Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

New poetry by Audrey Molloy, Gerald Dawe, Amy Acre and Tristram Fane Saunders

Reviews: The Blue Cocktail; Another Time: Poems 1978-2023; Mothersong; and Before We Go Any Further

Audrey Molloy: In her new collection, The Blue Cocktail, themes are impressively interwoven, linking water and continents to nativity and womanhood

Audrey Molloy’s The Blue Cocktail (Gallery Press, €12.95) is full of liquidity: gin, vermouth, Guinness Extra; the waters of lakes, pools, oceans. Across these assured poems water, as is its wont, takes on many forms and spills into many containers. The title’s blue cocktails are those consumed for pleasure and in emergencies – “In the event of being stranded inland”, instructs the first poem’s epigraph, “Scoop half a pint of lake, river, or puddle water […] Add a double shot of Hendrick’s, a nip of Noilly Prat” (Emergency Cocktail). This poem is as much a recipe as it is an instruction for how to read what follows; these are the potions and enchantments of poetry too. “The sea is saltier than blood by far”, Molloy goes on, an echo of the often misapplied and abbreviated “blood is thicker than water”.

Frequently, the poems linger on the notion of origins: “I began in a pool”, Molloy writes in A Schoolgirl Dreams of Ponds, “I never got away”. The condition that motivates the hungers and perils of this book is proximity to water: Molloy’s metaphor for her emigrant experience. “Where the water is brackish, / not one thing nor another – the emigrant’s curse” (At Bottle and Glass Point). The blueness of these poems is as mercurial as one poem suggests: it is vitality and melancholy; an unrootedness both liberating and isolating.

Themes are impressively interwoven, linking water and continents to nativity and womanhood. These poems are elegantly dressed and convivial:

You’re glad you wore the fine black sweater


And your heirloom velvet jacket

Though it doesn’t suit het weather

And pearls are not in fashion

But neither is smoking, not even Gauloises

This is formally adventurous work too: sonnets share space with the Japanese haibun. A quickening, intercontinental book.

Following Woodsong, a pamphlet inspired by Buile Suibhne, comes Before We Go Any Further (Carcanet, £12.99) by Tristram Fane Saunders. The book is erudite and witty, playful and discontented, pessimistic but full of cheer. What sets Saunders apart from many contemporary poets (certainly debutants) is his joy and skill with rhythm and rhyme. His poems are driven by their musicality, though thanks to his careful phrasemaking, they never go off the road. In the first of these poems, Home is not a noun, but a verb:

like pigeons do. We follow

the pull of sockets deep

in our thick, wet heads,

our sodden radar: warm,

warmer, colder, warm.

An epigraph from MacNeice’s rambunctious Bagpipe Music suggests a formal as well as an imaginative influence. The Somnambulist takes its scene as a costume party, “The Hulk explaining Prynne / in the kitchen doorway to a cornered Harley Quinn”. We are in the realm of masks and ventriloquism. In How the Raven Ate the Moon, a standout poem, a speaker tells the eponymous story to comfort an ailing partner: “It had been four weeks exactly / since she’d stopped taking whatever it was that she’d been taking.” The title also refers, in the poem, to “this tacky mug I bought / in Canada”. In other words, this poem wrestles with the power of story and / or the materiality of merch. “And like a starving bird // she swallowed it. Or made me think she’d swallowed it.”

Five Songs on a Cruel Instrument demonstrates Saunders’ Oulipian humours. These poems, allegedly of the academic AE Pious, each foregoes four vowels except one. This Anglo-Saxon ballad, for example:

As a crab has a claw,

As a hawk has a craw,

And an asp’s sharp jaw

Has a fang

Wide-ranging and gentle with its intellect, this is a charming and inventive first book.

Postnatal anxieties abound in the haunting Mothersong (Bloomsbury, £9.99). Amy Acre’s powerful collection explores contemporary parenthood and the memory of a childhood marked by grief:

littlefoot’s mum is dead like simba’s dad is dead like

bambi’s mum is dead like bastian’s mum is dead

if this is how we level up to protagonist

you’d rather swim in the shadow of a demiurge

you swing your daughter dizzy in the garden

to remember not all childhoods are hereditary

Acre’s taut, dream-like lyrics of new motherhood are compelling: “My child, months from the womb, hung from my teeth. / I ferried her by the neck and saw her death / everywhere”. And they’re flashed with humour too, often in the same poem: “Forgive me, I saw things / I couldn’t tell my therapist”. Similarly, Billie, Blinded by Grace gives us morning routine: “Two slices. No sugar. / Glastonbury on iPlayer”, and deepens, retrospectively, towards, “this living left in all the spaces / before I became. Dive bars and dance halls, / dirty raves, Year 10 dry ice and parquet. Hips / quicker than Clint.”

New poetry: Dawn Watson, Maurice Devitt, Dani Gill and Luke Samuel YatesOpens in new window ]

The book follows a documentary impulse outwards, too, to consider the applications of the language of parenthood. See Also riffs, dictionary-esque: “mother is to perform mothering; to nurture while father is to be a father to; to sire”. As a first book, Mothersong, satisfies one of the tendencies of the debut, to demonstrate the author’s skill, range and potential.

In addition to her variety of registers, personal and political (though this book asks how they differ), there are anaphoric prose poems, a sestina, an erasure; though always these poems are graced by an exquisite diction and enlightening observation: “the word bloodhound’s / no more a part of the dog than a scream is part of a gun” (Dead Disney Mothers).

A rich, complex portrait of intergenerational love and disquiet.

In Another Time: Poems 1978-2023 (The Gallery Press, €14.50), Gerald Dawe’s latest collection is accompanied by a generous selection of poems from his previous eight books – four and a half decades – starting with Sheltering Places and lifting from, among others, The Lundys Letter, Lake Geneva and Mickey Finn’s Air.

New poetry: Jane Clarke, Maura Dooley, Airea Matthews and Dylan BrennanOpens in new window ]

The poems of Another Time are crystalline, elegiac and effortlessly achieved; reminiscence is their engine. 1969 is a poem on the edge of violence and queries a photograph of “the family group [..] in their Sunday best”. But this image also includes the aftermath of an explosion: “Was it a furniture shop / or the local bar, it’s hard / to tell; but the colour snap / has remained intact”. Poems and photographs enjoy a camaraderie: sometimes each makes images that outlast the people and things they depict. But the poet knows something the photograph doesn’t, even as he asks, ‘What then? What then?’”.

Beyond historical time, Dawe’s poems touch on the time of friendship and artistic companionship: there are moving elegies for Brendan Kennelly (Worry Beads); Thomas Kinsella (The Tower); and Derek Mahon (Make Believe), wherein, as the elegist is inclined, he imagines a spirit-familiar for the poet: “more like a local bird soaring high / enough to have a really good look / at what lies below amongst the nooks / and crannies of our ordinary lives”.

There are poems of illness here too, and the “silver magic juice” of treatment, whose steady voice and craftedness makes them all the more poignant. Another Time, a poem of five parts, is one of little routines in the odd, wee hours when “the body calls”, where the poems that might have been “stray off / into an ambulance siren”. Emotionally resonant and quietly brilliant.