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Poetry round-up: Sharp images and blistering words

Annemarie Ní Churreáin has published a second collection called The Poison Glen, plus work from Lila Matsumoto, Paul Muldoon and Tua Forsström

The title of Annemarie Ní Churreáin's second collection, The Poison Glen (Gallery, 72pp, €12.95pb, €19.50hb), is particularly suggestive of the book's concerns. An Gleann Nimhe (The Poisoned Glen) is in northwest Donegal, and comes with legendary allusions. As a note at the start of the collection tells us, it was the place where the evil Balor, king of Tory Island, was killed by his exiled grandson Lugh, the god of light. Ní Churreáin also notes that the name might be the result of a translation error by an English cartographer, so that An Gleann Neamhe (the Heavenly Glen) became An Gleann Nimhe (the Poisoned Glen). Versions of history, the battle of light and dark, the correcting of the record; all are enmeshed into the poems in this ambitious work.

As in Bloodroot, the poet’s 2017 debut collection, The Poison Glen draws on a tense, often violent imaginary. Though the opening poem appears to introduce a long narrative sequence, this is a book of many stories over many times, all linked by institutional violence and social collusion.

Creed is a blistering defence of the power of “the eye-witness everlasting”, to faith in testimony, to witnessing those who “escaped through a crack / in the wall” and ended up in a “dreamless state” of neglect and abuse. It introduces a successful inhabitation of religious language, turning it into a prayer of defiance. What is striking about this poem, and the better poems in The Poison Glen, is when the prophetic, mythic tone is embodied in sharp images:

Are you looking for someone?; and in the cold wave
that rises up through the body, like a shot of lily
to the bone. Like a head full of frozen water.
like a pillar of ice against a closed door


At her best, Ní Churreáin can strike an imagistic rod through the abstract language of “history”, “memory”, “grace” and injustice. In Ghostgirl, “Memory is a curse // that keeps on flowering”, and a house is “sealed up / like a dead girl’s mouth”. In Eithne Speaks of Her Father, “Hindsight is a dirty language”.

Elsewhere, however, the urge to attest to the anger of the poet, and the collective trauma and anger of those written about, leads to a less effective grandiosity: “wiser I am than he / who named himself The Master”; “In their honour / I can never be silent again.” Indeed, Will You Write a Bird for Us? asks “How to spell a ghost?”, and the poet herself seems to grapple openly with the difficulty of capturing such expansive subject matter into poems.

Lila Matsumoto's Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (Prototype, 88pp, £12) is more difficult to categorise in terms of subject matter or theme. Broken into five discrete sequences of poems, it feels as though it is engaged in testing the boundaries and limits of various forms, turning through the prose poem, the lyric, the aubade, and even illustrated poems in the sequence Eyebread. What remains constant throughout Matsumoto's work is a sense of surreality, a defamiliarising of the ordinary.

In Pictorial Programme, the opening sequence of prose poems, the speaker discovers a “toppled valise”, emanating “inexplicable energy” through the “mathematical park” she wonders through. Discovering inside it a large colourful beach towel, then “an imitation toquilla hat” and finally a paperback book, the scene is at once recognisable and skewed by the off-kilter descriptions: “As I poked at the book with a long branch, my dog’s hackles began to rise, giving her body the appearance of an extended cockerel’s comb. As if on cue, a child shrieked with uncurbed joy in the playground, plunging recklessly down the square root slide.”

An experimental poet whose work is characterised by genuine humour and a simmering sense of the ominous, Matsumoto has a sharp eye for an image, and seems to write with a specificity that draws out the uncanny within the real. Elsewhere, the sound of wine being poured is “sleazy”; a distant dog’s silhouette looks like “a fallen tree, noble and tragic”; a man tied to a chair by burglars dials the police using his toe after the intruders have eaten his takeaway pizza.

In her lyric experiments, Matsumoto dons an altogether different address. Rouleau of Songs pushes the musicality of the poem to an almost-symbolist register, and the world of litter and parks and burglaries is transformed into glades “seaming with sorrel”, the city seen as “a body ringing itself with sound”. Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water showcases a poet whose formal experiments are varied, admirable and, taken in succession, full of the unexpected.

Another varied and somewhat difficult to categorise collection, Paul Muldoon's Howdie-Skelp (Faber, 184pp, £14.99) is characteristically packed with allusions. The title of the book refers to the slap a midwife might give to a newborn child: a wake-up call, a form of consciousness-raising. However, Muldoon is a more allusive, tricksy poet than the simplicity that intention might suggest.

We open on somewhat familiar territory – a poem called Wagtail places us in Co Tyrone, family history, snatches of overheard conversation, a deftly-rhymed rural scene; but a closer look reveals concerns with mental illness and the way it becomes euphemised:

Primarily a thatcher, my grandfather knew mange
was a complaint to which his Clydesdales
were all too prone, yet may not have recognized dementia

as a trait of the Muldoons. Sometimes a phrase
such as "Hugh had begun to dote"
will weigh as a Clydesdale's withers would weigh with withies

The opening poem only hintingly sets us up for what’s to come: a spiralling, often sarcastic, funny, nightmarish series of poems covering Trump, migration, Covid, and a series of ekphrastic poems that are often shocking (particularly one written after Thomas Hart Benton’s Susanna and the Elders, 1938, which repeats the c-word nine times).

The best poem in Howdie-Skelp is American Standard, which riffs on The Waste Land to excoriate the American political landscape, from detention centres to sexual assault. In some of the poems, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound appear, attacking a woman in the back of a limo: “Just frat boy stuff. Just having a little fun.” It is intentionally uncomfortable and a brave move, switching as it does between the surreal, the language of newspeak, and the violently real.

An altogether different tone is struck by Tua Forsström's 12th collection, I Walked On Into the Forest (Bloodaxe, 96pp, £10.99), translated from the Swedish by David McDuff. Continuing the spacious, plaintive and acute music of her previous works, this latest book is written through with grief at the loss of the poet's granddaughter. Often it is painful to read in its fragile beauty and the connections it draws between resonant memories and the delicate forms of nature:

A child says goodnight to her new

skates and the bear moss with its thousands
of little green stars in the dark

needs almost nothing.

It is difficult to capture the gentle, rhythmic music of Forsström’s sparse Swedish, but McDuff’s translation, and the space given on the page, allow us glimpses of the imagistic and sonic wonder of her work. This frost-laced, snow-laden and quiet world is both a real and a deeply-storied landscape, and Forsström’s careful navigation is a refreshingly delicate wonder which slows the reader’s pace, mesmerising us as we go.