The Last Cold Day, by Sara Berkeley, The Gallery Press, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911338352
Company, by Tom French, The Gallery Press, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911338314
Hospice nurse and poet Sara Berkeley’s new collection begins in urgency, the first urgency that will not be the last urgency before we reach the end of this breathtaking and breath-demanding book. The first two poems are interconnected, in that the first commemorates a CNN report of the lost Icelandic glacier, Okjökull, a victim of global warming, and the second, “Let’s Pack All Our Clothes”, charts an escape from fire into the refuge of a hotel room. The collection begins, therefore, with a sense of change, flight and getting away. “Rings Off” pictures a new beginning, or at least the casting off of an older attachment:
My rings are off, they are in
the tiny silver box I set aside for them
and here come the twelve bands of light
all the way from ultraviolet to infrared
taking me from utter darkness …
“Let me be done with the business of doing / and the work of love, let me go down / to the lake with a pen, some champagne …” she writes in “Morning Number One”, setting us up, as readers, for a new narrative in her life, a new beginning. This new beginning leads her across the great continental mass of America in a time when winter is broken, when the poet is “sure / it’s love” that pulls her to the other shore of the US. By page 24 the collection has begun to feel like a good, very intriguing road movie, a narrative of new beginnings, complete even, in the poems “Hanuman” and “Grace”, with the poet swimming cinematically in the Manby gorge:
I lay in the river, the river didn’t care
what brought me there,
it flowed on over me
washing my clothes, my hair,
moving my memories like river weed.
This is the set-up. But the poet could not have anticipated what was about to happen in the America of that springtime: Covid-19 would soon take over the task of writing the script of all her following days. Soon she will be in the thick of the battle, more involved professionally than writer Vera Brittain of an earlier era, more medically needed in that moment. Landed in upstate New York, she is soon overwhelmed by the great life and death struggles that develop along the pandemic-saturated Hudson valley:
When I show up for death
I take off my thousand-pound weight
So I go in light
And I wait
There by the bedside
For death to look up.
“After I lay down my cloak / for the dying man” she writes, explaining then how she hears a son calling out “Dad!” but knows the father is at an end in that Elysium of drugs and absent pain. Sometimes, as in “Strangers’ Doors”, she arrives at the house of the dying, like a nineteenth century fever doctor: one house, where Mozart’s Requiem is playing:
I stand witness
in the bethel of their suffering
and in the sanctuary of their ease.
After days and months of this, in “Early Morning Call”, she has become tired of stories of dying, exhausted by the needs of families as well as patients, yet maintains that human connection, that instinct of a great nurse. When two daughters make a shirt for their dying father, “World’s Best Dad,” she manages to slip it over his head, to complete the gesture of need and attachment. As she looks at the dead patient she thinks “I felt he was there, / that wherever he was / he saw.”
Few Irish poets of the modern era will have ever carried such a load. Berkeley’s bravery is magnificent, her palliative courage simply astonishing. She gets back to Ireland in the following February, not angered by exile but estranged like Beckett after St Lo. She has simply experienced life and death at such ferocious intensity that conventional notions of Irishness and exile are simply inadequate:
we taxi down the runway,
the roots that were nourished in this soil
are coming loose,
takeoff rips them free, the wrench
in the chest, the heart crossways
and salt rime, every time,
as the plane banks steeply over the Poolbeg twins
and the melancholy wails to be let in.
Maturity, detachment, profound wisdom about life’s frailty, all of this permeates the work in poem after poem, making The Last Cold Day one of the most important collections – if not the most important – of this contemporary era. Life throws us side-balls and quicksands, and Sara Berkeley has been through an exile’s Inferno that very few of us have been called to witness. Her sanguinity about these matters is simply magnificent. Through its urgency and artfulness, her collection illuminates the whole of life with an extraordinary and shocking loveliness.
Kilkenny native Tom French may seem to have written of less urgent business than our gifted hospice poet, but he also explores and interrogates the various predicaments of life. Short-listed for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and winner of an O’Shaughnessy and Dermot Healy Award, his is now a fully matured and highly esteemed poetic presence in Ireland. Despite this incremental build-up of honour, he has remained faithful to his Public Service desk in the Local Studies Department of Co.Meath Libraries. But even in this library perch he has been shaken by life’s wilder tragedies. In “To Distance” he, also, writes about our bleak pandemic era, but with a different edge, a different insight:
I do what I have never done –
remove my wedding ring
because it ‘harbours infection,’
and find, printed beneath,
its pale reflection.
Even my very skin is married.
This poem, a lengthy sequence, is placed towards the end of the collection, not clouding the atmosphere nor allowed to determine the book’s tone. French spent part of Covid-time planting ten varieties of trees, including three kinds of birch:
It will be years before they touch;
still, we plant them ten feet apart.
The knowledge that things will come together again is one of the strengths of his sequence. The collection more properly and formally opens with an impressive and sustained meditation on the paintings of Emma Schrock, a painter that he credits his publisher Peter Fallon with introducing into his orbit. It was a fruitful encounter, propelling French into a sinewy, formalist ekphrastic fugue of lyrics based on Schrock’s paintings of Mennonite life. His method here, his easeful formality as a poet, is now an important aspect of his aesthetic signature. His use of quatrain, tercet, couplet, and his choice of form in relation to apt materials, is superb:
The mill is canopied, like an altar on wheels.
They’ll work by moon until the stooks are cleared.
The artist’s hands are yellow. The stubble shows
How rich the harvest was. Her palette glows.
Masterful timing and phrasing are common characteristics of the work as well. In poems as widely different as “Agnes Moran’s, Mornington” and “Communion, Western Front” his formality and skill is as fine as anything by Richard Murphy – the indented lines in the latter poem, for example, are as effective as any mid-century poem in Robert Penn Warren or John Crowe Ransom. Neither is Tom French afraid to work with very large nails and huge bolts of textile, whether in poems like “The Ayrshire Cattle Breeders are Holding a Meeting” or “At the Bishop’s Palace”. He is in complete command of his materials, which is a kind of definition of a master, and this skill and high knowledge of the art of the poem is one of the many reasons why Company is such a solid, enduring achievement. “This patch of grass is the altar in the dews,” he writes in “Still Life, Chancellorsville, 1863” and follows thus: “This is the glory and the gospel loosed.”
Thomas McCarthy’s latest book, Poetry, Memory and the Party: Journals 1974-2014, is published by the Gallery Press.