"Dad, I've been talking to the dead,/ but no word yet. In my nightly haunting, I gut myself like a fish/ to lay it all out before you. Your wife is as she will be./ There's a hole though, she's shot through spine to sternum// from lack of you." These lines, from Liz Quirke's Love Letter to my Father, one of the final poems in her brilliant and deeply-moving new collection, How We Arrive in Winter (Salmon, €12), have both an unusual and bodily effect, combining straight-spoken vulnerability with a raw, jugular assault.
The familiar revelation of grief – of being undone, unmade, and having to remake oneself around an absence – is handled by Quirke through a distinctive attention to the body, often in terms of its organs. One of the collection’s strongest poems, The Promise of Sweetbread, suggests that the function of elegy is to find hope in rebuilding, to learn how to incorporate loss (in both the literal sense of “to make bodily” and the metaphorical sense of “to integrate”), to recalibrate memory and time, and to find a place for emotions which have lost their physical harbour.
As in Anne Carson’s masterful long poem, The Glass Essay (“You remember too much,/ my mother said to me recently.// Why hold on to all that? And I said,/ Where can I put it down?’), the poems in Quirke’s collection wrestle with the task of crafting vessels of their own.
In December(s), two scenes are presented, a year apart: the first is clipped and stark, and the second unspools, making full use of the page. Elsewhere, there is a cinematographic attention to perspective, so that grief is examined from many angles, all coursing through the speaker: “My father is dirty water sluicing through my veins”.
This is an affecting and assured book, written from the frontlines of mourning, but attuned, too, to the possibility of a future, as in The Promise of Sweetbread, which ends with the epiphany that “there has never been/ such a call/ for light/ as this”.
In Jason Allen-Paisant's Thinking With Trees (Carcanet, €13), the poet elucidates the complicated, historical and political ways in which we approach woodlands: "We are not walking with the same codes are we." The power of this expansive, original book is in its attention to the ways in which a sense of leisure, territory and belonging is an implicit, racialised underpinning in the long tradition of nature writing.
Thinking with trees (rather than “of” or “about”), Allen-Paisant accesses political knowledge that is both rooted in the non-human and radical in its realigning of human history and power structures. Each poem is driven forward by the current of interrogative, lived thinking. In that way, they are both astute in themselves and also generative, providing new models for eco-poetry as it undergoes a necessary decolonialisation.
In Daffodils (Speculation on Future Blackness), for example, Allen-Paisant extends English Romanticism, not so much overriding Wordsworth as carving a pathway for a new vision for environmental engagement in the 21st century. “It’s time to write about daffodils/ again to hear// a different sound/ from the word// daffodil’:
Well you must
try to imagine daffodils
in the hands of a black family
on a black walk
The staccato lineation and unpunctuated phrases, common to all of these poems, weighs both attention and strain, forcing the reader to push further into the path the poet is illuminating. A gauntlet thrown to the world of ecopoetics, Thinking with Trees is an expansive, fracturing, subversive book.
A thoroughgoing critical assessment of one of Ireland's finest poets, Seamus Heaney in Context (Cambridge University Press, €99), edited by Geraldine Higgins, is a valuable collection of essays that acts as both a primer for new readers while also forwarding an engaging, original set of insights. Across the 32 essays here, from scholars around the globe, readers encounter Heaney and his work in the context of various geographies, poetics and traditions. Not only this, but the volume attends to the impact of publication contexts and critical receptions, along with his legacies.
Margaret Greaves, on Heaney’s engagement with eastern Europe, is a particularly careful thinker. Bearing in mind the language barrier between Heaney and the Polish, Czech, Romanian and Russian poets that he read and promoted, Greaves demonstrates how “reading poetry that he could not access through his signature channels led Heaney into more abstract engagements with poetics. Sequestered from his ‘word-hoard’, Heaney’s Eastern Europe rarely materialises into a place; instead, it becomes a set of intellectually, aesthetically and morally enticing ideas related to the role of the poet during political strife.”
Another highlight, Vona Groarke’s essay on Heaney’s use of proper nouns, is a slantwise exploration of the poet’s commitment to materiality. From the bucket to the tinsmith’s scoop, the anvil to the underground, the car to door, this is an illuminating, witty take on Heaney’s lexicon.
Using her keen poetic intuition, Groarke charts the ways in which nouns shift in Heaney’s work, becoming emblematic of his changing imaginary. The “dark” in the title of Door into the Dark (1969) is abstract, but by the time we reach Human Chain (2010), with the collection opening on a door into a dark house, “The dark has shifted from noun to adjective. Its proposition is now more intimate and, therefore, more encompassing.”
It is this sort of nuanced critical work that brings life and real presence to the scholarship here.
Heralding the arrival of an assured and compassionate new voice, Nidhi Zak / Aria Eipe's debut collection, Auguries of a Minor God (Faber & Faber, €13), is a book in two parts: the first consists of shorter lyrics, each meticulously attuned to the page, and the second to an extraordinary and expansive long poem, A is for Arabs, which combines an abecedarian structure with the logic of the Fibonacci sequence.
There is a gentleness to the first poems, carefully undone in places by a wry wit and humour. Often, this is achieved through the composition of the poems themselves on the page: through deletion, typography and revisions which allow for multiple readings. The forms of these poems are hard to replicate in the width of a newspaper column; but take, for example, the ending of Fugue for Young & Fugitive:
But you know how you had me made how you turned me in
to a craven begging
merely a mouthpiece
for your disaffection
By lightening the type of the first letter, “craven” can be read as “raven”; “mouthpiece” harnesses both the erotic and the abusive. This attention to the way meanings can be rewritten, and Eipe’s ability to proliferate them through inventiveness, is a hallmark of her work.
Mobilising theology, global politics and a skilled narrative drive, A is for Arabs, the second half of this ambitious collection, is dizzying in its dexterity and range of reference. Following a family of refugees, this final poem feels at once encyclopaedic and acute, and modulates wonderfully and movingly between the historic and the personal, as when one character
mourns the loss of her
mother tongue, for how language
mutes itself, how is goes
missing; atrophies and rusts -
maybe home is in your
mouth, in the words
One feels, reading Eipe’s collection, along with Quirke’s and Allen-Paisant’s, a shift in poetry, a cracking open of new possibilities. These three voices share an intelligent, inquisitive hope; their work emerging through the sheer force of intellect and imagination dexterously combined.