Victoria Kennefick on White Whale: navigating the poetry of grief

Inspired by her father’s courage facing death and the sea that was their shared element, the award-winning poet describes her debut collection as her message in a bottle

From the front window of my childhood home I could see the Atlantic, a palm pressed flat at the horizon; it cradled my little life. I watched how the colours of its skin altered, how it was often bleak and calm; less frequently ecstatic in blueness. I combed its shore for a message in a bottle, wrote my name in the sand and encountered a beached whale. The hypnotic dash of waves to the beach, the hissing relief of pebbles were sounds I wanted to understand and to translate. The sea made me hunt for phrases to describe it, the way I scoured the sand for an intact cockle shell. These waves that had me spellbound, in time became words breaking on the page.

I began my first novel, the story of a girl who lives in a house by the sea, at 13 and worked on it during weekends and holidays, finally finishing it by hand, sobbing, at the age of 16. Poems came first, though, there were always poems. I wrote a poem for my grandaunt’s funeral when I was seven. I read it for mourners at the wake. This was my apprenticeship, writing for myself and for my family.

Through school and university I read widely and wrote consistently, but didn’t publish. I convinced myself that I was waiting for the right time, made content by studying and researching great writers. I visited home often to be reminded of the smell of the sea, to hear waves blather. I walked with my father along the beach; my scouting the strand for driftwood slowed us down, so he would often stride ahead, his figure diminishing.

I had begun a PhD in American literature when my father got sick, really sick and remained so for a number of years, culminating in a trip to hospital that lasted eight months. During this time I broke down. Whoever I was as a person, a poet, or a friend, disintegrated and dissolved. I took his illness badly, I was losing him, and in my writing and every other aspect of my life, I was barely treading water. Not waiting, but hiding Some time into his sickness, my father began to speak in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, using word association, metaphor and imagery, often relating to the sea, to express himself. I found that I understood him; I could translate, and felt useful again, even closer to him. Academia had not prepared me for any of this; it was poetry that got me through. I had an epiphany, I suppose, that it was foolish to wait for the right time to write, to submit, to publish, that I had to get my work out there or perish. It really felt like that, a life or death decision. I had not been waiting as such, I had been hiding.


Shortly after Dad passed away, I began to write in earnest, buoyed by the courage and strength he had shown on his long, difficult voyage through illness. Part of me had died too, and this new me, the real me didn’t have time to wait anymore. Over the next year or two I wrote daily, revising my work, draft after draft. I showed my poems to my nearest and dearest, and happily fate conspired to introduce me to a fellow writer who was at a similar stage of development, so we shared and edited each other’s work too. That is how my debut poetry pamphlet, White Whale, emerged.

Over time, I amassed a number of poems which attempt to grapple with the loss of my father, and other, older losses. Not surprisingly, many of these poems contain sea imagery; through this lens I could explore memories of my father and of my childhood from a familiar and safe perspective. Images of the ocean became vessels for grief as I compiled the 21 poems, the subsequent chapbook dedicated to Dad. I sent the manuscript out on the waves, my own message in a bottle at last.

Poetry has saved my life, made my life. Reading and writing it have taught me bravery and discipline. I am in the process of editing my first collection and the experience of White Whale has proven to be invaluable. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to bring this chapbook to the surface to honour and remember my father. Now as I continue my poetic journey, waves and words still cast their hypnotic spell, rousing me with their ceaseless ebb and flow.

White Whale

I rattled around the back seat,
your long fingers drummed
the steering wheel, out of time.
In Youghal you navigated me through
Moby Dick by my miniature hand.

In the pub bearing its name, Huston
cursed at pints, wood-lined walls
and stoop-backed regulars, imagining
his just-dead father as Ahab.
Peck, newly-bearded kept to himself.

The harbour basin was a stand-in
for New-Bedford
the whale, you said, floated
on drums of compressed air, hydraulics,
until one choppy day

it came loose from its tow-line,
drifted away in a fog.
They made-do with a barge concealed
by a hump, back, fin and tail.
The Captain hunted this for leagues.

Your shadow haunts the water,
your finger rises to trace
the crudely painted picture
on the pub's gable,
the creature in air.

And grief emerges,
breaching the surface.

“Kennefick is one of Ireland’s brightest new poets as any reader of her satisfyingly coherent, subtly visceral, and cleverly erotic dEbut pamphlet will discover”
Todd Swift, poet, scholar and editor of Eyewear Publications.