Seán Lysaght, Grace Wells, Mary Dorcey and Victoria Chang – The Irish Times

Seán Lysaght’s latest collection, New Leaf (Gallery Press, €12.95), opens with a song: “I walked the hills in spider line / to spin a web of me.” Indeed, the poems in this beautiful collection are threaded with personal histories, but they are also sites of natural revelation. This is a book filled with the voices and sounds of the landscape. The rain “humming on the dormer roof at night”, “the caress and argument of water”, the old life that “still brays in the shed”.

Certain characters repeat, such as the otter. It is traced across time in the poem Brockagh, which moves from the Ice Age, through the revolution, and on to the present moment with grace, close attention, and a sense of permanency giving way to uncertainty, of reality blurring into dream. Because Lysaght’s ear is so attuned to the sounds of the world, some of the most striking moments in New Leaf call up the ghostly absence of voices and calls, a sort of untethering that comes from environmental loss, as when a Polish father speaks:

“Yes, the nights are very quiet. not owls.

You know, my father had a summer house

in the Białowieża Forest. You could hear wolves

in the evenings. That’s another thing I miss.”

In fact, as much as New Leaf is rich with lush, sensory reality, Lysaght’s natural world also brims with immanence. A rhododendron is “a ghost of fire in May rain; / it burns a steady, pale green, / and will not heat”; a host of narcissus seems so intent on color that it is almost mad, “a first bloom under the alders / beating its head in the gale”. Through these musical, tightly formal poems, Lysaght prepares us for the numerous revelations of the world. Sitting down, “land-bound”, seeing the furze, the rocks, the “mucky pass”, we are met with moments of enchanting vision:

“And there was the ghost of my mother

sitting in the shade of a thorn, nursing pain.”

fluid evocation

In her latest collection, Life Holds Its Breath (Salmon, €12), one of our most respected poets, Mary Dorcey, remains eminently moving, surprising, full of sun-dappled desire and refreshing, fluid evocation. Divided into five sections, Youth Come Again and Summer, Life Holds Its Breath, The Artist’s Road, Trial and Reclamation and Time It Was, the collection moves through lyrics of desire and love, the pastoral and the pandemic, the radical life of the woman poet, and the history of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland in the protesting, hope-filled final poem Banshee:

“We marched through city streets, through the drunken

sprawl of its comedy, the shame tight-nosed, its

rank respectability, past the hissing

pulpit, its heavy gang, the twists

and turns of its psyche, in dank alley-ways of history.”

This is a collection that demonstrates a broad range not only of thematic coverage, but also of sensibility. The voice, sometimes tender and longing, and always generous in its attention to “these old urgencies”, still retains its capacity to shift into effective anger, as in Eden, a blistering poem about assault and misogyny that wings its way through a barrage of rhetorical questions.

What stands out in Life Holds Its Breath is a genuine emotional and romantic heart. If Our Paths Were To Cross manages to hold a detailed account of the passage of time, and missing an old lover, again using unanswered questions to build up a heart-wrenching silence beyond the page:

“Would I know you at once, for certain, you

my last love, if our paths were to cross by

chance, after all, how many years can it be

since I filmed even a trace of your features

in the crowd? […]

What, at this stage, do

you believe about love? what terms

have you found to accommodate death?”

Poet-as-rewilder

Death and love appear in the accommodations and transformations of spirituality and enchantment in Grace Wells’s latest collection, The Church of the Love of the World (Dedalus Press, €12.50). Here, Wells is a sort of poet-as-rewilder, poet-as-conjuror or magician. The first poem, Vestige, draws our attention to the provenance of the book itself: “Things being so urgent, when you / open a book its leaves should take you / back to the forest they came from”.

Writing into this “deep entangling way”, the poems here are self-reflexive, the speaker often making us aware of her role in salvation. “Like a woman pulling curtains against / the night”, Wells writes, “I want to draw / a glade of trees around us”. The speaker wants to unleash wildness into the artifice of the poems, taking part in the power of the imaginative world of the text to remake the real, if only momentarily: “I release the factory-farmed hens”; “I return them to the wild.”

Sometimes, this shivers on the border of sanctimony (“I walked / through the last of the wood, / putting my hands to each trunk, / whispering I’m sorry, I’m sorry”), but in the more visceral poems, Wells allows a vulnerability that erupts in striking and arresting ways. Beach Clean, which opens on a scene of women cleaning a plastic-choked shore (“fishing-net, bottle tops, baling twine, gun cartridges”), striking into a vein of guilt. As the speaker goes about her task, she begins to cry, “not for the quantities of plastic we’re collecting, / but because I’ve finally given up / on the man I’ve loved for more than a year. ” Here, that “deep entangling way” which is at the heart of the poems in this collection, manages to hold two griefs in one place, enmeshing the human and the non-human, the ecological and the emotional in one image:

“And I carry on with my task, stood in the river water,

human enough to weep for the oceans,

creature enough to howl for her mate.”

memory and mourning

The American poet Victoria Chang is well-known in the USA for her 2020 collection, OBITwhich is now being published in the UK, alongside her latest book The Trees Witness Everything (Corsair, £10.99). In this brilliant new collection, Chang continues her exploration of memory and mourning. These are impeccable, precise poems, sometimes shocking and strange, but always startling in their ability to excise an utterance from the depths of grief and longing that is both painful and reverent: “I sit at my desk. / Desire is an anchor – / I lift it and words come up.”

Chang’s crystalline, controlled poems seem etched from deep experience, and move hauntingly between the living and the dead. Attuned to the passage of seasons, to the raw wanting instilled by loss and isolation, these are nevertheless poems that make one feel less alone by giving voice, and by recording, the strange flashes of light and odd perspective registered. The majority written in Japanese syllabic form called “wakas”, their economy lends them both a sharp detail and a hallucinatory potential, traversing a staggering progress of thought and image across a small number of lines:

“It is mid-winter

and I cannot bear the minutes,

their procession as

they keep inching like snipers.

How can our purpose

be just to watch people die?

The peaches blooming

in the dark are saved for the

ground. I confess, I want them.”

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