Review: Irish Contemporary Poets

“The Quick” by Jessica Traynor. Cover photo: Geneva Pattison.

By Geneva Pattison

Dostoyevsky once wrote that “Lying is a delightful thing, for it can lead to truth.” Can a lie be beautiful? This is the topic examined in the poetry collection Lies by bilingual writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa. This volume is the second collection from the poet and includes both Irish and English versions of the poems, as translated by the poet.

Reading each poem consecutively, we are woven into the very fabric of the poet’s intimate past. Her first kisses, first loves, motherhood, embarrassment and loss. The way in which Ní Ghríofa steers us through so much of her personal history is intrepidly brave, as if sharing one’s private diary entries. However, the very first line of the collection’s blurb reminds us to stop and question “when does a poem tell the truth? When is it a lie?” Upon re-reading, we see a metamorphic shift within Ní Ghríofa’s words.

The poem Call deals with the nature of communication and its evolution over time. The poet writes, “… no telephone cord binds us anymore…”, speaking of the instantaneous closeness a landline phone call used to provide for so many, hearing a crackle in a person’s voice or every breath they’ve taken.

The beginning of the poem is composed in a way which mimics the back and forward of the telephone call, it’s separate but clear. In the second half of the poem, the poet talks about connecting through the computer. The almost inevitable breaks in the internet signal and that frustrating feeling of disconnection is echoed through her spacing of words.

When language is broken up, meaning is often lost or misinterpreted – it is not a true reflection of the person we want to speak to, because the immediacy of that connection is lost. Separated by a screen, a weak signal and maybe infinite land miles, one has to ask, are computers really the future of human connection?  

Ní Ghríofa deals with the abstract in her imaginative poem Marginalia (impossible forest). A simple, bare room with nothing to look at but the “timber baseboards” is transformed into a vast magical forest “that cannot exist”.

Similar to a concrete poem, the lines of this poem are grouped two by two and its form takes on the shape of the wooden boards. We see the boards and the secret trees within. The poet laments on adventures that could have been had this woodland been real, and again we’re reminded that this is just an empty room.

After this momentary lapse back into reality, Ní Ghríofa draws the reader back into this fantastical microcosm. She looks deeper again and sees that “an owl is peering up” from a branch. There’s a beautiful fluidity in the poet’s words as she describes the owl. His “curved beak” is “hushed, cursed” as he peers out silently. He tells the speaker a story with a single look, he sees her, he knows her. “I see through you, I do, I see through you,” he seems to say. The poem exists in a realm where fact meets fiction. Where the most implausible of circumstance can reflect truth. 

The Quick is a collection of poetry by Jessica Traynor. This book asks us to examine our collective shared history as Dubliners and reflect upon certain haunting societal aspects of today. Traynor was commissioned by Salvage Press to write a contemporary response to Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay A Modest Proposal and the assortment of voices we hear in The Quick is the result. Just as Swift’s essay reflected upon a darker side to Irish life during his time, Traynor deals with modern crises deftly within her own nine-part poem, A Modest Proposal.

In part IV of the poem, Tender Butchery, we see the poet explore the idea of pain. The opening line tells of the speaker’s “feet” cramping “in the stirrups”, as if on a horse. During Jonathan Swift’s lifetime, wealthy women were permitted to ride horses, but could only do so if riding side-saddle, so as to supposedly protect their virginity. To mount a horse in any other way was considered obscene and unladylike.

The speaker in the poem goes on to say “I consider my own sensation splitting within me” and we have to question whether these are hospital stirrups. Just as women were expected and forced to ride a horse in a virtuous manner, using medical stirrups (a method now widely rejected by doctors and patients alike) also represents a historic image of archaic medical practises involving pregnant women. We’re dealing with restriction and discomfort. The speaker changes the subject, thinking instead of “mementoes, about what we can carry home and what we can’t”.

A contrast emerges as we move away from the harsh image of metal stirrups, as the narrator compares herself to a pair of dainty gloves “stitched from chicken skin”. She feels “that delicate”, as if she may be ripped to shreds at any moment. The speaker wants to take this vulnerable feeling and “lock it up in a walnut shell” and “crush it or swallow it whole”. This feeling is unwelcome. The final line is a bold one, as the narrator, no longer afraid, states “the world has no business wearing my skin”.

Traynor brings us on a journey in this poem. We’re questioning the traditional masculine and feminine roles, we’re questioning the inherited trauma of what it has historically meant to be born female and we’re realising, we should be the only ones who command our own personal destiny.

In A Proposed Housing Algorithm, part VI of the same poem, the housing and refugee crisis is examined. The voice in this poem acts as a figure of authority, breaking down the topic of placement and that of the displaced. “Think of the country as a small white box and, within it, millions of smaller boxes, each with a dot of red like the blood spot in an egg”. The poet presents the unnamed speaker, much like the title suggests, as a sentient algorithm organising “the building blocks of life”. In the speaker’s world these boxes “are clean and defined”, they must fill and empty each box as required, using a specific formula. The line “it is my job to fill some boxes and empty others” is particularly biting.

This cold, flippant pseudologic applied to a highly complex and serious issue such as displacement is a direct nod to Swift’s sardonic proposal in his own essay. As the poem continues, the narrator’s voice shifts away from definitive absolutism, upon seeing a flaw in their schema. Their infallible “system would fracture into another unsolved equation”. However, as the speaker realises, perfection is not derived from maintaining symmetry. Happiness and beauty can still be found, even in the most “imperfect” of situations. 

Contemporary and classical poetry lovers alike will thoroughly enjoy these books. Doireann Ní Ghríofa transforms seemingly mundane everyday tasks into romantic, fantastical and beautifully strange poetic tales. Much like the intricate lilt of Sean-nós singing, there’s a rich ornamentality ingrained within these personal stories.

In Jessica Traynor’s work, we see a visceral energy at play in each poem. This power is fuelled by the sins of the past and mirrors our current societal struggles, both nationally and internationally. A myriad of character voices are summoned from the ether to guide us through aspects of life, death and what it means to exist today.

If you’re looking for something thought-provoking or different to buy this Christmas for the bibliophile in your life, either one of these collections would certainly set their souls alight. 

Both Lies and The Quick are titles published by Dedalus Press and available from Books On The Green and all other good bookshops.