the work of other new poets whose full collections should be much anticipated. Jason Allen-Paisant's poems are attuned to the environment and to the black experience, unsettling the whiteness of contemporary ecopoetry. Maryam Hessavi's inventive verses are playful, incisive and attuned to the tensions between nature and the global, between peace and violence:

we sit, watching
Elizabeth's rose, bobbing its heavy
head as the breeze blows

yellow. We are basking in the sun,
small and mellow, thinking of sharia
and the fiqh of forty lashes

Inua Ellams's The Actual (Penned in the Margins, £9.99) is the poet's first full collection, though Ellams is an established figure on the UK poetry and theatre scene. In the tradition of Danez Smith's Homie, the collection has an alternative title concealed behind the covers, and this deleted title (F**k) begins each prose poem in this sequence of 55.

Opening with the death of Tupac, with the speaker sitting in “the fields of lavender and hawthorn” overlooking Dublin, Ellams draws connections between sectarianism and racial politics, “from Compton to Clondalkin”, the “reluctant messiah” of the rapper speaking to “a fellowship of souls/ hunkered in headphones/ suspended between word and hard matter”.

That suspension, between the imagined and the forceful “hard matter” of the world, is invoked repeatedly in the twists of these poems, the critiques of which are shifting and often surprising. In “F**k/Sympathy”, Christ is “the first Black man lynched / who went viral”; in “F**k/Perseus” masculinity is unpicked as a mythology with devastating consequences. The global and the local are connected through intimate stories and attention to the flesh, the world of theoretical discourse, right-wing politics and international capitalism are thrown into the “hard matter” of their repercussions.

In “F**k/Nestlé”, Ellams is at his most acute in this regard, asking

what’s milk if not primordial waters / what’s a mother’s chest if not Eden / and what is breastfeeding if not the passing of divine knowledge / the baby latching on / learning the body’s soft frontier of flesh

These are poems that sink and dive and swoop, lifting up into “the sky’s unencumbered gaze”. In the best poems here, Ellams reckons with the mythology, empire, constructs and their power, realigning their narratives, focusing our gaze on their consequences. From that simple expletive, they use protest to reframe possibility.

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