Sean O’Brien: Embark • Alan Morrison: Green Hauntings, New and Selected Poems Vol 1 2000-2016 • John Kelly: Space • Alexandra Fössinger: Contrapasso • Jana Prikryl: Midwood • Brenda Shaughnessy: Liquid Flesh, New and Selected Poems
Embark by Sean O’Brien. £10.99. Picador. ISBN: 978-1529096859. Reviewed by Patrick Davidson Roberts
Perverted notion though it may be, Sean O’Brien is having a good Brexit. That is not to say that he’s managing to find anything positive in our national rupturing – any more than our countless Prime Ministers have been able to so find – but rather that in his three collections since 2016 (Europa, It Says Here, and now Embark) he has forged a fresh relevance for his own unique blend of the political and personal, and that of the national and the local. He has not ‘got political’ since 2016 – he has long been one of the more consistent of poetry’s pamphleteers – but the sheer lunacy and wreck of the last seven years seems to have made both the need for and the authority of his work essential.
I don’t buy the constant association of O’Brien with Auden; as used to be the case with O’Brien’s late mentor and friend Peter Porter, mentions of Auden always seem a rather ham-fisted way of praising undeniable craftmanship and rhythm but at the inevitable expense of any hint of the new. If we want to say that O’Brien can write well, clearly, and wield a rhyme with the best of them while making a solid socio-political comment, then Tony Harrison is a far more satisfactory comparison, as is Derek Mahon.
Indeed, it is Mahon whom the reader may (as this one was) be most strongly reminded of when reading Embark, and that is both exciting and oddly unsurprising, in terms of O’Brien’s progression with his post-2016 work. The utterly brilliant and beautifully layered ‘Stones’ evokes the late Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’ but in a tone and with a tale entirely O’Brien’s own
Under the snow, where the pub used to be,
a loathsome pond has settled down
on a bed of asbestos and pipework.
Here the stones are perfectly at home.
The little bastards live for this – the iron earth
the plate-glass water like a vitrine
in ‘a private collection’. Listen carefully
and you may hear them clench with joy.
No voices here. No opinions. The white field
narrow and long and unloved. […]
The sense of sediment and held memory in the wreckage of the scene is carefully set up, only for the brain-trust to be punctured by that ‘No voices here. No opinions.’ It sends the reader back to Mahon, but also to Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ (‘No motion has she now, no force; / she neither hears nor sees, / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,’) in its sense of the interred being both laid to rest and trapped in their own silence. Like Mahon, O’Brien has electrified the afterwards of an event in order to better understand and place it, as he does elsewhere in ‘Lord Back-End’
And the crow falling out of the tree
in a bundle of rags, with no last words.
No hesitation. Doesn’t bounce.
Lord Back-End sees, and it is good.
He pokes it with his stick. But as for you,
are you still here, and if so why?
The poet’s mastery of the still-life or caught scene brought the Dunn of ‘St Kilda’s Parliament’ to mind with its closing ‘For I was there, and am, and I forget.’ and that silencing and forgetting is a pounding theme in Embark, as in ‘Discreetly’
You know the kind of place I mean,
the air exhausted and the mantel-clock
like a recidivist, forgetting, then forgetting –
I was saying. But of course you were,
As corridors like this could testify.
Growing over the post-2016 O’Brien work has been a fascinated attention to testimony and false memory or feigned amnesia, which was announced in Europa’s stunning ‘Hangmen’. O’Brien has decided that as the turns and backtracks and rewriting of our national messes multiply, he will hold the scruff of the country’s neck so that it cannot but admit that what has been said has been said, and what has been done, done. Of course, this is what poets are supposed to do, the big important ones, but as the danger of that duty being mistaken for preaching puts most of them off, it’s a real thrill to find O’Brien doing it.
All of this may make the book sound more bad-tempered or ill-humored than it is, which would be wrong. From the first poem, ‘The Desks’, O’Brien makes it clear that his business is reflection and examination, and does so in an almost-wistful tone
I dream of how, when we have gone, the city turns
to introspection, seeking themes and patterns
from unnumerable instances. Where to begin?
For all that we are surrounded by rubbish and rubble, O’Brien refuses to surrender anything to be taken as or turned to mere trash. Wastage is his enemy, because even the ‘bastard’ stones, or the silent falling crow or the introspecting city are renewed, patterned, and speaking. Embark is an exciting, unsparing and serious book of poetry for 2023, leaving the reader only hungry for more of this brilliant post-2016 output of one of our best poets.
Patrick Davidson Roberts was born in 1987 and grew up in Sunderland and Durham. He was editor of The Next Review 2013-2017 and his debut collection of poems The Mains was published in 2018. His new collection, The Trick, will be published by Broken Sleep Books in May 2023. He lives and works in London.
Green Hauntings, New and Selected Poems Vol 1 2000-2016 by Alan Morrison. £15. Caparison. ISBN 978-1-8384966-2-3. Reviewed by Alan Price.
Green Hauntings, for a selected poems collection, is a very big book drawing on five poetry collections published over ten years and runs to slightly over three hundred and twenty pages. Nearly all the poems are long. Some extremely long. Yet Alan Morrison writes intense, anxious narratives that need a large, almost novel–like space in which to be fully explored. Roughly half of Green Hauntings is autobiographical: a pained, and genuinely painful, account of the poet’s autodidact effort to speak out loud about his upbringing. This is a courageous task for a writer attempting to find his own voice, not in concise confessional statements, but a semi-romantic outpouring of emotional disturbance and situation full of vivid detail and ornate decoration. In a sometimes dense, multi-layered, colourful, and even Gothic style (so much mental haunting is on show here) Green Hauntings exhibits a powerful blend of intense sorrow with a finally acknowledged affirmation.
To do Green Hauntings justice I will try and to map out points of poetic interest on Morrison’s epic journey from book after book. Morrison travels from rhyming verse to blank verse and often back to rhyme accompanied by the ghostly memory of the poet’s father who continually haunts these pages.
(1) Poems from The Mansion Gardens (2006)
‘A shabby, bedraggled, sopping ghost
orbited by a bulging back cloud
sogging in readiness to burst.’
That’s the last verse of the poem ‘In Search of the Haggard Ghost.’ This memorably forlorn image is what I felt was at the back of Morrison’s mind in The Mansion Gardens collection: his parent’s unhappy marriage, Catholicism, anxiety over a neglected mother and the first stirrings of class and social position are revealed. And a great anger centred round the image of Morrison’s unemployed father. In ‘Dole and Genealogy’ his father falls asleep in his chair and Morrison imagines him assessing his past, even struggling with the forces of ancestry.
‘…he trains his straining sights towards –
as the light begins to fail
his mind will slowly gather sail
& trace the print like mental Braile.
In the dark, he’ll bite his nails.
The social injustice directed at his family is a first step on the road to a solution – socialism. Poems almost become short stories: passionate and angry accounts of hardship and resilience. A frustrated need for improvement is announced. The stand out poems here are ‘The Gospel of Gordon Road’ (a series of vignettes about Morrison’s childhood neighbours) and ‘Time Takings’ (a group of philosophical questions about time).
(2) Poems from A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009)
In this selection I felt the strong influence of Blake, Hardy and Brecht. The opening poem ‘Praise with Faint Damnation’ is as politically didactic as Bertolt. This is followed by ‘The Clattering Classes’ and ‘Elocution Lessons’ where class snobbery and a skewed educational system are targeted. Socialism, art and music are to be the defences against inequality and poverty. ‘Ravelling Williams’ is a compelling poem about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet even a liking for classical music and a move towards politics cannot contain all that the poet has to say. For in ‘Traces’ its Morrison’s family witnesses that matter who might still prove to provide more power to heal.
‘Cassette in hand I drift home with the boon
of ghost companions, an amplified sense
of those passed on but who listen in; spoon
my replication brushed by their absence…
I’m not as out of synch as I often feel
but a variation scratching reel-to-reel…
(3) Poems from The Tall Skies (2013)
Morrison’s socialist voice surfaces again in what I would call his Scandinavian book. Travels to Finland and Sweden resulted in such diverse subject matter as Swedish woodcarving and the Finnish author Tove Jansson. And most unexpectedly the poem ‘The Great Immensities’ inspired by Harry Martinson’s famous 1965 book length poem Aniara.
Aniara is the name of the spacecraft which takes tourists to view Mars and hovers over its canals. But the spacecraft malfunctions and is doomed to drift forever in outer space. I recently saw the 2019 film Aniara partly based on the poem and Morrison’s writing powerfully recalled the plight of the passengers and crew on board.
‘Always pretending to please – a plotless culture
of astral tsars; existential statarna of the stars.’
And to equal to this remarkable piece are two poems about Ingmar Bergman: ‘Infractions of a Camera Eye and ‘Autumn Cloudberries’ (a punned reference to the film Wild Strawberries).
‘Bergman’s strange fruit tailgate the balanced intimations
Of the modern Swede, invisibly: but the sour juices
Sometimes seep into the brain with bitter intimations.’
I love the sensual angst of those lines. So biting!
(4) Poems from Blaze A Vanishing (2013)
This collection had me thinking positively of influences on Morrison. Basil Bunting came to mind in the lovely music of the final verse of ‘Broomflower.’ Hugh MacDiarmid sprang up on reading ‘The Sphinx and the Harpy.’ We also find poems for T. S. Eliot – ‘His Bitter Smile’ tackles Eliot’s Prufrock. ‘Terpsichorean Rhapsody’ is a paean of praise for the dancer Nijinsky. And ‘The Mark’ that explores class and identity is prefaced by a sharp quote by George Orwell on the smell of working class people!
(5) Poems from Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015)
Here we find a bigger shift from rhyming to blank verse and an emphasis on family portraits that have considerable emotional warmth. Compared to the ‘darkness’ of Morrison’s first book things have lightened up. ‘The Rooks of Barnham’ exemplifies this with a lively account of the family’s monthly visit to Bognor Regis. Amidst some grotesque description there emerges an engagingly absurd humour.
‘On Sylvan Way, to visit the ammonia-fumed
Nursing home for old stuffing-knocked rag-dolls
Obsolete Bagpusses, my mother among them,
Withered bird, grey-green woodpecker struck rigid
like a bookend carved from birch…’
There are also fine poems for Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and an especially moving account of the sad life of Jean Rhys. All rounded off with a dark explosion of poems dedicated to Kierkegaard
(6) Supplemental Poems
Yes, there are new poems added to Morrison’s selected. And we experience the return of further ghosts and poetry about the natural world. Thematically they one again speak of Morrison’s obsessions already found in his selected. However some verse is shorter and more relaxed. But Green Hauntings cannot finish on a detached note of resignation.
‘Something missing…or maybe that was all a dream
& my father’s Allan Quatermain mourning his…son?
Isn’t haunting just a sublime absentmindedness?
A soul’s shadow-throwing? Astral ruminating…?
Green Hauntings is an intense read. Perhaps it’s too long? We should have had fewer poems? And maybe it wasn’t a great idea for Morrison to supply a list of all the poets, music and books that helped to influence and shape his craft? Yet the autodidact is a heroic figure for Morrison and I am sympathetic to the idea of writers, and non-writers, using and then bypassing institutional education to read widely and wildly. That in its self is a political challenge. Knowledge for betterment. Maybe Green Hauntings artistically overreaches. But Morrison’s integrity and aspiration is to be applauded.
Alan Price’s poetry collections are Outfoxing Hyenas (Indigo Dreams), Angels at the Edge (Tuba Press), Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady (The High Window Press), The Trio Confessions (The High Window Press), Mahler’s Hut (Original Plus), Restless Voices (Caparison) Bewilderment (Martello Press). Alan’s latest is The Cinephile Poems (The High Window Press). He’s also the author of two short story collections. A new story will be included in an anthology to be published by The Montag Press (USA) in 2023.
Space by John Kelly. 2022. Dedalus Press. €12.50. ISBN 978-1-910251-98-0. Reviewed by Rona Fitzgerald. (paperback).
John Kelly is an Irish poet, fiction writer and arts broadcaster. He was born in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh and now lives in Dublin. His poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. In 2018, Dedalus Press published his debut collection of poems, Notions. The follow-up, Space, was published in May 2022. The Space in this collection is both the unknown universe and the small space or spaces where life takes place. Kelly focuses on the everyday. He captures ordinary moments with precision, with flair and with matter of fact language and imagery which grants them greater resonance in space and in time. For example, in the poem ‘1981’, Kelly, captures his youthful self as he longs for release from school. All he wants is to be ‘out on a boat’ having adventures in nature. He conjures ease, carefree days in lovely images:
off to the islands where the skeleton bones
of mammals and birds lay where they’d fallen
in the unmowed grass. Islands with cuckoos
and Sheila and Gigs, and pathways made by hares.
Yet, the last stanza manages to skilfully bring us back to the reality of growing up in Northern Ireland at that time. The language retains simplicity but manages to suggest menace:
If, on the way back, a chopper – a Lynx or a Gazelle –
zoomed across and buzzed the boat, and a soldier
from Blaydon-on-Tyne lined you up in his rifle’s sight,
what else could you do but hold your course?
Go home. Do your homework. Watch the news.
The idea of holding your course is important in life but particularly in a situation where cultures clash. The matter of fact telling underlines the reality of daily life in Northern Ireland at that time. While the poems are grounded in everyday experiences, Kelly is drawn to to light – to the stars as well as to birds and flight. The past casts a long shadow. Kelly’s remembrances expand poems out in space and in time. In a lengthy poem, ‘Woodwork’, Kelly manages to touch on a wide range of topics from reading to flight:
My father loved the story of Icarus.
He’d tell it with a sketchpad on his knee
so he could draw for me, with a 2B pencil, the falling boy.
The poem focuses on story-telling, on imagination and on his father’s craft as a carpenter. It resonates with Seamus Heaney’s poem about Digging teasing out the contrast between those who work with their hands and those who work with words. There is a world of loss in the poems, loss of family, of place and of youth. But they are also full of life, of lovely detail, demonstrating craft in poetry. Maybe, like Heaney, underlining or reassuring himself of the worth of his words.
The title poem of Space highlights the theme of near space and outer space as well as the link between space and time:
When Mrs Adams tapped the blackboard
with a red fingernail and spoke of space
and why I must put some space between my words,
all I could see were the planets and the stars.
Saturn’s rings, crescent moons, the Milky Way,
Cassiopeia scratched and scraping up and down
Cosmonauts floated like giant babies
Between words like Mum and Dad.
Kelly’s range is considerable. His poems are tender, his linguistic skill considerable. I highly recommend this collection.
Rona Fitzgerald was born in Dublin; she now lives in Glasgow. She writes poetry and prose.
Highlights include The Stinging Fly, Oxford Poetry and Blue Nib. She was a finalist in the Lonely Voice short story competition in 2011 and the 20 words for Twenty/Twenty in 2020. Recent publications include Dreich, Littoral Magazine, The Brown Envelope Book, The Arbroath Anthology, Marble Broadsheet, Fixator Press, Mind the Links 2and The Storms Journal.
Contrapasso by Alexandra Fössinger. £9.99. CephaloPress. ISBN: 978-1838220624. Reviewed by Jan Fortune
Love, loss, trauma and how we find healing are themes that weave through so much poetry that our senses can become blunted to the emotions being explored. Yet this is the story that all of us are immersed in and when a poet comes along who can give us new images for the human condition, new perspectives for the journey, the effect is powerful. Alexandra Fössinger is such a poet because she understands that deeply effective poetry has to say so much that relates to the unknown reader whilst also paying attention to all that is not said, so that the reader can find their own spaces between the words. She is such a poet because she deftly balances the lucid, accessible language of the surface story with what is hidden, even unspeakable so that the reader is invited to become fully immersed in the arc of this collection and every rereading unveils another layer. And she is such a poet because she appreciates that though the themes of the human condition repeat, the specificity of the ways these are interrogated is vital.
For Fössinger, this specificity is acute from the moment we read the title—‘contrapasso’, to suffer the opposite, is used by Dante as his poet is guided through the nine circles of hell, witnessing the torture of souls suffering for their sins. Whether the punishment is opposite, apposite or just plain cruel, there is an abundance of guilt and suffering in this collection: the poet and the lost, imprisoned lover suddenly facing the bereavement of his incarceration, which opens into an immensity of yearning. The longing for what was lost, the determination to discover how punishment can be survived and the slow rebuilding of a future that offers more than despair, are carried on the wings of birds through this collection, beginning with the opening poem, ‘Birds for someone who cannot hear’:
xxxxxxxxfragile as cut-out birds,
inflammable sky larks,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxresilient as we have been
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor all these years
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxmust fly to you.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxtheir only life’s purpose
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxis to find you
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxand sing for you in the dark.
xxxxxxxxxsealed with magic and despair,
their beaks nevertheless
xxxxxxxxor I will die with you.
And persisting to the final poem, ‘The robin redbreast’, which is short, compressed and sits against the margin. You will have to buy the collection to read it, but it’s noteworthy that the form as well as the content of the oneiric moments with birds has shifted because Fössinger inherently understands how every line turn and the placing of every word matters. The margin anchors us in time or unmoors us as it does in the opening poem or the words of a sentence drift apart, leaving the gap of the white space as in the first poem of the middle section, the intermezzo in which life has contracted to ‘everything less’:
End of the third xxxxxxxxxxxxxdecade, end
of the third round of outings into
the skeletal forest; xxxxxxxxxxxhere we lived on
signs, our memories becoming
guideposts for the future;; xxxxxhere we
learned through carnage how the weight
of words that fill us is assessed xxby
silence, the ordeal that we carry;
the decades now xxxxxxxxxxxxxnegotiated, all my
poems have come back to me, to
lure me into
In the face of all that has happened, form itself has to change and sometimes the emptiness of the white space wins. At other times the marks emerge from dreams or nightmares or witness to the intense loneliness of the poet, for whom the outer world and the present have become distanced, as in ‘discontinuation’:
i dreamt of a former love xxxxxxx24 years ago were closer
than you and I are in space
we who disgraced now humbly share
this continually protracted
Such distance—from life as it was and from the ordinariness of being part of the world—comes as a surprise even to the poet, as in ‘Pane’:
I sometimes wonder
why no friends visit me here
in this flat suspended deep
between sea and sky,
then suddenly remember
I have none
— and this distanced state is laden with shame, as in ‘Ambulant’:
We say of the dead that sometimes they walk,
they left no footprints here—
What stays instead is the memory
of a scare, and guilt-ridden shame
for the windows made blind,
as if they knew they were meant
to keep disclosure inside,
that emptiness is best hidden
by a display of tame beauty.
But loneliness, shame and suffering are not the whole story. Amidst the longing, loss and guilt, are memories so pure and transporting that we feel the solace, tinged with defiance, that they continue to offer, as in ‘Oltrarno’ after the revelation of a moment of tenderness:
Love does not diminish with time and age,
with the fear that will follow,
nor will it be altered by pain,
the gaze of others
who cannot see what a photograph
recounts of love, of who we were,
what it discloses,
nor the secrets it keeps to itself.
Adding to the impact of this intelligent collection, the poems are layered with references that are used with a lightness of touch. Alongside Dante, there are also Biblical echoes like the one to 1 Corinthians 13 in the above quote from ‘Oltrarno’, or a nod to Carmina Burana’s ‘O, Fortuna’, itself a reference to the earlier mediaeval theology of Codex Buranus, as in ‘Velut luna’:
In the life before afterlife, we were one
imaginable conjoined body,
fluid as the North Sea
that cut us in two.
until a great force shut off the moon,
mistress of fortune, muted
her irresistible gravitational call.
Haunted and haunting, Contrapasso is an exquisitely realised debut collection from a poet I look forward to reading more from.
Jan Fortune is the founding publisher and editor at Cinnamon Press. She writes novels and poetry, her most recent collection being at world’s end, begin (Cinnamon Press, 2023), mentors writers. and blogs about writing and the writing life at https://janfortune.com/
Midwood by Jana Prikryl. £19.99. Norton. ISBN 978132403521. Reviewed by Ian Pople
Liquid Flesh, New and Selected Poems by Brenda Shaughnessy. £14.99. Bloodaxe, ISBN 9871780376295. Reviewed by Ian Pople
There has always been an element of the surreal in Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry; a sense of the surreal that has run from the early poems in this Selected through to the post-apocalyptic world that forms the heart of her 2019 collection The Octopus Museum. In the early volumes, that surrealism is a kind of skewing and imagery. In ‘Swell’ selected here from Shaughnessy’s first volume, Shaughnessy grapples with sensuality, ‘We toss freely with fever this mirror / desilvered. And break into rain upon / finding such umber yielding of frost to febris.’ I had to look the last word up (not in itself a bad thing) and, unsurprisingly, it is the Latin for fever. Some of this working of language is a way of stretching Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ to its limits, and another theoretical idea, that of Kristeva’s ecriture feminine also seems to fit this part of Shaughnessy’s procedure. And there is something very apt in the way, ‘fever’, the ‘mirror desilvered’, ‘rain’, ‘umber’, ‘frost’ and ‘febris,’ are put together here. Shaughnessy is adept at capturing the surreal tumbling together of sensualities.
Jana Prikryl is, in some ways, an heir to the New York School of poets famously established by Ashbery, Schuyler and O’Hara. Her previous book, No Matter, was almost a nod to O’Hara’s Lunchtime Poems. Often the poems took place as the narrator was walking through New York, and contained comments on both the city and its inhabitants. The cover of that book was a print of a murmuration of birds as if New York were a kind of mass movement, on which the narrator was commenting. For Prikryl, too, surrealism is still a living presence, Andre Breton gets a nod in her first book, The After Party. And she is not afraid to reference a range of what we might call, ‘high culture.’
Prikryl’s new book, Midwood, contains rather less of that reaching out. Midwood seems, at first blush, to be much more introspective. It seems clear that the ‘I’ in these poems is often very close to the authorising consciousness of the book. On occasions, that I is situated historically, as in a poem called, ‘The Sidecar,’ which purports to describe the crashing of Lindberg’s plane, and finishes, ‘I buried my face in the shoulder beside me when his mom / in the sidecar perceived he wouldn’t level out, they did crash / he’d be damned if he saw those benefits go to everyone in the South / this softened the class to Hugh’s baseness, because he’d also suffered’. In this volume, Prikryl dispenses with full stops, and I mention that here, because she has a way of getting inside an experience which makes it feel entirely authentic even when it feels oblique. James Woods in a cover blurb calls this ‘self-unravelling.’ And if that feels right, because it suggests that the self has been posited that unravels. Thus the slide here between the one who buries the face in the shoulder, to the ‘mom in the sidecar’ to the Hugh who is ‘base,’ is very precisely perceived. It all carries emotional weight.
The self that Brenda Shaughnessy explores is relatively clearly the self of Brenda Shaughnessy herself. To an extent this makes a lot of the writing, particularly of the middle period selected in the book, what we might loosely consider ‘confessional.’ In Shaughnessy’s case, that term needs some unpacking. There are poems here which we might call ‘truth-telling.’ There are a number of these from across Shaughnessy’s volumes; and they are often couched in a plainer, more narrative oriented style. ‘But I’m the Only One’ begins, ‘who’ll walk across a fire for you / growled Melissa. That song / blared out from all four of / our bedrooms’ tape decks, / often simultaneously, as if / that song were the only one / we all loved, the only one we / could agree on that summer / in the dyke loft, just when it / all started to change.’ There’s an interesting way with line breaks in such a piece; sometimes feeling rhythmically paused and sometimes demanding that the sense and the rhythm run over the line break. Both strategies allow the narrative an intimate drive; from the event of the song playing, through a comment on the song’s common acceptance through to that final narrative flourish. The sentence itself ends mid line so demands that the reader read on.
Elsewhere the self is explored through more extended metaphors. ‘Dress Form’ begins, ‘Myself I’m like a dress my mother made / me, a fabric self split open with a sigh / as I grew and – bewildered or proud // or full of rage – patched with nicer / material than we’d had before. I got / the sense it was all wasted on me.’ Again, the line breaks sometimes feel earned, as in the second in this quotation. And other times the line breaks, such as that between the adjective ‘nicer’ and the noun ‘material’ are part of the emotional fracture that the poem explores.
A third strategy is that shown in ‘I wish I had more Sisters’ which begins, ‘I wish I had more sisters, / enough to fight with and still / have plenty more to confess to, / embellishing the fights so that I / look like I’m right and then turn / all my sisters, one by one against / my sister.’ This is an exploration of the self as combatant, both literal and metaphorical. The metaphorical combatant is the one in Shaughnessy’s head, who speculates and indulges in this wish-fulfilment. And it is a testament to Shaughnessy’s considerable skill that each of these strategies is so engaging. We take Shaughnessy at her word in each of them. The word on the page depicts a world that feels inevitable and real.
It may appear that I am drawing a line between one writer for whom the self is grounded in the realities it encounters. And the other writer for whom the self is more mutable, is a self in transit. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. Prikryl’s self is very much engaged with the recognitions it encounters; its recognitions of others, for example her son, ‘the little man who’s four / got us up for sunrise in the living room / because it’s very beautiful he said / … / but mama it looks like the sun is setting’. This is the Prikryl who is centered not only in the family but also in New York and who’s poems are ways of finding her bearings in those kinds of milieu. For Shaughnessy, it may well be the body that offers both a centre and an analogy for that centre; ‘…after I returned home, I felt a relief, a snake in the middle of its shedding, knowing there was still this cylinder of self left,’’G-Bread’. For both writers, the concern is how the Self locates itself in our contemporary world. Both writers have both the skill and the imaginative chutzpah to work through the ways we might do that.
Ian Pople‘s Spillway: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.