One of the many remarkable things about poet Martina Evans’s recent books is their high-intensity engagement with narrative. In Petrol (2012) and American Mules (2021), winner of the Pigott Poetry Prize, an exquisite sense of characterisation is of crucial importance to how the words are offering themselves, and the first-person voice provides music that can be earthy or lyrical, or both. The story is brought forth by the swirl and tension between these currents and by Evans’s great empathy of style. The same is true of The Coming Thing, an excellent set of final cadences to a trio of books that may be relished separately or as an exceptional trilogy.
The book takes us to a particular version of 1980s Cork, a party town of punks and teenage poses. Here is a world of “Pondies and cider”, “rusty duffel coats”, “eating custard slices for a hangover”, “Maths-dodgers” and “Twenty Carrolls & a box of red matches”. Leeside lads in Madness hats pulled down over their eyes scuttle about with brown paper bags hidden in the pockets of their donkey jackets.
The book offers 80 short poems, many of which are of sonnet length, but, pleasingly, they do not often ratchet themselves up to the final detonation that sonneteers like to achieve in the closing couplet. Instead, Evans drops her depth charges intermittently, unexpectedly and with great power and control. Her technical excellence combines with a clear-eyed and capacious artistry so that no poem is only itself and every poem is changed by those around it.
Evans is able to bang words together so that the sparks start to fly, but whenever she deploys rhyme, it works, too
Imelda, whom we encountered in Petrol, opens proceedings with verve. “Justin said I’d been seen passing a joint on Patrick’s Bridge/when I thought I was pure invisible.” The elegance of the line lengths and the inclusion of so much white space on the page with the juiciness and jaggedness of demotic druggy speech set up oppositions that charge the writing with energy. Throughout the book, her use of ampersands instead of the word “and” is delicate and clever. Fresh images cluster in every poem. Ian Curtis of Joy Division “died for us”.
A physics professor looks “like Bobby Sands”. “Two pale faces peered out of the Bushmills mirror behind Myra.” Evans is able to bang words together so that the sparks start to fly – “the night I was out in Clashduv doing Wrecky” – but whenever she deploys rhyme, it works, too. One poet with a comparable gift was the late James Simmons. Another brilliant wordsmith of downbeat urban life, Ian Dury of the Blockheads (“Had a love affair with Nina/in the back of my Cortina”), would have been wowed by Evans’s fiery and tender rhymes and her extraordinary ability to put across an accent without lampooning it or resorting to phonetic renderings, use of which always convey that the writer feels a bit superior to those being quoted. The wonderfully bitter-sweet London sonnets of 2022 Costa winner Hannah Lowe are also called to mind here and there by The Coming Thing, which at one point nods a respectful brow towards the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, but Evans’s supple, sinuous voice is all her own. So are her forms, which are always notably more than brilliant flash fictions, though they do have that genre’s reachy punch. “I turned my back/in my wet-look yellow anorak.” “‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ said cunning old Fury.”
The 1980s Irish London it summons up will be remembered by many of us who came to know the truth of Frank O’Connor’s observation that an Irish person’s private life begins at Holyhead
The eye for zingy detail will bring readers of a certain age the kind of gibbering glee that is only felt when an early Smiths record unexpectedly comes on the radio. ‘Dora was reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee/ & I was going everywhere with Carl, we were going out./ I was fierce proud of his shaved head, stone-blue Mod Trousers &/ the Elastoplast covering the hole on his Oxblood Docs.’ But this is no nostalgia-fest, no consolatory trip. These poems are always aware that Memory Lane is a place best visited sparingly.
The book’s presentation of a journey to Brixton, leading to an abortion, is heartbreaking and dark and yet rendered with such truthfulness that it demands to be read. The 1980s Irish London it summons up will be remembered by many of us who came to know the truth of Frank O’Connor’s observation that an Irish person’s private life begins at Holyhead. “We went down two flights/into Wards Irish House in Piccadilly. I wanted to be underground. I wanted to stand on the tube platform/& feel the fierce wind. Wards had pale green & white tiles because – Tom said – it had been an Edwardian lavatory. The counter was silvery metal & they had draft Guinness.”
Tommy Tiernan once joked that, not only was he unready to live with Northern Irish unionists, he was unready to live with people from Cork. There are marvels in The Coming Thing that he and all talented storytellers will love: the sheer joy of spoken language, the honesty of the writing, the fragile exuberance of youth, which somehow survives its dooms long enough to recount them. Martina Evans’s book will be valued by all who appreciate contemporary Irish poetry and will, this reader hopes, lead to the even wider audience that her brilliant and exceptional work has long deserved.
Joseph O’Connor’s novel My Father’s House is published by Vintage