The local hubbub of history – and the eerie silence of the past
Poetry: Tom French’s fifth collection, ‘The Last Straw’, is firmly rooted in locale, while Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s ‘Bloodroot’ digs deep into Irish society’s treatment of women
Tom French: Handles his lineation and phrasing with low-key skill
The opening poem in Tom French’s fifth collection, The Last Straw (Gallery Press, €12.50/€18.50) sets the tone for the volume, finding him in an evening frame of mind: “Above us, a flight banks in the dark, / beginning its descent. The road, this night,/ goes quiet. I extinguish the last light.”
In Station the narrator similarly finds himself moodily “crepuscular and iambic”, as Heaney put it elsewhere: “some evenings/ a nearly empty northbound going through at speed/ between the lit-up platforms/ leaves me feeling inexplicably bereft, / as if it were my life.”
The narrative tone of a Tom French poem is immediately recognisable: detached but sympathetic; sensuously nostalgic; watchful; alert to the serendipities of time, place, and logos; acutely aware of the local with its twin taproots in history and landscape. His poems abound in place-names: Derrywinny, Ballinfoyle, Lisselton, Kilmacabea, Kilcreene.
This is a poetry deeply rooted in locale, as shown by his habit of dating and placing many of his poems, as though each functioned as an act of witness to the convergence in time, place and consciousness of the obsolescent or already vanished objects of his regard. Thus he meditates on photographs of the first World War (a recurring theme); or of a Peasant and Turf Stack; or on two wristwatches which survived the war although their wearers did not. A meditation on Heywood Gardens uses an epigraph from Pope: “Consult the genius of the place in all” – an expression elevated to the status of an ethos in French’s work.
Formal experiment is not in French’s line, and for the most part these poems use a four-line stanza pattern with lines that hover around the tetrameter or pentameter length, with occasional variation. It feels comfortable, like a garment the poet is assured and at home in, and the low-key skill with which he handles his lineation and phrasing is one of the great pleasures of this volume: “This is the bed he will not get up from, / even when we come to bring him home.”
The influence on French of Michael Longley, that great master of the singing line, is clear not just in formal terms but also in his commemorative instincts. In poems such as The First of July, La Boiselle, Lord Strathcona’s Horse at Moreuil Wood, March 1918 or Unidentified Farriers, Western Front, French shows himself to be similarly haunted by the history of that great conflict. But there are moments of levity also: After Hours is an extended sequence on pubs and their names; Costa Blanca manages to wring a certain wry philosophical significance from a beach holiday. As always, however, the sense of return in French’s work is inevitable, as the latter sequence makes clear in its conclusion: “To our ‘Anything strange?’ on the road home/ our lifts’ ‘Divil a bit’ is all we need to know.”
Bloodroot, Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s striking debut collection from Doire Press (71pp, €12), throws up the thorny issue of the poet’s right to intrude, imaginatively, on the sorrows of other people; and poses the related question of whether certain sorrows have such a claim on the public conscience that all usual considerations of tact can be put aside.
Many of the poems in Bloodroot are concerned with the social position of women in the Irish State, specifically the cases of the notorious mother and baby homes, the “Kerry Babies” case from the 1980s, and the tragedy of Ann Lovett in 1984. Irish poets have written on these subjects before – most memorably Paula Meehan in her poem The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks. Ní Churreáin’s approach is notably confrontational, fuelled by a kind of refined anger, and these poems sweep the reader along with the force of their feeling.
The title poem posits a link between the voicelessness of these women and their victimisation, stripped even of their real names: “Were you made to kneel here too, Mary, Josephine, Bernadette? / If I call you by your house-names will you speak?” The emphasis here on the erasure of the women’s voices is significant; a poem in memory of Ann Lovett is titled The Secret, and we are continually reminded that silence played a central part in these tragedies – the enforced silence of the women themselves, but also the complicit silence of the society in which they lived.
Ní Churreáin’s imaginative engagement is such that nowhere in this collection does one feel she “rampages [. . .]permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows”, as Seamus Heaney rebuked Sylvia Plath for doing. At any rate, as James Fenton politely replied to that remark of Heaney’s, “a great deal of art is made from the history of other people’s sorrows”, and perhaps the crucial difference is in the approach, rather than the subject. In a poem such as Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’ a powerful examination of ideas of purity and erasure, Ní Churreáin shows she is imaginatively equal to the task.
Elsewhere in this collection a more positive and sustaining notion of relations between women is voiced: Sisters describes a blood-sisterhood of “tailed women, denim-stealers, alley-girls/in White Musk with nine lives”, while On Visiting Ellis Island, dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, examines the question of language and power again, albeit from a slightly different angle: “Maiden. Unskilled. Alone. /The language I find you in is not the one you spoke, /You who taught me that to make a home is to make a sound/ in the world, and be understood . . .”
Ní Churreáin’s forms are open, flexible, and only occasionally lapse into the kind of one-word-per-line shorthand that makes you feel brevity is substituting for intensity. The poems in Bloodroot, with their musicality and sensuousness, as well as their fearlessness, mark the welcome appearance of a fresh and vivid new voice.
Caitríona O’Reilly’s latest collection is Geis (2015)