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New poetry by Amy Abdullah Barry; Kevin Graham; Christodoulos Makris; and Jane Robinson

Reviews: Flirting with Tigers; The Lookout Post; Contemporaneous Brand Strategy Document; Island and Atoll

Explosion of a nuclear bomb in the ocean. Testing a weapon.

Amy Abdullah Barry’s debut Flirting with Tigers (Dedalus Press, €20/ €12.50) is driven by narrative juxtapositions; stories of home and abroad, Malaysia’s Penang and Ireland’s riverine heartlands. However, these poems also abound with sensual contrasts. In the collection’s opening poem, The Breath of the Rainforest, a confrontation with a wild boar subtly spins the poet’s understanding of the world: “Startled, the animal vanishes. I pin/ the breath of the rainforest on my skin.”

In Barry’s poems of migration, figures are transposed from one place to another, and often evoked through the use of scent. In At Grandma’s, the spirit of the grandmother follows the speaker back to land as cheroot-smoke. In Champaca (a Malay name for Magnolia), “…the air is filled with sweet champaca/ the scent mama used to wear on her hair.”

As with any collection concerning migration, there is a keen sense of loss, with Barry mourning the death of parents, and, in Ireland, the plight of a friend suffering from cancer. With a Capital C repudiates the medicalised language of illness and provokes us to confront the subject’s suffering head-on:

“She lies on a couch,


curled up like an embryo,

and repeats the letters,

‘C!, C!, C!’

or perhaps she means ‘See! See! See!’”

In spite of these losses, here is an illuminating understanding of how stories are made by the act of migration. In I Unfold My Own Myth, Barry unpicks the legend of her family’s tiger guardians, reflecting on the fate of a brother “assaulted/ by men who worship violence”. Though the tigers failed to materialise this time, Barry suggests they may be on their way:

“Maybe they’re still travelling thousands of miles

across lakes, hills, oceans, snow and bog –

just to get to me.”

Another debut, Kevin Graham’s The Lookout Post (Gallery Press, €19.50/12.95), is concerned with life at its extremities of grief and hope. Encompassing poems of illness, parenthood, music and ecological concern, it is the latter thread – immersion in the natural world – which weaves these strands together. Graham is a master of the imperceptible turn which elevates a poem from intimately observed miniature to something more cinematic in scope.

The collection’s title poem positions the speaker as an observer, taking as its central image a second World War-era concrete bunker: “Forty days and nights I’ve spent/ in this concrete bunker you wouldn’t/ swing a cat in.” At the poem’s end, nature provides a calm centre in an unpredictable world: “Shags spree//on the wind, fall away in their flight/ as war broods, left to right.”

However, the natural world is vulnerable, and is often a means to channel the frailty of human life in poems such as ‘Science Fiction’, a masterclass in capturing the folding of time that occurs when we are confronted with death: “He rests his skull/ on the pillow like a speckled egg/ in a nest of twig and down.” The poem finishes with the deft imagistic juxtaposition of a flatlining pulse monitor and a vision of a world both beautiful and desolate: “the wide world swimming/ into view without him.”

There are also tender poems of parenthood here, shot through with joy and anxiety magnified by the poet’s sensitivity to the ache of things passing. In Principles of Fatherhood, “…a lark’s nest jammed/ between branches is falling apart”, and as the poet’s child moves away from him in a playground, the poet observes:

“Chirrups on a limb, the world faint with pain.

Where is he going? How far? I follow,

watch him part the brightening air.”

Similarly concerned with eco-poetics is Jane Robinson, whose second collection Island and Atoll (Salmon Press, €12) alternates enthralling visions of the natural world with poems that explore how the loss of our environment disorientates us at the level of sense and meaning. In Orchard Diary of Our Undoing, an account of a world moving towards Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, another letter of the alphabet is stolen from each stanza, leading to an incremental disintegration:

“It is very dry. I fritter away weeks

writing a book about chance and the horse.

Perhaps you fail to notice the slippage.”

Like the proverbial frog in the heated pot of water, we don’t understand what’s happening until it’s too late, and language is reduced to its core sounds: “So, no sons.// On, on.// O”

Our insignificance in the face of nature’s magnitude is demonstrated in Other Victorian Disasters which teases a haunting music from creaking ice floes: “Ice clots scribbled onto ropes,/ ship stove in, winter solid sheets/ of Arctic sea…” The poem ends with a meditation on the nature of experience and forgetting, and prompts us to question our species’ ability to evolve past our more foolhardy tendencies: “Did we gnaw/ the bones of animal companions?/ We have forgotten. We forget.”

Atoll, the final section in the book, positions the nuclear bomb testing at Bikini Atoll as one of the defining moments in the acceleration of man’s destruction of the planet. These impassioned poems include ballads, acrostics and visual poetry such as Begin Present Era, which counts down to its own detonation on the page, leaving us with a haunting image in greyed-out text: “ash in the bone/ ash in soul”. These are formally ambitious, compelling poems which refine and refresh the Irish eco-poetic tradition.

One of Ireland’s foremost avant-garde poets, Christodoulos Makris’s fourth full-length collection Contemporaneous Brand Strategy Document (Veer, £10.99) submerges the reader in the arch – and sometimes frighteningly sentient – language of the internet. The subject here is the self as seen through many online filters, but where the traditional poet’s approach might be a retelling of the Narcissus myth, Makris instead sifts the internet’s echoing fragments. As the collection’s title suggests, these poems are concerned with the commodification of language, and how it can serve as a cunning apparatus to conceal our baser intentions. In ‘cubist debrief’, the mask slips:

“I’ve turned a corner

classically rearranged my face

how hurt and put-upon and sick I’ve been

doubly make sure everybody sees


celebrated tortured artist not a just journalist

just a journalist I mean

a mean journalist just”

Here, and throughout the collection, language is subjected to a wry Freudian slippage, with the speaker’s agenda emerging from beneath the surface of seemingly auto-tuned speech. Makris’s satirical lens makes no exception for poets, and the narcissism of literary communities is skewered in poems such as ‘everybody knows but you’, which draw us into gossip’s echo-chamber:

“look they’re besties now

no matter how

they all know once

upon a time one

kept mocking the other in other kitchens”

The line breaks here suggest a fraught confidence haltingly told, a lexicon spun from deception. Social capital informs all relationships in a world where unfriending someone “…would be a gesture more powerful than my/ extended hand.”

These are tightly-sprung poems capable of startling juxtapositions, as in Paul Scholes’ foot where a meditation on xenophobia, gentrification, and borders both historical and current orbits an encounter with the famous footballer: “keep your enemies close/ and your southern cross-border tactile friends/ reeling for a connection”, the speaker exhorts, before leaving us with the pay-off of the final, fittingly surreal image: “in a pub salvaged brick by brick I stood on Paul/Scholes’ foot.”

In the midst of a moral panic about AI and its threat to writers, Makris’s work is a timely reminder that humour, wit, play, and pathos are all attributes that only human intervention can bring to text.