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THE CURATIVE HARP

&

WHITE WHALE

 

Thomas McCarthy reviews the winning chapbooks
from the Fool For Poetry Competition.

 

 

 

Thomas McCarthy

Originally from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Thomas McCarthy now lives in Cork. He studied at UCC under the influence of Sean Lucy and John Montague; Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan were fellow students. He received the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1997 for his first book and the American-Irish Foundation's Literary Award in 1984. His work includes Mr Dineen's Careful Parade (Anvil, 1999) and Merchant Prince (Anvil, 2005). In 2009, Anvil Press published McCarthy's The Last Geraldine Officer. His historical work on the burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the rebuilding of its collections, Rising from the Ashes, appeared in 2010. A new collection, Pandemonium, is due from Anvil Press Poetry later this year.

 

 

 

 

The Curative Harp

The Curative Harp

Virgina Astley

(Southword Editions, 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-905002-41-2

€8 ROI/ €10 rest of world

Buy from Southword Editions

Victoria Kennefick

White Whale

Victoria Kennefick

(Southword Editions, 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-905002-40-5

€8 ROI/ €10 rest of world

Buy from Southword Editions

 

 

 

 

The gates of poetry have opened wide for these new authors: both books under review are winners of the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and are now published by Southword Editions in exquisitely designed and printed large format. The quality of the editions should be noted, their handsome printed flaps and beautiful Centaur typeface, as well as the large format, giving each poem the space to come forward and announce its authority to the reader. They are publications that one wants to pick up again and again, or gaze upon in lamplight. They are objects of beauty: a verbal art has been given room to breathe. The late Liam Miller would have been proud of these books as works of art; and they have a design sense and authority that reminds me of those large-format Dolmen Editions of the 1960s. The poets who appear within these covers are very lucky poets indeed; and I’m certain that these publications will, over time, become precious items in the book trade. Victoria Kennefick is already well established in Southern poetry circles, even before the publication of this work. She has already been short-listed or commended in a variety of poetry competitions, has been a Fulbright Scholar and holds a Doctorate in Literature. A woman of high scholarly quality, her poems already register an annoyance at excessive attention:

 

                                                "Your devotion

flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.

I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip."

 

A poet, then: here is a scholar-poet, like all the others before her, like Daniel Corkery or Frank O’Connor, endlessly walking in a search for creative silence on our Southern shore. "Are you hungry or drunk on dresses?" she asks of the dusty corpses; but not the dead of history, rather, the dead of half-remembered parties, of aeonian coffee dates, rooms where

 

"Everything sounds like Carver or Bukowski, you kill me.

I walk home too late in weird-warm rain."

 

Her poetry has that atmosphere, young as it should be, 1920s, Jazz-age, where the self is arbitrarily negotiated in public atmospheres; where one’s silence as well as one’s integrity is constantly under threat. A registered annoyance will become part of the early signature of her work—whether it is the 'Marie Céleste' that is "too young for this body" or "I sit in your chair, aware that it doesn’t fit" or, in ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’ where the protagonists "bitch about the red-haired girl, the fetish model,/ a preacher’s daughter with a thing for unreasonable shoes." This sense of annoyance, a kind of preliminary organising aesthetic, rarely fails her, allowing her to select and arrange a great deal of material, from romance to elegy. In later poems such as ‘(I don’t know how to spell) Meningioma’ her method becomes clear; her intention is brilliant:

 

"Sun gropes my body back to skin

in the hospital garden.

You are not here but you are warm.

 

My hands are yours, palms up.

The bulbs, the bulbs are polyps too,

they have split open in the soil,

 

and there are daffodils."

 

This is superb writing, the closing image that confirms all the ambiguous, multi-layered descriptions of hospital corridors, the GA Ward, the anti-bacterial soap that melts in her hands. The last line might seem thrown-away: it is anything but; it confirms the catalogue of ambiguity, bringing fear into bloom for the reader and allowing the fear to flower, or fester, in the reader’s mind. The same finely sharpened presentation of metaphor is evident in the final poem, a heart-rending elegy: "You pull your weeds,/ in your element. Heaviness tugs at me, you do too./ A corset I wear made of your ribs, my rib that made you." It is very fine work indeed, emotion held in check, annoyance abated, the poem clearly achieved. I feel sure that we’ll be hearing a great deal more from, and of, this poet Victoria Kennefick.

 

Virginia Astley may be a Fool for Poetry in the winning context, but she is no fool. Her giftedness here is simply astonishing. Where has she been hiding, you wonder? In music, perhaps, judging from the biographical blurb—she calls herself a "songwriter and musician".  Don’t be fooled by this; she is, unquestionably, a poet of deep conviction; and, of not only verbal but emotional clarity. The feelings in her poems are washed clean by an uncanny clarity of thought; deep materials that in a poet of lesser discipline might be sentimental are sifted here by a knowing maturity. Water is everywhere and it becomes a key metaphor of her own making: water is as essential to The Curative Harp as it is to Swift’s Waterland or Oswald’s Dart. Here is ‘The Weir at Benson’—

 

"The white noise flanged

and phased, filtered as the wind

changed and there were other sounds,"

 

What follows is the unfolding of a very precise lexicon; words like "gorging", "cleaving", "whitening", "frothing", "spooling", "sucking", and "regurgitating"—and ending thus:

 

                                    "charging the air

with a fresh, spinach smell;

 

rooks cackled and red kites paused

in the space above."

 

The abrupt, whirring reversal of perspective, giving us the sky after submerging us in water, is deliberate and masterful. It is typical of the worldly, mature method of the poet.

 

The opening two poems ‘The Curative Harp’ and ‘How did I ever think this would be ok?’ are a formidable, double-barrelled proclamation of strength and composure. The image of a harp at the open window in "the house [of] Tito", offering only the harmonics of the wind, followed by the astonishing image of a bass guitar flung into the Thames, with a father "breaking down in Tower Records", combine together into a single powerful force flung at the reader. Yet it is all imagination mediated through experience, with the most harrowing  emotion filtered and honed by necessities that are always technical and poetic. Astley’s is a fine sensibility at work, but also with an expansive sense of responsibility to the text, to the moment of poetic completion. This poetry is not merely emotion recollected in tranquillity, but emotion remade and recast by the act of imagining the poem, both in terms of tone and of structure.

 

Virginia Astley is exceptionally gifted—part of her skill (Is this skill inate, or can it be learned in workshops? The jury is out on this); a vital part of her skill is knowing when to stop, when to cut the description. She is a wonder at turning the perspective, at writing through a kind of ellipsis, a deliberate evading action that alters the perspective. She knows when to turn, when to let the descriptive flow hang. Thus, in poems like ‘The Moth and the Melodeon,’ ‘Number 73,’ and ‘Watermarked’ she constructs a tight cage, a minimal, understated framework, of only essential details:

 

                                                  "and the moth, light-lured,

lifted from the sedge."

 

and she concludes, thereby completing the metaphor of a squeezed melodeon, an instrument becomes as elusive emotionally as the shy Blair’s Wainscot. The poem ‘Watermarked’ is made of delicate tercets, but closes with a truly effective couplet—and not because Astley ran out of ideas, but because she knew the weight of the line she needed to say:

 

"forgotten silt on my tongue,

your strange colour in my eyes."

 

Hers is as perfect and as beautiful a poetry book as you are likely to read this year, or any year. The Curative Harp is certainly a deserving winner of the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition; but for Virginia Astley, I feel sure, this is only the beginning of what will be a marvellous and celebrated career.

 

 

©2015 Thomas McCarthy

 

 

Author Links

 

Thomas McCarthy at Poetry International Web

'Thomas McCarthy's Hidden Irelands': by Thomas Dillon Redshaw

More by Thomas McCarthy at Southword Journal

 

 

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