Poetry round-up: Words of wonder for the natural world

New collections from Moya Cannon, Peter Sirr and Frank McGuinness

Moya Cannon: Whole vistas open up in a handful of words. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The poems in Moya Cannon’s sixth collection Donegal Tarantella (Carcanet £9.99) are ultimately about wonder – wonder at the gorgeous, terrifying natural world around us, wonder at our gift for survival. Not just humans but all of nature as in the charming Post-Box in Wall at Rosbrin where “a cascade of tiny pink flowers…brim from its mouth” replacing the “near-archaic endearments” from the ghosts of letters posted in the past.

The best representative of wonder in the book is perhaps the title poem where in one Donegal “fiddling family/a tarantella was passed down” by a shipwrecked sailor “who, one night at a house dance,/joined in the lilting ,/with a tune from his native Italy ,/to please a girl or/to keep the dancers going/on a floor of beaten clay/a new tune, a gift,/a ringing coin,/tossed into the trove/of Northern music.”

And a story of delight, a shipwreck with music can’t help conjuring up Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that supreme wonder story. Moya Cannon has a talent for the long shot; whole vistas open up in a handful of words. At Three Castles Head We Catch Our Breath begins:

“A flat, faulted slab of cliff soars


and shimmers far above us

then slants far below,

into a young ocean

we call the Atlantic”

Small qualifications like “young ocean” open up similar long shots of time – another point of wonder for Cannon, a master at evoking its mysterious slippery quality. Here space is connected to time and history, balanced against the tiny humans at its mercy. The poem ends:

“…us, latecomers,

balanced between cliffs and flowers,

trying to comprehend both,

trying to catch our breath.”

The centre of this breath-taking world is Cannon’s beloved Donegal, especially its people. Cannon’s unerring pared back poems express this deep knowledge and affection again and again, a true reflection of her “blue-eyed” centenarian Aunt Rose who spoke the word ‘love’ more often,/with less embarrassment,/than anyone I have known.”

"I don't want to count deer, I want/ to count in deer…" – Peter Sirr is as deliciously surprising as ever in Deer, Phoenix Park, one of the eight exceptionally fine sonnets which begin The Gravity Wave (Gallery €11.95). "Antler, Forest, Eyes,/ Stillness, Speed, Hide…I'd like/ this currency to fall between us/where we step invisibly from the car/slipped from ourselves to kneel/grass-lit and concentrated, close to a road/that keeps wobbling and clarifying/like the rim of the world or the end of speech."

The breakdown of language in Joyce’s Oxen of the Sun episode comes to mind immediately perhaps because this is Sirr’s Ulysses-haunted Dublin. Familiar territory is always becoming stranger as he draws on the old touchstone writers, Homer, Catullus, Sappho among others. The Gravity Wave which gives this collection its title is a term from physics. It describes a ripple in the time-space fabric - an apt metaphor for the unsettling enchanting metamorphic wave which runs through so many of the poems like The Now Slice:

“Breakfast is over, you’ve gone to the hard world.

Ulysses struggles from a speaker, nearly dead.

He flails in the waves, a towering headland

staring him down. Where’s help here?

The floor turns stone, the kitchen Mycenaean.”

The breakdown of language in Deer, Phoenix Park is succeeded by Robotics, “Fake poets come up on the fake news/Robot lyrics cram the playlists…” a chilling look – with an echo of Yeats – at how “All these lies make an algorithm of the heart”. This collection is weighted with grief, particularly in the haunting voice of Radio Life and Eurydice Awake – a terrific and substantial poem which transfers the old myth to a modern dystopian landscape, “the paused air where you stand/in the middle of the car park,/the door opening, the car reversing”. Yet Sirr miraculously balances this chilly heartbroken world against a solid belief in humanity and the power of love. The sense of marvel, of possibility is tangible especially in the title poem:

“Where next for this gust

printing itself on your dress,

catching the rim of your hat, riffing

in the strands of your hair?”

Frank McGuinness's The Wedding Breakfast (Gallery €11.95) is deeply reflective. His arresting opening sonnet begins, "That could be me, the red hair man/leading his child, his red-haired child/down the aisle of the moving train/ travelling to Belfast…" The child and the man share "secrets" and "stories" which are "passed from finger to thumb,/ stories that begin, that end on a train/moving to Belfast, travelling from Dublin/where somebody says to himself,/that could be me, the red hair man/ leading his child, his red-haired child."

Frank McGuinness’s new collection The Wedding Breakfast is deeply reflective. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

With its tail in its mouth, its endless mirroring, its small yet distinct drama, it’s an addictive poem, setting the stage for a collection of poems as dramatic and harrowing as the Greek drama which inspires this major playwright. Writing can be an unforgiving vocation as Prayer to Apollo asserts, “Apollo forgives sins ,/all his priests said,/ripping wings from us/like roasted birds.” Epithalamion upends the traditional wedding blessing charting a violent loveless marriage to its savage conclusion as “…children poured/ from them like petroleum./They run a tight ship/carved out of coffins/at each others’ lips,/ just as she imagined/whenever she burned/as he poked and jagged/and she was with him/turned into a herd of jags.”

The savagery is both heightened and relieved by the sumptuous title poem a joyous gay marriage in the Cardiac Unit of Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital. Iambic pentameter rings out at this magnificent celebration where “Needles administer the wedding breakfast./A champagne reception of Lucozade./One groom wore the best of black pyjamas”. The nurse is from Hong Kong, “Rewriting the Bible in Mandarin,/reciting Solomon’s Song in Shanghai,/she brought us two rings, connecting claddaghs,/ through Chinatown, Soho…”

The Hong Kong nurse, the claddaghs and the Bible in Mandarin reflect McGuinness’s large geographical sweep as poems about Machu Picchu and the Ho Chi Minh Trail rub shoulders with poems from his native Donegal like Burnfoot whose waters are identified with the River Jordan, McGuinness, alert as always, to the fine pivotal moments of political change.