Poets in periods of transition
POETRY: LUCY COLLINSreviews An Urgency of StarsBy Geraldine Mills Arlen House, 64pp. €12; Dreams for BreakfastBy Susan Millar DuMars, Salmon Poetry, 61pp, €12; Painting the Vestibule,
By Betty Thompson, Scallta Media, 63pp, €12; Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma, By Órfhlaith Foyle,
Arlen House, 64pp, €12; imram/odyssey, By Celia de Fréine, Arlen House, 80pp, €20
THESE COLLECTIONS are all concerned with transitions – between countries, emotional states, forms of representation. For Geraldine Mills in An Urgency of Stars, the transitions may involve a temporary withdrawal from society, the solitary situation of the speaker allowing a process of reflection to re-shape perceptions of self and world. These poems often express a heightened sensory experience or a moment at which human and non-human worlds merge: Foxwomandraws on mythic resources in startling ways, while the observant Attachmentframes ideas of death and re-birth in terms of technology, so that the process of downloading a photograph becomes a meditation on the ageing body: “your eyelid opening wide and clear,/the stained glass behind you becoming itself”. Life processes draw close to writing processes in these poems, and deft handling of formal strategies – the truncated treatment of experience in Changing Ground, for example – emphasise the complex relationship between time and space that informs this poet’s work.
Dreams for Breakfast, Susan Millar DuMars’s second collection, takes as its subject the action of the imagination. Dream and fantasy exert a shaping force here: from Albert Speer’s plans for a garden to Stephen Fry in the role of idealised lover, these poems see the visionary capability as both threatening and whimsical. The best poems extend the lively wit of Big Pink Umbrella(2008), being at once direct and slow to reveal meaning. In Vacant Building, the speaker glances into pristine, empty offices: “Nothing to see/but ourselves staring back”. DuMars is attracted to the repetition of lines, and though this strategy can be overused, it has the potential to destabilise emotional certainties with subtlety.
A similarly arresting plainness is evident in several poems in Painting the Vestibule, Betty Thompson’s first collection. The cover depicts a close-up of stained glass, an image that expresses both the vividness of her language and its attention to detail. In places there is an over-reliance on description at the expense of a more allusive language, but Thompson also shows a willingness to reach to the heart of human frailty and to leave behind the safety of the descriptive lyric. Chatterton’s House, for instance, addresses the act of imaginative connection, the ways in which architectural space can draw attention to the space of the poem itself. Linking the power of visual artwork with the interior processes of the observer in a poem such as Learning to be ‘I’,Thompson engages with the question of how the search for human meaning can be represented.
Another first collection – and another fresh perspective – comes from Órfhlaith Foyle, who in Red Riding Hood’s Dilemmauses her experience of living in Ireland and Africa to challenge myths and social norms, and to address questions of migrancy and of emotional attachment to places and people. Her poetry is highly visual yet also shows an awareness of the dangers inherent in creative engagement. Much of the playful energy here stems from a need to draw an immediate response from the reader: Puss in Bootsoffers edgy surprise but sometimes clichéd images and phrases take from the freshness of perspective; still, a vigorous and engaged new voice is evident.
Celia de Fréine is a writer of great depth and versatility. Her involvement in drama, opera and filmmaking brings unusual energies to her poetry, extending the possibilities of the short lyric and evoking a world in the process of being discovered. imram/odyssey– a dual language text – charts a personal journey to Eastern Europe and engages with the Irish literary form that traditionally recounts voyages to other worlds. Though this is the most unified of the collections reviewed here, it is also the one that questions cultural boundaries most deeply. The subtle tonal shifts not only testify to de Fréine’s linguistic sophistication, but to her openness to new modes of experience and expression. The sense of renewal that emerges in this collection is also intrinsic to the individual poem and occurs differently in the English and Irish versions, as line-breaks are used to significant effect for the postponement and resolution of meaning. The richly textured Irish finds its English parallel in clarity and economy of expression, in the creation of a style that moves easily from personal observation to subjects of historical weight. The amusing dilemma of Eat the Orangeyields to a moving description of instruments of torture in Torment. This change, which takes place in the space between poems, alerts us to the sensitivity of our own perceptions and to the moods generated by old and new revelations. Words in Serbian – a language into which de Fréine’s work has been translated – add complexity to the existing dual language dynamic. The testing of these cultural and linguistic boundaries is both the subject and the practice of de Fréine’s art and makes for some of the finest poems being published in Ireland today.
Lucy Collins is a lecturer in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin