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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
Editor: Matthew Sweeney
Songs of Earth and Light
Barbara Korun poems translated by Theo Dorgan
Done Dating DJs
by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey
Winner, 2008 Fool for Poetry Competition
Richesses: Francophone Songwriter Poets
Edited and translated by Aidan Hayes
Munster Literature Centre
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Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg. Additionally, she will be anthologised in Dedalus's upcoming collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland and has recently read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK.
Buy Two Halves
Aidan Hayes has converted me to the family poem.
Family poems are notoriously hard to write well. If I hear ‘this is one about my grandmother’ at a poetry reading, I brace myself for the literary equivalent of holiday snaps. Comedienne Jo Brand has said that there’s nothing more boring than hearing stories about other people’s children, except perhaps listening to another person’s dream in great detail. The truism here is that personal epiphany is just that—personal. Pieces about family often fail to take the reader into consideration or give them a reason to devote energy and attention to the writing. The ability to do this well separates accomplished hobbyists from born poets. In Two Halves, Hayes’s new collection from Lapwing Press, the author works alchemy with intensely personal moments of childhood and fatherhood, making them utterly readable and profoundly moving. None of the usual chaff, flab or cliché. Really.
The title Two Halves partially refers to the structure of the book; the first half confronts his childhood, the second half includes a number of fatherhood poems. Beyond this, there are human relationships—the two halves that form loving moments, arguments, misunderstandings. Not to mention a wise acceptance of the dark and light—inextricable forces in every human interaction. Take his poem, ‘Every Time’:
A moment came when I began to know
That some undercurrents bear careful watching,
That love and grief are interlocked.
Each time you go I feel unsteady:
The building’s lost a coping-stone.
This is a simple poem of longing, of the departure of a loved one. It’s straightforward, like a phone conversation (‘Each time you go I feel unsteady’), but the language is skilfully heightened (‘The building’s lost a coping stone’). It knowingly breaks the very ‘workshoppy’ rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. As a masterful poet, Hayes has earned the right to do this. The poem not only tells, it grasps the gut and pulls loneliness into the light for examination. It’s not all telling, however. Hayes uses images, but economically, giving them concentrated force when they are used. Take ‘The Paperweight from my Father’s Office’, ‘convex like a jellyfish/ a crystalline jellyfish,/ its tentacles snipped off’.
‘Telling’ holds a purpose deeper than poetic technique for the author. Throughout the collection the author confronts the tyranny of silence and the unsaid within his family, making efforts to train his children to use their voices without constraint. Speaking plainly has immense power. In ‘We Know It Though’, he considers a man for whom knowing rather than voicing feelings is enough:
How could I make him understand
the dry expanse that divides
a worded feeling
from an unworded?
‘The worded’ is a philosophical, if not therapeutic, process for Hayes. Poetry is an extension of this practice. He considers what was missing after receiving a rejection slip for a poem about his children:
Perhaps I had withheld something vital
Unlike that paperback cover
On the airport bookstand
Unafraid of melodrama
Farewell the Tranquil Mind
The author doesn’t preach; he holds himself accountable for every word, phrase, interaction. The collection is a review of his own ability to be transparent with/about those he loves.
It’s not all black and white, however. Simply saying a thing does not make for true connection between two people. He also examines the interaction of language and perception in Two Halves. ‘Plug and Socket’ contradicts his older notion of communication as connecting A to B. ‘Now it looks a more wayward thing:/ arrows dreaming of deft wrist, keen eye—/ of a pair of well-matched archers.’ Language, however crucially expressed, is an unwieldy force involving judgment, fear and the unacknowledged. This is especially interesting, considering Hayes’s other role as a translator, having recently published Richesses, a book of English translations of French songs. We are treated to a couple of his own poems in French at the end of this collection, including the English versions.
Two Halves is superlative amongst current Irish poetry collections. It is sharp, challenging, compassionate and never self-pitying. Best of all, keeping to his themes of love and respect, every poem is worth the reader’s while. No holiday snaps here. Get ready to be moved.
©2009 Jennifer Matthews
Interviews with various poets through Ó Bhéal
Jennifer Matthews home page
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)
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