Link: Poet and World, by Vona Groarke, The Gallery Press, 80 pp, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911338222
The write-up on the cover of Vona Groarke’s latest collection states that “Link explores the give-and-take between the contemporary lyric and our strangely troubled times.” While it might sound a bit ambiguous to claim that a writer’s work is well-suited to the coronavirus lockdown (you were just made for the pandemic), there’s no denying that Groarke’s thematic concerns and her strengths as a poet are apt for these times.
Throughout her collections, she has charted changes in all sorts of weathers – between times, people, or places – with a precision and delicacy that is largely unmatched in contemporary poetry. She effectively explores changing emotional weathers and changing times by keeping the focus on the exterior world of her immediate surroundings. Groarke’s “exterior” is often the interior world of houses and dwellings, her preoccupation has extended so far as to have titled and themed her second collection Other People’s Houses. Such a poet might make more than most out of lockdown. Not that Vona Groarke is a poet of place as much as she is a poet of places, or of the different routines that different places involve. Over the years the locations of the houses and homes that populate her collections have ranged widely: from the Irish midlands to Dundalk, Manchester, North Carolina, and, latterly, Tubbercurry in Co Sligo. Still, when the narrator of “New York, Hell’s Kitchen: Snow” (from the present collection) reminisces about an earlier life in New York, the poem opens with the narrator on the inside, looking out: “That year, in the dip of the usual bad sleep, / I opened the shutters on an Eighth Avenue / freshly snowed-on …”
Vona Groarke writes some wonderful poems about poetry. “Mystery Set” begins: “The wonder is the words stay in the poem / and don’t fall off its many surfaces, / sanded and buffed, as they have been, / with silk brushes and brushes of goat hair …” The metaphor extends to the striking image of “a leather apron / for scraps or edits …” In “Vona Groarke is writing a poem” the narrator begins deadpan: “and it’s not going well.” Then she gets to the heart of things with images that are at once delicate and indelible: “How many ways can rain be turned / to something more than rain, / or the thin sticks of the alphabet be asked / to shore up a life lived glimpse by glimpse / and not much undertow?”
Famously, the word “stanza” is etymologically connected to the word “room”, and it was Wordsworth who first compared the “scanty ground” of the sonnet to a “narrow room”. The sonnet’s strictures ensured that this was productive ground, in line with Wordsworth’s allegorical nuns who saw the advantages in having the “weight of too much liberty” lifted a bit by the narrow rooms of their convent. Vona Groarke’s poem “Kist” makes a box of both room and sonnet; its opening line could almost be a poem in itself:
Tall trees are a hymnal even slight winds know by heart,
and stars and traffic, between them, remind me I’m not alone
or at least not any more alone than stars and traffic are.
In the sestet the room becomes: “… the box I climb into / and out of again every time I write a poem”. The sonnet has become Groarke’s “narrow room”, out of which come sonnets.
The poem “Study” has the poet shored up in another room. Here, despite the myopia of lockdown, the world extends outwards almost synecdochically:
But let us move past particular love that always,
in the long run, stares us down. A room, any room,
is a way of claiming we’ve the measure of the world.
We might as well swallow a grain of sand
by way of knowing the sea.
Or say we’ve hemstitched the horizon
with two threads of sky-blue silk.
The house of this poem (with – in Groarke’s lovely phrase – “a roof not inclined to refuse the rain,”) turns out to be “Exactly apt, if you see it right, / to balance inner with outer weather, / to keep you in the world.”
There is a melancholic tone to many of these poems that is not necessarily caused by the context of lockdown but is maybe sharpened by it. This sense comes through keenly in Groarke’s poems about poetry, an undertow which is maybe to do with the absence which is necessarily present in writing. Simply by the fact of something having been written, something else has been lost or left out: “and there, right there, is the warp and weft / of the poem she wants to craft” but which turns out, “… very different, yes, from the poem / she’s crafting now” (“Vona Groarke is writing a poem”). Or it might be to do with absences which the representation in words only accentuates, as in the poem “You”: “But tonight your name coheres / into the place where you should be …” Groarke plays with language’s qualities of absence and substance, treating her own words with the sort of care that this poem describes:
Under normal circumstances one would pull
from the heart of all this rain
a name, dry to the touch,
dry as a silence tended and turned, daily,
to the windowpane
so all its surfaces get even light.
On occasion the absences work in the other direction. The lack of the right word (in the title poem “Link”) seems implicated in causing the sudden emptiness:
… now hard frost slicks
the roof tiles under which I try to sleep. I make out
stars I have no name for and the world feels empty
all of a sudden, like the oak when the rooks have,
as if on cue, pulsed once and again, then up and off.
Not being able to put a name to the stars momentarily drains the significance from them, and, by implication, from everything else. Still, in this poem (which, atypically for Groarke, is personal to the point of showing vulnerability) the poet makes her own refuge in anxious times by “finding in a small life a space to breathe, and knowing it / for a luxury, and lining up words, these words, to call it so.”
Groarke’s poems have always traipsed a narrow path between their grounding in the day-to-day and the metaphysical images, edged with a surreal romanticism, that she inclines towards. “Quarantine”, for example, ends: “And the wind said ‘Shush’ through the keyhole / and the rain said, ‘Hush your lies’. // But I wasn’t listening in the least / with my hands brimful of stars.” “On Getting Through the Working Day Without Poetry” leaves us with this image of a personified lockdown day: “and the day leaves apples and oranges in a bag / to let me know it stopped by.” At times the rhythm of her lines, as well as the imagery, are reminiscent of Wallace Stevens, as in these lines from “Link”: “That the times are awkward is known even to a wind / that can turn corners, to a sun that outdoes itself.” But Groarke’s poetry never strays too far from the world as it is; a world where, as she asks in “Here and Now”, “is there anything left to be isolated from?” In “Link” the answer comes as an imperative, to “Focus, focus, on what’s to hand; on what is in my ken.” The narrator realises that “… it might be / what I’ve got and all I need, this fashioning of small rooms / into small civility; into this day’s putting of a life on the line / that runs (does it ever run!) from rage to disavowal.” Vona Groarke has always been able to make a lot with whatever she gleans from the surrounding world; hers is a sensibility which appreciates that the scraps maybe aren’t so meagre. The first stanza from the poem “Against Monotony” from her 2019 collection Double Negative opened with what could almost be, for Groarke, a poetic credo:
Today, a two-hundred mile drive and nothing
at the end of it but a glass of Merlot
and a radio fugue for voice and clarinet
which is a lot, when you think about it.
It is. Or at least it is for a writer like Groarke, who twins a dexterous poetic intelligence with a scrupulous alertness to her surroundings. Frequently, out of the daily to-and-fro (or, in the case of the present collection, the daily standstill) Groarke’s writing creates spaces – out of almost nothing – that come to seem luminous.
Paradoxically, though, it is the very achievement of these poems which amplifies the superfluousness of this collection’s architecture. Link: Poet and World is structured around the device of the character “Poet” being responded to by another called “World”. A poem on one page, a prose response or comment by “World” on the other. The point of this seems to be to give Groarke the space to contemplate questions of poetry in the world, or the world’s response to poetry, or even just to give voice to self-criticism and allow a defence to be articulated. The problem with this is that Groarke already manages such questioning with more nuance and subtlety within the space of the poems themselves. So, the poem “Evensong” begins, “Even on a bus home through dark country” and “World” on the facing page retorts “‘Even on a bus? As opposed to what – a bicycle? Or skis?’”. “World’s” (usually sardonic) commentary on the poetry does provide, at least, the occasional good line in relation to the lockdown (“‘Won’t you join me?’ says the world. Says World. And you would, except there’s one chair only, and one cup to drink from.”) There’s also a complicated relationship which plays out between Poet and World but attempting to decipher its flow distracts from the poems without providing much in the way of a return. The dialogue and mannerisms just don’t always convince and many jokes fall a bit flat. “World” has a particularly grating habit of referring to “Poet” as “Irish” (as in “Now, listen up, Irish.”) Overall, this device seems to take Groarke away from her strengths – poetry of unusual subtlety – and moves the focus instead towards dialogue, wit and characterisation. The “Poet and World” device may have stretched as far as a long poem or sequence, but as a concept for a collection it crosses the line from providing coherence to weighting the volume with unnecessary architecture. I wonder too, referring to the collection as she does in the acknowledgements as “this (admittedly) quite odd manuscript”, does the author have her doubts? The shortcomings of the concept are a distraction, but don’t take away from the sufficiency and achievements of the poems here. In the case of this collection, then, more “Poet”, less “World”.
Ross Moore completed his PhD at NUI Galway. He writes occasional articles and reviews on contemporary literature. He lives in Belfast.