Caesura, by Clairr O’Connor, Astrolabe Press
A Constant Elsewhere of the Mind, by Máiríde Woods, Astrolabe Press
Máiríde Woods and Clairr O’Connor, whose new volumes of poetry were published by Astrolabe Press in October, have been steadfast presences in the world of poetry over the last number of decades. This reviewer must declare an immediate interest, having been part of a writing group (the Thornfield Writers Group) with them. So it is a particular pleasure that some of the drafts we discussed with such intensity and seriousness of purpose during our monthly meet-ups at the Irish Writers Centre now appear in their final versions in their new books; it’s always nice to have the sense of being at both the winding of the clock and its striking.
Clairr O’Connor has published four collections of poems (as well as two novels), and this new publication, Caesura, brings together poems from the first four books (one from Salmon and three from Astrolabe), as well as twenty-one new poems.
One of the great pleasures of a “new and selected” is that it allows the reader to chart the themes and obsessions of an individual writer over a longer time period. I’m guessing that the experience of making the selection was an interesting one for Clairr herself but for the reader, one gets to form an impression of the shifts in style, emphasis and focus over nearly two decades of publishing poems.
The opening section draws on her 1989 collection When You Need Them, which was published by Salmon Poetry. There are nine poems included in this volume and already we’re seeing Clairr’s characteristic mischief, her keen observation of the domestic dynamics of visiting mothers and house moves and the subtle adjustments that men and women make in their habits when they come together. I loved the picture in the poem “Another Space” of the young wife, sneaking out of the bedroom to “find another space, my own”. Even at this stage, Clairr is exploring the competing pressures that women writers must face when trying to prevent the writer’s identity from being submerged in the domestic. And it’s fascinating to see how she handles imagery, those fleeting birds that change shape and colour but seem a constant presence in her imaginary world, as with the “sad birds hanging, / their feathers take to wind” in the poem “Black Notes Only”.
There is a fifteen-year break between the first and second collections (Breast was published by Astrolabe in 2004) and as you’d imagine in that space of time, lives are lived, businesses are established, griefs are experienced, illnesses diagnosed, survived and responded to. I first read Breast shortly after it was published – and I remember how riveted I was by the book’s utter honesty and lack of self-pity; there was a shared compulsion for both writer and reader in the witnessing of that story and surely many women found consolation in the bravery with which their own tales were also being told. But rest assured, this book was not misery-verse (if I can coin that phrase) – there are glorious moments of black humour, as in poems like “What They Say”, with couplets such as “Don’t worry about losing your hair / you’ve always looked good in hats.” If Kavanagh could “fall in love with the functional ward / of a chest hospital”, O’Connor can see the lyric potential of the radiology department, as she says in the poem “Radiation”:
And so it goes on,
The radiation waltz.
In, out, and in again.
When it’s done
the Nurse does a tap
dance with the release button.
And as with Kavanagh, who took the message from his illness that we must “record love’s mystery without claptrap”, what underlies all Clairr’s poems, and gives them that extra charge, is the sense that love persists, whatever is physically altered, whatever new palimpsest has been created.
Happily, we didn’t have to wait quite so long for the next book, as Trick the Lock was published by Astrolabe just four years later. I can imagine a sort of impatience on the part of the writer, wanting to be rid of the subject matter of the previous book, and determined to look forward and outward to new themes. And in this case, Clairr mined her fictional skills and historic research to mix contemporary poems with verse narratives exploring the theme of the various imprisonments men and women in history experienced and writing poems that give voice to prisoners, mistresses of celebrated philosophers, nuns within enclosed orders and foundlings. These are wonderful examples of Clairr’s ventriloquism and her eye for detail. Take this from the poem “Foundling Hospital”, where “boxes in Matron’s office / are for others when they leave”. The later poems in this collection bring us back to the contemporary and are informed by travel – Clairr and her husband, Kevin Honan, have a strong connection to Turkey and Budapest, which features in the later poems; we can resonate with the renewed joy in simply living and experiencing, in poems such as “The Fates”, where “we gorged on the season’s fruit”.
The fourth collection, So Far, appeared four years later in 2012. Here too Clairr’s novelist instincts are on view, with poems exploring historic characters with a Chaucerian flavour, such as “The Pilgrim” or “The Monk’s Tale”, whose austere protagonist wonders frostily
How little these stately ladies
know of true atonement
though they wish to be shriven!
One of the outstanding poems for me of this collection was the portrait of the embroiderer in the poem “Crewel”, painstakingly stitching a christening robe for her mistress’s child whilst her own baby died.
As I said at the outset, there are twenty-one new poems in this volume, dedicated to the memory of Clairr’s brother, Pat. And the poems sound a renewed elegiac note, as loved ones’ illnesses are chronicled, and life’s hard lessons are explored with stoicism. In “Translation” she tells us:
We learn best when we solve
new puzzle. We stand guard
at the sentry shelter while autumn
rusts to winter or we see too few
before we stumble
towards no-man’s land.
That no-man’s-land is frequently the hospital, where the poet, a veteran guide, takes us by the hand and interprets those “familiar words made strange as if / we’ve translated a foreign / language” (from the poem “Disordered”). The restraint of such poems makes them all the more poignant – the flatly final lines, “Your legs no longer / do what they should”, hit home hard. And at times, as is often the case with terminal illnesses, it feels that even love, that watchword of so many of Clairr’s poems, is not enough, as she suggests in the poem “Tint”, although the reader might counter that this faithful witnessing is in itself an act of love that will last beyond the immediate life of the poems’ focus. And when the inevitable happens, the presence remains in grief and memory. The beautiful poem “Gone” reminds me a little of Aeneas’s glimpses of his father in the underworld, though now we are in Vienna, and the lost one (or soon to be) is “just yards ahead / of me as I rushed from Julius Tandler Platz / to Friedensbrucke Bahnhof, the sun / startling my view of you.” In this section too, history provides analogues for the present, whether it be medieval plague or later revolutions. The French terrors find echoes in modern Budapest, in the poem “Terror”, whilst other pasts are excavated in the poem “Search”. And terror remains present in contemporary Ireland, where a refugee cannot leave behind the memories of their flight (in the poem “Refugee in Ireland 2016”).
It is typically Clairrean to end this volume with a poem called “Forward”, as if announcing a new shift, a new focus because “Life reads / differently when we slip back into fogged memory, fading / ghosts moving around corners.” A good writer should always leave us hungry for what will come next, and this is precisely what Clairr O’Connor does.
This is Máiríde Wood’s third collection, and the third with Astrolabe, her previous two being The Lost Roundness of the World (in 2006) and Unobserved Moments of Change (in 2010). But Máiríde’s achievements in poetry go back considerably longer than that – she was the Hennessy New Writer of the Year in 1992, when the work was judged by Wendy Cope and Hugh Leonard – and throughout that period her work was appearing in journals and magazines. But equally throughout that period she was combining a passionate activism for the rights of people with disability with moments snatched for poetry so it is a delight to see that in retirement she has found more space to be productive on the writing front.
Máiríde is Antrim-born, but for many years has lived in Sutton in North Dublin, on the top curve of that glorious basin that is Dublin Bay. So it can be no surprise that the briney air of that neighbourhood has invaded her dreams and permeated her poetry. That is evident from the opening poem of this new collection, “Absences”, where she cleverly mines the metaphorical resonances of the debris washed ashore on her local beach – this poem is so characteristically Máiríde; a clear-eyed determination to look the harsh realities of life straight in the eye without whitewash: “the debris of our lives is washed, spun, salted / exposed upon the shore; past its best, / leading to embarrassment.”
Make no mistake. The lyricism is there, the eye for the epiphany heralded by the call of the curlew in that first poem but Máiríde is telling us that life holds both joy and pain (or embarrassment) simultaneously and one cannot be blind to the latter whilst capturing hold of the former. “How to live / with weakness, fragility and death”, she asks in the poem “Lapse”, and the answer to that question is to be found throughout this beautiful collection.
She divides the book into seven sections; the first includes the sequence “Way With Words” which charts the gradual disintegration of communication on many different levels: between people, within the self. She questions memory and the relationship between past and present, planting seeds of doubt and uprooting them constantly. How can we trust those “Words again / those rampant weeds / that sneak out of cracks / spoiling the clean line / of thought”, she asks in “In Crevices”, the third poem of that sequence. And, ever the honest writer, she doesn’t does attempt to offer easy solutions although time and again she proves the necessariness of words to navigate our way.
The second section focuses more specifically on the past, with family history, old photos and possessions the prism for Máiríde’s explorations of family dynamic and inheritance. Here too there’s no softening of blows or bowing to nostalgia – in the poem “The Other Grandmother 1874-1925” she tells us that:
A chance resemblance joined us
I often see our mother in you,
my aunt said and a chill fell
on that sunny convent visit.
That chill speaks volumes, and demonstrates the subtly of Máiríde’s story-telling art.
Jenny Joseph famously announced her intention to wear purple when she reached a certain stage of life. In the third section of the collection, Máiride offers her own forensic take on that life-stage, refusing any euphemism of the kind I’ve just offered, celebrating the bargain basement shoes (in the gloriously black “The Underworld of Feet”) and hair-care for the older woman, and acknowledging in “Thinking of Old Ladies” that we all become the people we never imagined we would.
She turns her eye to more overt social engagement in the fourth section with poems about the Magdalene Laundries and the impact of time on the campaign for nuclear disarmament but always the past is calling her, the memories evoked of family and old friendships. The mood becomes more obviously elegiac in section five, although the exploration is as much political as it is personal, in poems such as “Obituaries”, where “the old heroes are dying / those who preached revolution” and “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”, where she brilliantly captures the ambivalent relationship between nationalism and violence at the heart of Irish society.
Sections six and seven return to the territory of the closely observed, with glorious capturings of urban foxes and deflated balloons – only Máiride could express empathy, in the poem “The Mauve Balloon”, with the shrivelled balloon of the title, admitting her fear of outing her “need for rescue and affection”. Honesty, a determination not to evade the harshest of realities and innermost fears, is a watchword of this collection. But so too is hopefulness – although she declares in the poem “The Fallen Optimist” that “I don’t do optimism any more” – that ancient magnolia tree in the poem “Spring Visit”, who year after year can be seen “singing opera / over-the-top in diva pink” leaves a more lasting image of resilience and perseverance that I will always associate with the work of Máiríde Woods.
And finally, Astrolabe, which is the labour of love of Clairr O’Connor and Kevin Honan, is to be commended for its consistently fine production values. These are handsome books, deserving their place in anyone’s library.
Nessa O’Mahony is a poet and teacher.