Brushing against joy


To Wake To This By Enda WyleyDedalus, 66pp. €11
Heather Island
By Joan McBreenSalmon Poetry, 50pp. €12pb/€18hb
Frog Spotting
By Peggy O’BrienDedalus, 88pp. €12
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’MahonySalmon, 196pp. €12

ENDA WYLEY is a true poet. To Wake To Thisarticulates a subtle, dreamy apprehension through a diction and an imagery all the writer’s own. Clooncunny’s“How our hands swayed through /reeds today, brushing against joy – ” is a characteristic opening, in mediares, and gives the verse its sense of movement.

Meanwhile, that transfer of the epithet, “joy”, into reeds (and into the sensation we all remember, of running a hand through grass or wheat) renders the boundaries of things flexible.

In a collection whose second part is a loving celebration of motherhood, it’s fitting that much should hang on such joyous imagery; but the movement of phrases across characteristic short lines is flexible too:

Tongue on her palette

and a horse gallops

into the room,

then a story cat

leaps from her mouth,

meow, meow, meow . ..

This is the beginning to First Words, which ends with the image of the child practising, in her sleep, “secret lullabies from her to us”.

To Wake To Thisis a carefully-structured, thoughtful book, alive with a sense of the poet’s place, not only in landscape and family life, but – dedications and two fine “versions” demonstrate – within artistic culture.

Joan McBreen’s Heather Islandis, as its title suggests, similarly conscious of the context that life in a landscape supplies. McBreen is a poetry activist on that non-metropolitan model which is one of the Irish scene’s profound strengths. Not only does it allow the lived detail of country life to be taken seriously on the page, but it nurtures diversity of diction. The condensation in McBreen’s Hawthorn on the High Roaddiffers profoundly from Wyley’s equal economy:

The bay trees I placed

either side of my blue door

are shrivelled by a salt wind

McBreen frequently implies a narrative, for example by her choice of the second person, ballad diction ( Daughter in July Downpour), or title ( In Memory of Louis MacNeice). This slim, focused volume is also inflected by haiku, including the sets Five Poems in Spring and the Omey stanzas, which proceed by the haiku logic of stasis and juxtaposition.

Peggy O’Brien’s Frog Spottingis, by contrast, wordy and peopled. These vigorous explorations of relationship move beyond simple celebration into complex studies of ambivalence ( Mourning Dove) or domestic power ( Room 5, the Bonnard Show). A meaty poem makes abuse of Bonnard’s obsessive portraits of his partner Marthe:

What better things had you to do

Than watch your own flesh petrify, become a statue

Under the touch, the mearest brush, of

his lustful eyes

Which rather seems to miss the point of all that beauty, not to mention light. As a result. the complex furies of A Heartbeat Awayfeel slightly less than earned. Can we trust this narrator? And has the poet, in her interesting deployment of the Gretel story, demarked clearly enough how family misery “deepens like a coastal shelf”?

O’Brien’s arresting line, “We’re all wicked stepmothers once in a while” seems to refer to mothering, but can it also denote the way a community fails its young?

Nessa O’Mahony’s lengthy In Sight of Homeis described as a verse-novel; and just about earns the title, although its purported central narrative, based on the real-life Butlers, emigrants to Australia in 1854, is narrated in prose letters until page 115.

The status (and sometimes diction) of this prose is uneasy, since as the Author’s Note tells us, “Although I used extracts from the Butler letters where necessary, I have also invented entirely new letters, or adapted the original ones, where the plot required it”.

We are in the somewhat uncomfortable position of seeing actual private experience used by a poet whose (fictional? quasi-fictional?) persona is obsessed by professional standing (“I’d hoped the latest oversight /would go un-noticed”), yet has “No more than thirty poems for a decade’s work”.

This is of course a palimpsest device, as is the 19th-century strategy of having our narrator discover the letters on which the book is based. But it matters because the technical difficulties – and rewards – of telling a story in lyric verse are germane to verse-novel form. Simply to surround prose narrative with state-of-mind persona poems is to refuse those stakes.

Though the book comes more to life when present-day and historical narratives at last run in parallel, through bereavement, loss of beloved and geophysical coincidence, the jacket claim by Carol Rumens, whose Bangor university department appears in the book (our narrator socialises there), that “this is the best verse-novel I’ve read in years”, does O’Mahony a disservice, since it draws the eye to weaknesses one might otherwise forgive.

The Anglophone verse-novel has enjoyed a triumphant revival recently. Interested readers would do better to explore Ciaran Carson’s masterly For All We Know,Ruth Padel’s Darwin, or Alice Oswald’s extended lyric A Sleepwalk down the Severn, all published within the last 12 months.

Fiona Sampson’s Poetry Writing: The Expert Guide(Robert Hale) and A Century of Poetry Review(Carcanet) will both be published this October