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Poetry reviews: Liquid Flesh; Was it for This?; London Nation; Radical!

Collections by Brenda Shaughnessy, Hannah Sullivan, Niall McDevitt and Julie Morrissy

Liquid Flesh: New & Selected Poems by Brenda Shaughnessy

“I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do./ Confuse me, ovulate me,/spoon-feed me longing A kind of ancient /date-rape drug.” So says Okinawan-Irish American poet Brenda Shaughnessy in Over the Moon. One of Shaughnessy’s signature poems, it tells us, “But my lovers have never been able to read my mind. /I’ve had to learn to be direct.” Such highwire wit and forthrightness is hard-won.

Liquid Flesh: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe £14.99) is a terrific and substantial introduction to Shaughnessy’s world – sensual, subversive, forever dancing around a series of hyper-aware ludic questions: “Let’s ask a poet with no way of knowing. Someone who can give us an answer, another duplicity to help double the world.” (Why Is the Color of Snow?). Midway through the journey of this book, the questions become faster, furious – Our Andromeda, the title-poem of her third collection centred on her son Cal’s birth injury, is an exhilarating lament:

When we get to Andromeda, Cal,

you’ll have the babyhood you deserved,


all the groping at light sockets

and putting sand in your mouth

and learning to say Mama and I want

and sprinting down the yard ...

You’ll get the chance to walk

without pain ...

Cal continues to be a strong presence, “Everything organised around Cal in his wheelchair ... // Maybe spray paint a Super Soaker metallic silver to make it look like a real weapon?” (Family on the Run). I have a Time Machine immediately qualifies itself, “But unfortunately it can only travel into the future at a rate of one second per second”. The poems get darker, wittier, the lines lengthening yet never losing their rigour as questions pile up with titles such as Are Women People? Her new poems celebrate female artists yet typically Shaughnessy’s last poem turns back to ask, What Have I done?

Was it For This? (Faber £12.99) by Hannah Sullivan

If you can hear the bombs that razed the site,

Old women running out with not much on ...

You’ll see the vacancy it always was,

The eagerness with which all things disperse.

The first of three long poems in Was it For This? (Faber £12.99), Hannah Sullivan’s Tenants, reminds us that Grenfell was built on a second World War bomb site and how hard it is to fight entropy. The title poem, like Wordsworth’s The Prelude from which it takes its title, is a deeply personal investigation of home, “ a duality ... the actual house ... exuberant felt-tip marks on the stair walls ... sofa arms shredded to matchsticks by the cat ... always getting worse ... carpet nubbly and sandy where moths had laid their eggs ... roof leaking on to balled-up towels ... Then the house as an asset, mortgaged, pinned ...” The unrolling of Sullivan’s extraordinary, addictive imagery feels like the back pages of one’s own dreams from “a pigeon ... only two very long toes left ... eating the end of a cream cheese bagel ...” to Pantone’s “most universally disliked colour ... I knew the colour looked familiar ... only made the connection ... in the rear-view mirror ... I noticed my eyes.”

Typical of her slow-burn wit, this image of Sullivan’s eyes reflects a fearless poetry where nothing escapes the microscope. Grenfell (no “asset” for its tenants) stood a few streets away from Sullivan’s flat, “I ... walked north/ It stood ... A blackened shell or husk ... Our disgrace ... changing daily ... crinkled, corrugated, lacy ... close-worked ... intricate ... All the mascara shades the drugstore has/ ... very black to blackest black ...” Contrapuntal lines intensify the poignant last telephone conversations, “The Fire Brigade are coming/Can you quick look please?” or “The stairs are free of smoke/It’s very dark in here.” The refrain “I wanted all of it again” appears five times in the collection until its final reiteration, “I wanted all of it to do again/ to the way things showed/the ends lodged immanently from the start.” (Happy Birthday). Was it For This? is a tour de force that fulfils its own powerful desire on the page.

London Nation by Niall McDevitt

While Sullivan took her cue from Wordsworth, Niall McDevitt was an avowed Blakean. London Nation (New River Press, £15) – launched shortly after McDevitt’s death from cancer in September 2022 – opens with Windows, “1000 windows. 1,000,000 windows. 1,000,000,000 windows/ and so on”. A powerful reminder of Grenfell, Nevitt’s camera-eye dizzily encompasses all of London, “in London, the children of the crystal palace are homeless, /trapped in windows, partitioned by windows./windows multiply/and the population/multiplies in windows.” A poet with a profound social conscience, “money matters are a /baal ... loving technology (as we do) it’s disturbing to think/how much our modernity/is dated and arcane, rotten through” (The Bourgeois), strong rhymes reflect McDevitt’s legendary performances. A psycho-geographer and activist as well as literary tour guide, McDevitt was a poet on his feet, always observing:

The cash-machine helps but is hardly a god

I queue

advised to be suspicious of fellow humans

they suspicious of me

the CCTV helps but is not a god either

the CCTV cannot disarm assailants

the fruits of enlightenment are helpful

but not enlightened per se ...

a homeless man

– lying in rain – tries to break the silence

the queue answers with body language admonishing him with arses, Aquascatum-clad

(Arbiter after Petronius)

Erudite and shamanic, the poems channel dead writers, most notably Thomas De Quincey, whose compassion for the sex worker Ann of Oxford is an expression of McDevitt’s own compassion for 21st-century outcasts.

he cannot drag her up from the dark nor ride with her to Oxford.

he can take a coach to Eton. he cannot drag her up from that cough.

he’ll abandon her to the Beau-Nasties who rent her ... (De Quincy 1821)

Radical! by Julie Morrissy

Julie Morrissy’s Radical! (National Library of Ireland €12) is also preoccupied with space, in particular Dublin ground walked by the Irish revolutionary women erased from Irish history. Stooped, Tripped and Fell centres on the nurse Elizabeth Farrell’s walk through gunfire in 1916, its short lines mimicking the rhythm of a perilous journey, “ ... he asked her/to walk up Moore Street/to the British Army/Alone/ and surrender on their behalf”. Morrissy asks us to imagine that navigation with “ ... an improvised flag /a step/another step/and another ... she gets the British generals to set their watches/ to hers/at times she is blindfolded ... all over the city/to all manner of men/she is robbed by the British /stripped and searched/thrown in a cell ...” The poem leads us step by step to the end:

only to have those very legs removed from evidence

her image erased

the emissary who fabricated the white flag

the only person brave enough to walk up Moore Street alone

caused to vanish

into the thin air

of ‘history’

“The photograph of the surrender in the Daily Sketch erased Farrell instead depicting Pearse standing alone on Moore Street.” Morrissy is a refreshing experimentalist and collaborator, working with designer Shauna Buckley here. A digital version of Radical! can be found in the National Library of Ireland and the glossy physical book is beautiful to hold. Moody, blue-washed photographs taken by Morrissey function as a dimension of the poetry – some are of physical sites such as the Virgin in Burke Place, “ ... and who placed her/in a glass box/who built the fence/who tends the flowers ...” or archival texts like a 1930s advertisement from Royal Liver Friendly Society reflecting Dublin’s present day housing crisis, dovetailing with the preoccupations of Sullivan and McDevitt: “It should be the ambition of every thrifty person to become the owner of his own home.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic