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New poetry: Jane Clarke, Maura Dooley, Airea Matthews and Dylan Brennan

Reviews: A Change in the Air; Five Fifty Five; Bread and Circus; Let the Dead

In Jane Clarke’s A Change in the Air (Bloodaxe, £10.99) her characteristic understated style is more pared back than ever and distinctively autumnal, particularly in the opening sequence of poems where Clarke describes her mother’s life since her father’s death, “Now that her heart is bent over/like larkspur after a storm,// she stays in bed past milking time, pulling the quilt//tight around her shoulders until her collie barks her//down the stairs.” This melancholy twilight is enhanced by the title although the actual phrase refers to the pit ponies who worked the Wicklow lead mines in the affecting poem Pit Ponies of Glendasan:

Low-set cobs from the Curragh,

a piebald and two greys, their hooves

fall heavy as hammers on granite.


They haul lengths of larch for pit props,

pneumatic drills, boxes of gelignite, and,

from time to time, deliver

injured men back to daylight.

The ponies are “first to halt,/legs locked at a sudden rumbling, a change/ in the air or the rush of running water”. The titular poem is from a historical sequence on the defunct lead mines but it could also refer to climate change. This is a subtle collection which repeatedly goes to earth, from its deep sense of her mother’s impending death through numerous references to plantings.

Potatoes crop up in four poems, most notably in the poignant First Earlies where socially-distanced neighbours call out planting tips as they wait on the road for a hearse during the pandemic. The Arch celebrates an old stone arch, “hewn from rough limestone blocks,/wedged flank to flank by peasant masons” which has “sent off scoundrels,/ barred bailiffs from entry”, ending with a question that feels distinctly existential: “When will it stop trying to hold/ what can no longer be held?”

Maura Dooley’s Five Fifty Five (Bloodaxe, £10.99) opens with Vertaling, meaning translation, “I struggle to balance your words on a silver tray. They tinkle. I fear for a smash and splinters.” She fills each word “with a drop of something/A pinch more? Does the flavour seem right?” – and presents her offering:

Shyly, I raise my tray to you. An offering on tin,

buckling a little beneath the weight.

Dooley’s infinitely delicate poems behave “shyly” but never lose their balance on her tightrope of fine connections. The Welsh bible lies open at the psalms, “knock at the door of this language, its double dds/ and double lls, its simmering beauty, and hear how/to baste and roast it to plump goodness…” (UnEnglished). The passage of time is central, “We are only here a minute” (Blink) as relatives and friends jostle beside a vast number of writers and literary characters, all part of Dooley’s family, living and dead, “today, I open a beaten copy/ of The Novels of the Brontë Sisters (Pilot 1947), only thing left of my Grandmother’s time on earth . . . ” Migration is an integral part of that passage of time whether it’s the London horse chestnuts migrating from Turkey or Dooley’s found poem, Uncle Tom Writes Home.

Time is a circle here as Dooley’s subtle choreography of old words sent to Ireland from California in 1919 reflect with painful exactitude our new world: “We all had it, it was an epidemic.// I am awful lonesome now/ I suppose as you grow older you get lonesome if you have not made a fortune or money enough to fight the future . . . I see all the Powers girls are gone but one . . . A girl by the name of Mary was proprietress when I was home. Pierce Powers wanted me to make a match with her.//He is dead, I suppose?”

Juvenal’s description of Roman rulers appeasing the public with “bread, and the games of the circus” dominates Airea Matthews’s Bread and Circus (Picador, £10.99). Powerfully original poems narrate Matthews’s extraordinary personal story alongside artful erasures and redactions of texts from economist Adam Smith and Marxist theorist Guy Debord. Marriage is one such circus in March 1969 – Matthews’s pregnant mother walks down the aisle, her knee “busted open . . . while an unholy congregation craned their necks . . . swished their church fans, advertising a local funeral home, to watch a lovely commodity reluctantly agree to her own barter”.

Or the “woke and tired” clowns in Cirque Du Sims who “Take copious selfies to recall . . . through/a filter, in a visually fortuitous moment. /. . . wait let me/video this present suffering. /Gather followers like sheep . . .” Bread and Circus is political, fiercely intellectual. Meeting Wittgenstein at the Circus is a rich meditation on the power of words, “menacing weapons” which Matthews wittily parries, defining the N-word for her four-year-old daughter as “an acrobat, a word with double joints”. When “Papa” (who calls Matthews “Boy”) breaks her mother’s arm for serving the corn he hated, “gifted from . . . aid societies . . . symbol of his failure . . .”, Matthews comforts herself with their knock-off copy of Gray’s Anatomy, “I could count to the number 206 from the anatomy book, the number of bones . . . sucked my thumb . . . rocking . . . whispering, ‘It’ll be okay. That was only the 11th. Mama still got a lot of bone left’.” (The Family Room in ‘79). The lyrical, intelligent voice of her complex “ex-communicated ex-navy father” burns painfully bright, trapped by addiction and poverty, utterly haunting, “. . . that Ace is tricky/. . . can play high or low./. . . F**k a pair./Fear that flush./If you see those head cards in order with the same suit grab your baby doll . . . Say: //Daddy, my head hurts. //We make dust, baby boy./ Only lose what little you left.”

Dylan Brennan’s Let the Dead (Banshee Press, €12.99) breaks in half that famous quote from Matthew’s gospel so rather than letting the dead bury themselves, we’re encouraged to let the dead in or maybe consider the impossibility of burying the dead. The title acts as a seed in this rich collection where death becomes cross-fertilisation. Bog Cotton begins with the death of a plant in Ireland: “I picked some/and so disrupted/destroyed anemophilous potential . . .” Days later the poet is back in Mexico where he now lives, “the dried flowers spill out from my wallet/ as I look for a phone number I hold a perianth up . . . place the fragile whiteness/on a windowsill saucer/by the cacti and succulents /to be blown out: /carried when the rains come”.

In Botany, the poet’s shoes “are partially caked in Bogland detritus” from “the Moat Road that divides Dublin from Wicklow” as he runs through Mexico’s Alameda, a formal swampland where “human beings have been requested to no longer gather” during the pandemic – yet “a group of women remain camped . . . under posters and photographs of the recently disappeared . . . weave into the morning a grief so acute it clutches still to a hope: that the state will somehow bring back the dead.”

Brennan’s And What is My Heart, imagines these women mourning their disappeared daughters in his response to the old Irish poem The Mothers’ Lament at the Slaughter of the Innocents, “what am I without my child”. Fertility is crucial as Brennan explores the pain of miscarriage beside the joy of birth, using words from the bible or James Joyce, or his especially striking versions of Nahuatl grief songs, “even if it’s true/even if we really are united like the feathers/of a quetzal headdress/even if we really are all stones of the same necklace none of this is real”.

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

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