Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Doire Press, 70 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1907682582
Memory, as we know, is unreliable. But certain things we know to be true can be recovered from the past. Events of human tragedy and enormous dimension still await our attention, to be written about in poetry. Eavan Boland recognised this, especially in that iconic and historically resonating poem “Quarantine”, in which a man and a woman, the latter suffering from famine fever, walk by night, only to be found dead the following morning, her feet “held against his breastbone”. Boland, importantly, refers to “the toxins of a whole history” in this poem.
It is these toxins which are of interest to Annemarie Ní Churreáin in her distinctive debut collection, Bloodroot, a collection in which the idea of roots bathed in many kinds of “blood” is richly explored. In sections I and II, she has much to say about subjects which range from the discards of a society which purports to care (“Intervention”), to her title poem, a formally energetic and visionary lyric response to Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, and on to “On Visiting Ellis Island” and a solitary Irish girl whose name features in that long list of lists that defines any visit to Ellis Island, and appals the contemporary visitor with its legacy of need and terrible poverty.
She also interrogates the present, and the recent past, through the poem “Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)”, an account which references the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and in six stanzas confronts the horror of life in such places behind the veneer of correct hygiene instruction. The six stanzas are of varying length and the poet allows her statement to dictate this rather than restricting herself technically.
Ann Lovett, St. Bridget, and, behind them, the effects of life in a repressive society, define the first section. Her memorable prose poem “Wall”, preceded by a quotation from the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, is the one which partly characterises the poetic intensity of Ní Churreáin’s preoccupations. These walls, she suggests, are not walls which empower women, yet patriarchal walls are everywhere, teaching women how to shut themselves off from themselves, how to perform, how to endure being marked out of ten like cattle in a ring. And finally, when the speaker is working on a building site herself, a man asks her: “what do you know about walls?”
Although the poems centre on “subjects” and “issues”, the strength of the poet’s work derives from an absence of agenda. There may well be an agenda, but thanks to poetic language true to its task, we are left believing in these poems as poetry. Furthermore, Ní Churreáin provides the reader with an ethical vision of poetry, that which Eavan Boland once described as “a functioning part of the poetic imagination, and not an optional addition” (A Journey with Two Maps, 2011).
Section III sees the reader away from Ireland. The perspective is more opaque, yet a more spiritual map-making remains rooted in the idea of blood. This is the world of the visceral reality of “the other”, places with no effective social scaffolding, where life is precarious: two men perish in monsoon rain (“Tibetan Sweetbread”), after which the poet attends a teacher who has gathered “all the spare ingredients / that could be gathered today / in a closed village …” Baked bread becomes the poet’s mystical focus as she recognises how “flour is the first word”, as in life-bringer and nourishment, but arguably on several levels including the spiritual and psychic.
The poet, like a disciple seeking the appropriate mentor, journeys into the exterior world, but the journey is not so much about countries and places as a mapping of the hitherto unmapped. She is intent on recovery from past concealments of self, an encounter which brings her face to face with revelations such as, (while in Florida), being “a failed daughter”. At the same time, she opens herself – and the reader – to the idea of desire: the thing which “cannot be erased”. And it is this pursuit of the necessary, of that through which the true self is ultimately revealed, which underpins this poet’s voice.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is rightly being celebrated in our literary society. She is part of our tribe of Irish poets and thanks to her publishers at Doire Press, an original voice redeems poetry from many shoddy habits of expression, through subject, a sure technique, reflective language and much passion. Fresh, vital, highly recommended.
Mary O’Donnell is a poet and novelist.