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New poetry: Jamais Vu; More Sky; Oh!; and Medea’s Cauldron

Jessica Traynor on new works by Paul Perry, Joe Carrick-Varty, Susannah Dickey and Deirdre Brennan

“Talk about the moonlight then. In your childhood. It was thin as blood.// It was never there.” So speaks a voice in To a Ghost from Paul Perry’s Jamais Vu (Salmon, €12), the poet’s shape-shifting sixth collection. In it, the poet explores how we make and remake memory, and how it makes us in turn, probing the deeper reaches of the psyche and turning up jewel-like fragments in the process. In the opening poem, Puffins in Marlay Park, even the all-pervading atmosphere of lockdown which gives rise to some of the collection’s darker inner migrations can’t prevent the poet’s mind skimming the banks of memory:

Each note of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater traced by my finger and held and guided by yours like the birds the girl travelled across the world to see, like the wind without, or a puffin sky-fishing.

Language, here, is as fluid as memory itself – something to be doubted, but also the tool that allows us closest access to poetry’s shared emotional current. In Birdsong, the Moon, the repeated “yeses” are redolent of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, adding a rhythmic insistence to this dark, languid poem: “The rain the dark the coming night yes and the garden of the clock grown wild.// Yes the moon birdsong hardly. Let me keep my sorrow’s pure. Yes I did a mirage you didn’t understand.” These long-lined poems unspool across the page, glancing lightly against their epiphanies.

This is a collection full of misspoken communications, of echoes and mirrorings. In You Were Saying, the anatomy of a relationship is dismantled through a dizzying raft of platitudes which build in intensity and meaning: “You were saying: I know how to start// You were saying: I gave up my right./ No. No. Not at all.” Jamais Vu is a reminder of the power of perception to expand and contract experience, with dazzling results.


Joe Carrick-Varty

In Life Father, part four of a sequence called The Father Heavens in Joe Carrick-Varty’s debut More Sky (Carcanet, £11.99), the speaker exhorts the father figure – or is it himself? – to “Get up from the settee. Close that empty fridge./ See the years of letters at the door?/ Gather them up.” This gathering serves as a poignant introduction to a collection that is exhaustive in its exploration of routes taken and not taken towards a defining tragedy in the poet’s life – the loss of a father to suicide. Here, memory is a pool to be dived into and explored, its permutations interrogated until the poet must admit that some consequences are fixed, as in In Amber, where the gap between the here and the hereafter can only be bridged by dream:

If I could reach I’d pluck a silver hair from your arm,

just one, like a dream’s very own pinch,

a dream we’ll both wake from, at the same time,

on the sofa, some film playing …. did you feel it too?

The collection builds towards an extended sequence, sky doc, in which suicide itself is personified, bleeding into family life, inflecting every action with a tragic finality. These sparsely written, surreal poems address class, domesticity and cycles of violence with a lightness of touch that allows them to strike surprise blows to the solar plexus: “Once upon a time when suicide was the simplest way/ of saying honey please take the bins out/ like many kids the first person/ to punch me in the face was my dad”.

In spite of these darker musings, this is a collection imbued with belief in the imagination’s power to heal, and in the strength of alternate endings where, on a sister’s graduation, “my dad who never gets to see this/ booms her name turns every middle class head”.

Susannah Dickey

In Susannah Dickey’s latest pamphlet Oh! (Lifeboat Press, £6.50) the occasion of ordering a calf’s head in a Parisian bistro unleashes a kaleidoscope of language, in a sequence which showcases the poet’s already inimitable style. The calf’s head, it’s very thingness, is contrasted with the mystery of the absent body (and neck) in a phenomenological inquiry that rattles our certainties. Juxtapositions of image and idea come thick and fast:

… all that distinguishes

manifestations of wisdom from butchery or stage

magic is a timely interruption by a mother. All that distinguishes stage magic

from butchery is speciesism! contortionism!

The poet joyfully contorts language in their repeated forays into the question of the calf’s neck, which is compared to Petrarch, a Mandelbrot personality test, the schnapps of the Marsy fountain, and a host of other whimsical possibilities. The tone is freewheeling and breathless in a manner that suggests a mind creating itself through the power of endless association, occasionally ricocheting off its own limitations:

…The calf’s neck

was alluding to its potential for necklessness,

but also, also its opposite! And the calf ‘s neck was like

my neck, in that I will never see my neck.

These meditations on what the poet terms “the baroque adornments of possibility” are interspersed with introspective passages which consider the concept of time (“Time, go back in your nut! Time, go sleep in your shell!”) situated in an uncanny version of pastoral landscape: “And in a country park a lake’s surface decapitated/ two swans, and the stopped Ferris wheel was right//twice a day, and the branches shielding /from impromptu spring were replete with piggy blossoms!” Seen through Susannah Dickey’s eyes, the familiar becomes strange and mundane spaces open into unforgettable vistas.

Deirdre Brennan

A chorus of women’s voices sing in Deirdre Brennan’s Medea’s Cauldron (Arlen House, €13). Brennan is 88 and her frame of reference is expansive enough to reflect both her rich lived experience and showcase her sharp, inquiring mind. Her explorations of women figures through history and mythology, including the Harvard Computers, the Goddess Athena, botanist Ellen Hutchins, witches and the contested figure of Medea herself, are as reverent as we might expect, but earthy and immediate too – these are not distant deities, but rather figures to be turned to in times of need, as in This Autumn:

Oh that my veins could be filled with the medicine

from Medea’s cauldron of plants and roots, spices

and seeds, fox’s heart and the pulp of mandrake

drawn shrieking from the earth, that will keep age at bay…

Brennan’s background as a skilled Irish language poet bleeds into the work, imbuing lines with a rich musicality best showcased in the moving poem Stillbirth, a translation of her own poem Marbhghin:

They told me to take a photograph of you,

told me to look at you

when I didn’t want to look, speak to you

when the talk would have been one-sided.

The theme of grief is expanded upon in a suite of poems which chart the ageing of a loved one, capturing late-life anxiety and that strangest of transitions towards death – in Retreat, the “many voices of the river rise over” the poem’s subject, “like a child’s red balloon”, creating a poignant contrast between parallel journeys to earth and air. In Uzes, the distance death places between the speaker and her subject is captured: “Light folds its wings and dives between trees./ You follow it to darkness/ and I must tread on bird shadows to reach you.” These wide-ranging poems capture life’s transitions with clarity and grace.