The Poison Glen, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin, The Gallery Press, 72 pp, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911338154
Fresh Out of the Sky, by George Szirtes, Bloodaxe Books, 160 pp, £12.95, ISBN: 978-1780375847
A poet of the Donegal Gaeltacht, Annemarie Ní Churreáin writes a poetic line whose roots are deep and deeply disturbed. Dislocation locates her art. Her first collection was aptly titled Bloodroot and this new book, more robust and overwhelming, speaks of dislocation and loss, of pain and attachment, in a poetry of furious energy and stunning verse-craft. There are poems in The Poison Glen such as “Creed” and “The Screaming Room” that are simply masterpieces, the former with those startling opening words “I believe in the queer, round window; / in the queer white bird ‑ watcher of bar and bolt – ” and the latter poem with its scorching truths: “I come from women who found themselves / in trouble … In their honour I can never again be silent.” Hers is a poetry that is fire and rage burning, with an intensity of feeling that reminds me of the intensity of a young Maire Mhac an tSaoi’s work, such a work of passion and intense longing. The entire collection is anchored, or rooted, in “The Foundling Crib”, a wonderful poem on a long-closed Dublin Foundling Hospital:
When you walk through Dublin you walk
in the land of the suffering. Sometimes
I feel the deer of Phoenix Park roam down
Onto the edge of my breath.
Shadow gods with shadow lives, coal eyes burning.
What are they trying to tell?
And thus begins a marvellous, moving historical narrative of troubled, hunted women, souls who knew no lullaby as Eavan Boland wrote in “Child of Our Time”, words that are the epigraph to Ní Churreáin’s poem. Here the babies, “washed and ink-stamped / on the inner arm”, are sent from the room of birth to the room of want, where nurses present corpses for inspection. She recreates, with deepest empathy, the harrowing reality of a Soviet-like era: Irish motherhood in its Catholic GULAG. In ten powerful cantos, the poet makes the dead scratch their pain upon the window-pane of each cell:
wages for want and cold.
Wages for fits. Wages for death.
Who am I except an eyeless witness treading a cemented site?
Who were these sons and daughters left
In a flowerless grip to dwindle head-to-toe
In cradles swarming vermin and bugs.
The sequence is the lively pulse of the book, its fierce polemical heart. Bells, clocks, hunger, milk hours, a parade of foundlings with pockets turned out to excite charity; Ní Churreáin layers the detail, slams the colours of pain, those historic pigments, onto the waiting page where they will reach every reader’s engaged eye. In the afterlight of social history the poet has knelt, in essence, at the lime-hole where ten corpses at a time were dispatched into the earth. With “The Foundling Crib” this poet has raised a monument.
But there are many other achievements in The Poison Glen; it is not in any sense a one-dimensional book. There are elements of a life beyond St Joseph’s Industrial School or Carriglea Park Industrial School or Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home. While each of these homes has inspired astonishing texts here, historic and feminist reverberations in pearls of work, this is a poet who also chants life; who going closer to the flame at all times, still remains the girl who cannot be stolen, a robin of poetry. Conscious of this power within her, Ní Churreáin can tackle anything:
But the mare’s eye is an orb that shines
as whole and undisturbed as any future
she might yet encounter. Perhaps
she sees within that iris a transformed
shadow of the many-chambered heart
“The Mare’s Eye”, above, is simply an amazing lyric, as beautifully written as white sheets against the sun, as a mother braiding a daughter’s hair, reassuring her that “some day you will be beautiful”. It is a poem of earth, field and nurture. Charms, promises, myths, invocations to the gods, seed and fruit “more milk sweet than ever”, Ní Churreáin has all of this richness in her myth-kitty. Her art is a grain-store, youthful and life-giving. Demanding and technically perfect poems like “The Lamb Who Became a Wolf” and “Will You write a Bird for Us?” give us a perfection of technique and voice, the sureness of craft. “We good-mouth your sailing” as she writes in “A Blessing of the Boats by the Village Mothers”, a poem of good karma on the sea, of keeping the light for safe return. After history, her story, its pain and irrecoverable loss, this Donegal poet is fully conscious of the redemptive nature of poetry, of the saving power that is such a part of its beauty. It is a stunning, central part of her wonderful art that, after pain, she would have us “make a bowl / spilling yellow corn-light”. What a gift Annemarie Ní Churreáin is to contemporary Irish poetry, what an absolute gift to this nation from Donegal. She has given us a masterpiece in this, her first Gallery Press book, The Poison Glen.
Without question, George Szirtes is the most distinguished poet now living in England. Hungary’s loss was England’s gain in 1956 and those elements of Budapest Jewish life that Szirtes has reclaimed imaginatively only serve to enrich and expand England’s poetic consciousness. Winner of the TS Eliot Prize for Reel and the venerated James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his deeply moving and exquisitely written The Photographer at Sixteen, he may feel little cause for complaint – yet I think he is under-appreciated, except among the ranks of the happy few who really know his work. He is the Stendhal of Norfolk, isolated from fame and still remembering the almost irrecoverable past in a dialogue with lost fathers: “so God embraced him in his arms but fate / decreed he should be cast away alone” as he writes in “Early Christian”. There is always unease, discomfort, exile, in his deepest work. Spiritually, he has never settled and he won’t settle; he won’t be restrained imaginatively, even in Covid times: “Darling, these are days / of anxiety. Listen / to the high-pitched call // of small birds. Kiss me.” These lines are from “Wartime” in the section “Going Viral”, a lockdown diary written as an almost mystical novena of ten-line prayers, three tercets and one orphan-line to each poem: “everything wants life, / said the thing, meaning itself, / we too struggle on.”
Locked in, listening to the night train and the night patrol, the poet is anxiously waiting. He pins these lyrics to his locked door like a biblical lamb. Pigeons, parrots, penguins and rats all appear in the new reality of discussion or dreams. In “Stopping train”, an echo of Donald Davie – accidental or intended? ‑
the name of the long lost friend
who has now returned.
There is a hidden
Country, a domain passed through
At night, on a train.
Time plays tricks, “The clock spins like a lost child” and “Night slips between days/ as if they weren’t there.” Gradually he hopes for an end, a better world, an alternative that lies deep beneath earth from where a poet might emerge carrying flowers. The section ends with a series of consolations, verbal consolations at first, delightful words like Nymph, Salamander, Sulphur. The beauty of this section is its interiority, its inner-outer sense of being, its presentation of human existence as something nebulous, tentative and vulnerable.
Elsewhere, or should I say everywhere, in this collection there are sequences and single poems of equal power and importance. The poet’s creative virtuosity, his mental athleticism, is on every page of Fresh Out of the Sky. It has been one of the characteristics of George Szirtes as a poet that his aesthetic ambition, his mental stretch as it were, has never flagged. His poetry has that Yeatsean capacity to take on heavier and heavier thematic loads: like Yeats, his phrasing is always up to every challenge:
I woke up in dystopia, it was bad,
just like the warnings said, but so much worse,
around me sat the nightmares I had had,
and all the future, too late to reverse.
Dystopian fields as far as the eye could see,
Destruction, rust, dead trees, polluted streams.
I’d seen them all on screen repeatedly,
Surfing along the underside of dreams …
His poetry has always witnessed that beast of misfortune slouching towards Bethlehem, the great, overwhelming themes. And his mind has been a match for all of them. Fresh out of the sky onto the windswept tarmac of a bleak but sheltering England, the poet moved from his London maisonette “next to the railway line / in a street no longer there” to the creative exile of Norfolk, all the while never letting go of the Danube, the Metro and the dream of Moldova as story and location. In imagination everything survives redaction and deletion, and the freedom that Szirtes has allowed his imagination is the most profound statement of his political being. Freedom is everything when you’ve had to earn it through a coinage of exile; it is not merely a fleeting idea or a subject for academic debate. Poetry has allowed Szirtes to remain grounded within that personal imperative, his dislocation, his grateful exile. And then there is the artist Clarissa Upchurch, his soul-companion, the “you” of so many poems, who has become so much part of his life and his view of life that her presence is part of his aesthetic power. In a time of pandemic, assailed by a deadly pneumonia virus that stalks the land, he writes “I breathe. / You breathe. We breathe.” The best refuge is love, his poems seem to say, and to have found an artist to love is a kind of perpetual arrival for a poet. Dealing with the most dreadful, dark materials, painfully honest about exile and isolation, Fresh Out of the Skies is, unexpectedly, a joyous and life-affirming work:
welcome home, you say.
Tell me about your travels.
Thomas McCarthy’s latest book, Poetry, Memory and the Party: Journals 1974-2014, is published by the Gallery Press.