SANDRA ANN WINTERS:
Róisín Kelly reviews new poetry collections by two Gregory O'Donoghue prize winners.
Roisin Kelly was born in Northern Ireland but has mostly lived south of the border. After completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway, she moved to Cork City where she currently lives and writes. Previous publications that feature her work include the Stinging Fly, the Bohemyth, Wordlegs, Mslexia, HARK Magazine, The Weary Blues, the Interpreter's House and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2014. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Synaesthesia poetry prize and longlisted for the Melita Hume poetry prize, and read as part of the New Writers’ Salon at Listowel Writers’ Week. Follow her on Twitter @RoisinKelly24
(Salmon Poetry, 2015)
Buy from Salmon
The Place Where I Left You
Sandra Ann Winters
(Salmon Poetry, 2014)
Buy from Salmon
Two winners of the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize have had poetry collections recently published by Salmon. Judith Barrington’s prizewinning poem, ‘The Conversation’, was an outstanding piece of work in the eyes of 2013 judge Thomas McCarthy, who described it as “mindful, thoughtful, calculated and superbly pre-meditated”. The same could be said about Barrington’s fourth collection of poetry as a whole. The Conversation, taking its title from the aforementioned poem, is an assured collection, the author demonstrating proficiency in her shaping of language and form, and deftness in her handling of the emotions these elements work to convey. Although the emotions found here are often multifarious, the poems are the more moving for their restraint, and never succumb to the verboseness that is typical of much poetry being written today. Barrington’s cool, calm voice is quite enough to get her point across.
‘The Conversation’ is written from the point of view of a dead person, and could be said to enshrine the sentiment that "life is for the living". Why would a dead person hang around, the poem asks, when everyday realities such as doctors’ appointments and raising children hold no further significance for them? The poem strikes a tender balance between the loneliness of no longer having to need such things, and the freedom of it. As the poem builds to a fervent reference to the Spanish poet Lorca’s death, there is almost a glimpse of a wild joy to be found even in such a tragic end: “A day later he was dead, going / nowhere except into history, no transport required”. The acknowledgement of an almost inhuman complexity surrounding the fate of all living beings marks this poem as deserving of its prize.
The subject of death recurs throughout the collection, as if to remind us of its own inevitability. Barrington displays an appealing fascination with dying and who gets left behind, and with the strange beauty such experiences can hold. ‘Elegy for a Green Convertible’ is a powerful tribute to a deceased mother, who is symbolised by the car her daughter inherits. The poet is less concerned with the fact of her mother’s death than with the questions it leaves her, evoking the universal mystery that daughters are faced with when dealing with their mothers’ inner lives that they will never truly comprehend:
"[…] But what could I know
of her joy as I raced south on the narrow road,
my mother dead, her sports car held tight between
my careless hands."
It’s reminiscent of Robert Haden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’, about the poet’s stoic, seemingly emotionless father, and how the poet realises too late how his father’s love was shown in the ritual of getting up before the rest of his family to stoke the fire: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” And Barrington too deals with subject of the elusive, unknowable father figure. ‘What Kind of Creature’ is a reflection on the fathers of Barrington’s generation, more often absent than not—both physically and emotionally. The poet is tormented with wondering what exactly would go through her father’s head when he spent so many days alone in his rowing boat, the poem carrying us as smoothly as a river down to its final, astonishing line: the fish her father catches that “ease into shining death at his feet”. What’s so arresting about this line is the combination of gentleness in the word "ease"; beauty implied by "shining"; and the inescapable fact of death. And the poem ending with a reference to the father’s feet brings to mind a colossal god figure, in whose shadow the poet can only grope for some kind of understanding.
However, ‘Souls Underwater’ is a somewhat self-indulgent musing about drowned souls who might still linger in the ocean depths. There’s not much here that feels new, or particularly worth saying. This is the danger in a shift away from immensely rich, detailed personal poems towards the realm of nature poetry: if a poem feels like it could have been written by anyone, was there much point in the poet writing it in the first place? Of course, that is only the entirely subjective – and perhaps misplaced – desire on my part to always glimpse some part of the poet, whether "real" or fictionalised, in his or her work. In any case, this poem is redeemed by its brief elaboration on one of the ocean’s victims, the sense of a vanished life painted in just a few vivid lines:
"[…] the drunken oilman
who one night staggered to the edge of the spider-legged rig
and dreaming of his girlfriend—unusually tender
in his mind at that dizzy moment—plunged through cans
and plastic trash, into the arms of another."
This poem forms part of a sequence of ocean poems, another of which is titled ‘The Dyke With No Name Thinks About the Sea’. The poem works as both a reflection on the nature of human curiosity about our world, and as a clever metaphor for an examination of the inner self and sexual preference. The correlation between the narrator’s transformation into a sea creature whose body is fluid and undefined in the water and the acceptance of lesbianism is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ in which the poet becomes both “the mermaid whose dark hair streams black” and “the merman in his armored body”. But although Barrington may or may not be engaging with this poetic lineage, the way she thinks about the seabed and what it symbolises translates into some of the most subtle lines I have come across:
"A mile below, unseen, unthought of: land,
not dry, but sandy bottom and rock complete,
she would later learn, with mountain ranges,
canyons—a whole geography ignored
by explorers who seem to prefer the moon."
Every so often, Barrington’s skill in brings the ordinary and everyday into the realm of striking and unusual. A bottle in the sea is described as “cloudy green and crusted with foam”. Lights coming on at dusk in her London suburb are “sudden diamonds”. In ‘Fallen from the Nest’, an anecdote about a man selling songbirds in Barcelona – crushing one that refused to sing – drops a single, shining image into the mind’s eye of what the songbird could have become: “yellow stripes on the wings” that “lengthen as feathers spread, each untucking / from the next until the sky takes them”. The poet empathises with the little bird; with her own “rotten genes” it might have been her fate to be “thrown out before I even began”. But always, Barrington says, there is always something worth preserving in life, if only for its potential; yet there’s no need to worry about mere ‘potential’ when it comes to this collection. Barrington proves that she is a writer who knows how to make full use of her wings.
The Place Where I Left You is the first poetry collection by Sandra Ann Winters, who won the Gregory O’Donoghue prize in 2011. In her winning poem ‘Death of Alaska’, the disappearance of a son and a beloved dog become metaphors for each other, each loss bringing an equal but different kind of grief. The opening is a sliver of ice, cutting to the heart of the poet’s despair in just a few short lines:
"My white German Shepherd
female ears turned to sounds
I could not hear, disappeared the day my son left."
But although there’s an effective sparseness in the use of language and emotion, the poet doesn’t shy away from letting her clear delight in the sounds of language come through: “he who cut me off like a sharp snip of scisssors / against the papery peony stems”. This interaction between the theme of human contact and word play appears again in one of Winters’ most beautiful poems, ‘Water Signs’, in which the poet feeds crab meat to a friend breastfeeding her baby. With the emphasis on the “tender pink” of crab meat, the woman’s “peach breast”, the baby’s “petal pink mouth”, a scene of the utmost gentleness is created, with a kind of harmony existing between the women and the crab they eat. Despite the primal barbarity in the cracking open of crab claws and feeding the meat to a woman nursing her newborn, the poet reminds us that the crabs were once babies themselves, their journey to “Oyashio, the ‘parent current’” almost lovingly evoked. Its this joyful gratitude towards a life feeding another life that subtly eases the reader towards an acceptance of this version of the circle of life, in which the poet finds herself “caught / somewhere between creature and human.” It’s masterfully executed.
Family relationships are a recurring theme in this collection. ‘Shampoo’ is a humorous little poem in which the poet searches for the shampoo in her son’s shower. A strong, likeable voice emerges: “Where does he keep / the damn shampoo?” Finally, after the narrator has given up searching, she spots it “one foot and two inches / above my line of vision” thus encapsulating, with a wry sentiment about physical difference, the changing nature of a mother-son relationship. The fluid nature of relationships is also a theme in ‘To an Ex-Husband on his Sixtieth Birthday’, an unsentimental look at the things which once constituted a marriage: games of chess, camping trips, the husband playing the piano while his wife slept. Although the marriage has since ended, still the husband once “ladled water” over his wife in the bathtub; still he “loved our newborn son in white”. There is no desire to diminish a set of experiences once they seem to have come to nothing; this writer recognises the value that the past holds.
Winters is also adept at summoning a sense of place, and in fact a whole section of the book is dedicated to place poems. In ‘The Mother Vine’ she lists the different names given to the state fruit of North Carolina: scuppernong, mother vine, suscadine, scuplin, suppydine, suppeydime, white grape, bullets, bullis, bull—each name as exotic in the mouth as one imagines the fruit might be. Winters’ connection with Ireland also comes across clearly in poems such as ‘Mute Swans’ and ‘Early E-mail’. ‘Knocknagullane, Ireland’ brushes a little too close to the Bord Fáilte Irish experience: “Ballads rise from pints of black Guinness. / Locals set dance to jigs, reels and hornpipes”. But there is a genuine emotion at the heart of this poem, expressed without resorting to convoluted metaphor:
"But only in the dark, rainy midmorning do I really
know you Ireland as I touch the ancient standing stone,
rock built on rock, softened by the sweet smell of tea and rain."
Winters is adept at writing about geographical locations, but also displays a deft hand in describing the domestic sphere with its individual rooms where human lives are played out. In ‘The Kitchen’ a comparison is drawn between Monet’s kitchen in one of his paintings and her own; but whereas Monet and other impressionists would have discussed art at length with each other, she examines her son’s hair for nits by her stove. It’s a striking realisation of how two things can be both similar and worlds apart, especially in the opposing realms of real life and art. ‘The Library’ describes the room the poet plans to die in, as she announces from the outset. Colour is used to great effect here; we can almost see the “cocoa velvet sofa”, the “brittle yellow roses” that were once laid on her father’s grave, the poet’s pink-and-blue bracelet she wore as a baby and which now decorates this room.
There were many moments in this collection where I stopped and re-read particular lines, struck by the poet’s use of language and imagery. Two such arresting lines had me examining them over and over, wondering just how Winters had conveyed deep emotion with such ease: “I tremble, draw back, pinned by many colors. / I want to look away, but I freeze like glaze on an urn.” Elsewhere, the poet compares her own mortality to a broken toaster, her delicately-constructed lines imbuing an inanimate object with significance:
"How often things quit, break down.
Just today the toaster stopped
taking that piece of bread
to the red coils, glowing."
These are uncompromising poems, raw in their honest examination of the self and in their meditations on death. In ‘Suicide’, we almost see the goat on the cliff stepping “from pale blade to pale blade”, prevented from wandering over the edge by the wind pushing from the sea. We almost hear the poet speaking in our ear: “What is it like to love the insane? / Only you can be well-acquainted / with the desperate knowing of almost”. It’s the same quiet, steady voice that characterises this collection, as if the poet is telling us that simplest of things: a story.
©2015 Róisín Kelly
'Selkie': poem by Róísín Kelly in the Weary Blues
Prizewinning poem by Róisín Kelly in the Dromineer Poetry Competition
'Otter': poem by Roisin Kelly in the Bohemyth
More work by Róisín Kelly in Southword