Waiting for Music, by Simon Mundy, Renard Press Poetry, 79 pp, £10, ISBN 978-1913724436
The Limit of Light, by Grace Wilentz, Gallery Press, 83 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-1911338000
When future academics examine the themes of lockdown poetry publications, how will foreign travel fare? While travel-based poetry may have an added appeal to travel-starved readers, the locked-down poet would need a solid store of former travel experience to match the benefit of an excess of time in which to write. Simon Mundy’s Waiting for Music may be the product of these happenstances.
In his postscript, written while “confined to Caithness”, the extensive travels chronicled here “have become the stuff of dreams and impractical longings”. But the title of the collection points to a deeper well of inspiration, for the travel was a necessary component of lifelong relationships with musicians, visual artists and dancers.
The collection is fronted by a four-page “Notes on the Poems”. We learn that the opening sequence, “Brahms – Poems to Accompany Op. 117-119”, consists of short poems that reflect the notion that these pieces by the German composer were in reminiscence of a woman he had loved but never partnered; Mundy’s poems take up the same theme and while these often tend to the obscure, the closing poem has its own bitter clarity:
At the latter end of love,
When the jabs, stiletto slights,
Strychnine kisses take their toll …
That sequence arose from a conversation with a composer, and others have equivalent beginnings in invitations and commissions; the source of “Concerto grosso – After Corelli’s Op. 6, No. 4 in D Major” is the auditions for the European Union Baroque Orchestra; “Scrolling …” was written for Supernova, an internet project of the international contemporary arts network Auropolis, based in Belgrade; “Seven Poems for Blood Orange’s Exhibition in Brussels” derives from the eponymous visual arts collective; and “Venetian Serenade” is a scena for a collaboration of voice, dance and baroque orchestra, based on a sixteenth century painting by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo. Some of these collaborations have led to public performance (and hence the travel).
Given his limited knowledge of the musical arts, this reviewer felt more drawn to poems that did not seem to rely on that knowledge; standouts include “Putting in to Valparaiso”, a return to the city of the poet’s father’s birth that marries family memories with a visit to Neruda’s house, and the long poem, “Llandian”; reflecting the story of London as a city, this poem was intended for a poem-dance collaboration with the Royal Ballet.
But amid all the multiple travel associations, the musical collaborations, the central theme of love, there’s a special shoutout for “Angel Match – Fallen vs. Unfallen”; spoiler alert, it was a draw!
That the poems in Grace Wilentz’s The Limit of Light have diverse locations is not surprising; born and raised in New York, well-travelled within the United States and in Europe and now settled in Ireland, there is no shortage of material; her treatment of this material is more than equal to it.
The collection is divided into four sections; Part One’s central actors are her parents, especially a fully engaged father that many Irish children can only dream of. Amid fine poems of childhood memories, he is alive even after death in the very moving poem “Pretending to Say Goodbye at the Village Temple”:
There’s panic at the wrong coffin.
It’s topped with a Star of David –
too religious, my father would have said …
Part Two belongs to the poet’s mother, with strong poems in her voice, in the roles of bereaved wife and of cancer patient. From “Summer Accomplishments, After Death”:
I was left with all this love
And nothing to do with it.
It seems likely that her mother’s work as a sculptor has some bearing on poems like “The Mosè” (in San Pietro in Vincoli) and “The First Night of Spring in the West Village” that features the Chaim Gross sculpture The Family.
The delineation of Parts three and four is less emphatic but the poet’s mother features in the former, most strikingly in “Last Look”, which has the setting of the artist’s studio. Equally, the latter is dominated by the sequence “Matryoshka”, a meditation on her father’s Jewish origins in Vilnius. Thus far, the reader of this review might think this collection is misery-laden but both these sections are sprinkled with poems that are life-affirming and that reflect her new surroundings in Ireland. Interactions with a perfume salesperson and a psalm-quoting waiter, and the interior life of a yoga session, all sit comfortably with location titles such as “Castlewellan Carwash” and “Portrane Estuary, June 2015”.
With a sharp eye for the unusual, pitch perfect language and strong end lines, this is an impressive debut.
Iggy McGovern’s most recent publication is The Eyes of Isaac Newton (Dedalus, 2017)