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Games with the World

Catherine Ann Cullen

Insistence, by Ailbhe Darcy, Bloodaxe Books, 80 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780370781

Ailbhe Darcy’s poems combine fierce honesty with a deliberate literary sensibility. This latter is evident in her writings about her practice, for instance in a blog post for Poetry Wales earlier this year: “First, invest monstrously in your own personal mythology. Novelists build a fictional world for the space of a volume or several volumes, but the poet builds a fictional world across an entire life.”

This “monstrous investment” is repaid in every poem in this collection, where the painful as well as the joyful truths of relationships, love, birth and daily life are mythologised, as in “Mushrooms”:

We tell the night we arrived like myth, thicket of insects’ whirr,
throat-thickening heat of the air, impenetrable words

the landlord spoke as he led us up through unlit stairs ...

That “insects’ whirr” and the sounds of other creatures reverberate through the book. “Stink”, for example, charts the progress of the stink bug, inadvertently introduced into the US in crates of fruit or vegetables. Darcy uses the image of the bug, dislodged from hibernation at the sudden turning up of the heat in her house, to reflect on the poetic impulse:

if you were me, you went out still dreaming
of the words you’d heard
along the road but never hitched to meaning:

Asian pear and flowering dogwood
corn and cherry and apricot tree.

The name-checked plants are food for the stink bug, but that apricot tree recurs again and again in this collection, foreshadowing its appearance in the last sequence in a stunning tribute to Danish poet Ingar Christensen, of which more below.

Before and in the course of that finale, images of surviving, of travelling and of mating bloom on every page of this book. These breathtaking images cross many species ‑ here are those stink bugs, hoping

for time to vibrate to one another
come mating season,
one signal longer and lower than any other…

or silverfish

... side by side
and head to tail, the male stroking her.
What he gives is wrapped in gossamer.

                                           (“Silver”)

The survival instinct, and its occasional failure, is reflected across the natural and mythological world:

your pink cheek tucked up
with mine, not thinking
of solitude or extinction …

             (“ALPHABET, 11”)

sudden blooming by which molluscs survive annihilation

                                          (“Postcard of ‘Walls of Aran’”)

although Icarus wrapped in the melting wax
wings insists; Icarus in that split second
before the fall still as a hatchet fish ...

                                      (“ALPHABET, 9”)

In other poems, Darcy captures the tension of relationships:

Tonight, in the kitchens where we make obstacles
of each other, we’ll fiddle with the knobs of electrical cookers.

                                                                                       (“Hair”)

Above all, the book resonates with her pregnancy and the birth of her son, from the first stirrings to the birth itself and the self-doubt and anxieties of motherhood:

how it dawned on us what the happenings in my body meant …
how the receptionist said I was ready to pop
(“ALPHABET, 8”)

he exists, a child
I’ll ruin slowly
(“ALPHABET, 9”)

Disease squeaked an entrance
         at the corners of window frames,
the gap beneath the door, my
shut mouth.
(“After my son was born”)

The book ends with “ALPHABET”, a sequence modelled on Alphabet by Danish poet Inger Christensen (1935-2009). Christensen’s incantation, written in 1981, runs from the letter A to N, and the number of lines in each section follows the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical series in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. Christensen’s work begins, “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist”, and goes on to explore both the beauty of the world and its destruction, ending with the atom bomb. 

Susanna Nied, Christensen’s translator into English (Bloodaxe, 2000) has said that she and the author “had a long tussle over whether the key verb should be exist/exists or is there/are there.” Darcy has reimagined that key verb as “insists”, and her sequence is a litany of the insistent elements of contemporary life, from A to K (or Okay), leaving out Christensen’s final three letters and making Darcy’s chosen eleven letters a prime number in which every element packs a punch. The division of these eleven poems into stanzas based on numbers in the Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 or 21 lines) gives an added mathematical beauty to the set. Among the objects and bodies that assert themselves in Darcy’s “ALPHABET” are of course those trees:

apricot trees insist, apricot trees insist

followed by brand-names, bombs and blackface; concrete, cappuccinos and cathedrals; dreamcatchers and dolls; and, of course earth, which

… insists its way into our future.

Despite the considerable challenges of form here, Darcy’s poems never feel formulaic. The apricot trees “insist” on echoing through the sequence, for instance as an elusive image, an unheeded premonition, in the final K section:

somewhere perhaps you meet
that apricot tree,
its forking branches,

its veiled expression, its
thinly-veiled cankers, before
walking on regardless
(“ALPHABET, 11”)

Christensen said that poetry “is a game, maybe a tragic game ‑ the game we play with a world that plays its own game with us”. Darcy’s collection shows that she is master of the complex game she plays with the world, its words and its numbers, and she demonstrates equal mastery at capturing the game that the world plays with us. “ALPHABET” feels like a collaboration with Christensen ‑ one that the Danish poet would have relished.

Darcy’s Insistence insists on our attention, and negotiating our way through the poems with her is an intensely rewarding experience.

1/1/2019

Catherine Ann Cullen is a poet.

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