Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

New poetry: Leontia Flynn, Peter Sirr, Breda Wall Ryan and Momtaza Mehri

Reviews: Taking Liberties; The Swerve; These are My People; Bad Diaspora Poems

Interiors provide many of the sites of exploration in Leontia Flynn’s Taking Liberties (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), the poet’s fifth collection. In poems set in master bedrooms, municipal pools and in motorway service stations, Flynn beckons us close, only to open windows on larger worlds. There’s a precision to Flynn’s short, finely-crafted lines, an airy lightness that belies her poems’ ability to shoulder weighty subjects. “In classrooms and in science labs” the place of learning becomes one of danger, where:

“Infants present

in the event of an alarm

may be held securely


under the diaper station.”

Aptly enough for a collection called “Taking Liberties”, there is a keen sense throughout of how our personal freedoms distort depending on age and geographical location. Summer fades in current day Belfast, while in nineteenth-century New York, Frederick Douglass tells us: “…he had lived more there/ in one single day/ than he had before/ in a year of his slave life.” (’In New York City”). The public voice speaks loudest in the wryly funny ‘All of the people’, a thrilling poly-vocal skewering of modern life:

“What nobody says is your soul goes underground

as you move through your 40s – a swerving, a clinamen!

They do not say Your friends are all alcoholics,

that the words mutate: ‘I have to . . .’ and ‘I must ‘”

These poems contemplate external spaces, too, where: “One border is The Loved One./Another, middle age.” (‘On platforms and in plate-glass waiting rooms’) Mid-life, ageing and the complexities of parenthood are explored with a quiet insistence and the atmosphere of loss pervades, culminating in two final poems, both titled “Summer is fading”, which distil the poet’s grief to something crystalline: “and my heart tap-taps/in the catafalque of my chest/as though in the bow/of a wooden boat.”

Peter Sirr’s tenth collection, The Swerve, (The Gallery Press, €13.90) similarly demonstrates the poet’s skill in shifting between public and private voices. These are poems that ponder themes of war, death, world literature and shape-shifting history, weaving magic from the natural world while meditating on death’s intimacy with birth: “The gods/ are in their swaddling clothes, they sleep/ in the world’s tight grip, waiting for themselves.” (”A Birth in Winter”)

While a preoccupation with war seems eerily prescient in light of current events in Gaza, with poems such as “Steps” conjuring a bombed apartment complex, (“History is eleven floors in the target zone/ where quiet footsteps go up and down”), it would be an underestimation of the depth of Sirr’s project to view these poems simply as a reaction to current events. In one of the collection’s strongest poems, “History”, a cat slinks into the poet’s room, bringing, like Hughes’ thought-fox, more than the poet had bargained for: “I stroke her fur and touch the history/ of every cat I’ve known or owned.” Through funerary boats, Scythian boots and “Palaeolithic dildos”, the cat walks, insouciant, “all hungry eyes/ and electric repose, and not/ biding but hiding our time.”

Sirr’s close attention to the passage of time is also explored here in poems of ageing such as “An Afterlife” (“The moon wakes up in our language/ and slips back to sleep again.”), and in the collection’s title poem, which pinpoints the difference a second can make. Most memorably, two poems imagining the hereafter, “Haunting School” and “Second Take on ‘Haunting School” sprinkle surrealism through their poignant meditations on the afterlife, the former leaving us with an exhortation to remember life (and death’s) potential for transcendence: “Think of that first wall. Pass through like that again,/ not a thing resisting, dust shining on your woken face.”

Breda Wall Ryan’s third collection, These are My People (Doire Press, €13) is a book of many homecomings, situating its poems of myth and nature in the poet’s own landscape of the Comeraghs. The collection’s opening poem neatly lays out the poet’s holistic worldview; when meeting people from her own place, a recognition is kindled, “the way a fist-size rock/ holds all there is to know/ of the mother-mountain” (‘Return to the Comeraghs’).

An archivist of changing landscapes, Wall Ryan’s keen attention to the natural world and its losses, both major and minor, speaks again to this ability to show us the world in a grain of sand. The act of naming is a kind of charm to conjure the past into the present, the creation of a human chain that the poet hopes will sustain us:

“And what will these children remember?

Only the fog, the bread, their excited running?

Or Grandmother’s talk of Daisy, Self-Heal,

Lady’s Smock, Clover, Meadowsweet,

Sorrel, Yarrow, the vanished pink smoke

of flowering grasses?”


Alongside these reflections on the natural world are a number of poems that deploy forms such as villanelle and sestina. The latter is particularly impressive, with “To a Veteran Agitator Met in a Bar” demonstrating the poet’s cutting wit: “You hit on a girl half your age. A lost cause;/ she walked off, bored, while you droned./ She’d never heard of Che, and your campaign/ was aimed at her Hot Chick logoed chest. It failed”. The failures of activists and environmentalists are threaded throughout the book, in poems such as ‘Bucket List’ and ‘We are Ocean’ with its question “Ocean, how will it feel to be dead?”. Ultimately, though, this collection offers us the powerful consolation of surrender to the wider world, its patterns and tides: “Surrender to moon-tug, to all things that shine,/ let spirit slip bone, tides claim us.” (‘Somniloquy at Naylor’s Cove’)

“Audience demands easy answers. Wants wobbling chins & intonated quiver”, begins the titular poem in Momtaza Mehri’s Felix Dennis Prize-winning debut, Bad Diaspora Poems (Jonathan Cape, £14.99). These acerbic lines announce a compelling new voice, and a poet willing to question pieties. Opening with “Conditionals”, a short poem whose simplicity belies its philosophical reach (“If we eat breakfast before ten, that makes us friends./ If we agree on the same lies, that makes us countrymen”), Mehri’s project in this book is to interrogate received ideas of diaspora with insight and wit. Erudite and full of literary allusion, the white literary gaze and its impact on Africa is examined in poems such as ‘Rimbaud in Harar’ and its companion poem ‘Harar in Rimbaud’, an intriguing pairing which acts to subvert European categorisation, presenting us with its negative image. In the latter poem, we are told:

“settlers drink from reservoirs of goodwill

spit forth their catalogued observations


as they inspect.”

Mehri is keen to undo that simplistic cataloguing to complicate the narrative and seek truths obscured by platitudes. In spite of her bracing rejection of sentimentality, there are also poems here that honour the sadness and dislocation that migration brings and set that sadness against the beauty inherent in the ephemeral nature of diasporic and immigrant society – how it fosters new beginnings, empathy and a hybridity that transcends old binaries.

“We are the vectors of our own beginnings.

Neither former nor latter, we sing of the blood-borne dispossession, the night

sweats, the tactile touch, the nevermore thereafters, the heart’s knock-kneed

double dutch.”

(‘A Violet Coagulation of Dispersals’, part IV)