Ever since my first tentative steps into poetry, I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by people who consistently raise the bar. The Galway scene of the mid 2000´s which I was 'born into' was both supportive and healthily competitive. There was Kevin Higgins, Mary Madec, Lorna Shaughnessy, Stephen Murray and Dave Lordan to name a few. And I mean a few. And also there from the beginning was Elaine Feeney from just out the road, with a penchant for turning up at the regular readings at BK´s Wine Bar or Over the Edge in the Galway Library and roughing us all up with some carefully delivered wallops. In fact, if there are two words that are missing from the cover of her third Salmon Poetry collection, they are "Continue to".
Not since Brendan Kennelly´s The Man Made of Rain have I read such a vivid and raw tale of recovery. From the very first line of Hindering Hercules, three poems in, ("There´s nothing holy about dying on a hospital ward.") I´m ready to be taken on this trip. That this poem appears at the start of the book was either carefully planned, or a coincidental stroke of brilliance. It blows every brick out of the wall of reservedness that a reader might naturally hold onto until later poems. In the very next poem In the Way we hear a somewhat quieter, accepting voice "relieved that machines/ now speak for me / put me on guard/ in the middle of the / resuscitation bed". The line breaks are short, like measured breaths. A little calm before we are headfirst into Antaeus, who, according to Greek mythology, was invincible as long as he remained in contact with the earth. In her recovery, the poet leaving the bed, leaving the house "like a wheel free dinky / car tumbling" is that very risk when it could all go south. The coffee table becomes a coffin table and in turn it becomes another object to let go of. Line by line, we slide our shoulders under hers, prop her up and walk to the end of this poem with her.
This though is not merely a collection of recovery. Feeney picks up from her previous collection The Radio was Gospel in addressing her family with heartfelt poems such as Jack and Venturia Inaequalis - reminders of how precious time really is; a concept which, perhaps, in this latest book exudes gravity. For me though, The Harvest is the poem with which this book really bares its teeth. And I´d been waiting for it. As mentioned, in her previous collection Feeney demonstrates a remarkable variety and shift in her tone, subject matter and language; the poems coming quickly like jabs to test the distance and defense of the opponent. In this sense, Mass was the uppercut to land us on the canvas. In Rise, we have The Harvest to execute the same action: a brutal and ferocious piece of social commentary reflecting on one of Ireland´s darkest histories. You just have to read it to know.
A brushstroke of lyricism and headbutt of honesty: all in all, brilliant as both an achievement and a collection from Elaine Feeney and one which you should buy here from Salmon Poetry.
Michael McGriff is man who is alive to his senses. When a friend of mine in Vienna gave me Dismantling the Hills, I read it and thought "Okay...let´s see what you got." Home Burial found its way into my satchel next and kicked out all the other books. By the time I had had a sniff at Black Postcards, I couldn´t wait for Early Hour. What I will say off the bat is that I have never been to or know anything about the Pacific Northwest, but McGriff has that envious knack of being able to make the reader feel as if they grew up there. He has an arsenal of similes and metaphors that makes this latest collection easily one of the most descriptively refreshing books I´ve read in a long long time.
This is a book-length sequence inspired by the painting Frühe Stunde by German painter Karl Hofer. It´s the second time the writer has challenged himself in this way (following the joint project Our Secret Life in the Movies with J.M. Tyree) and the result is a book which wouldn´t be out of place in a gallery. In the title poem, McGriff dabs his brush into the night to paint the morning: "In this room lit up / like the throatlatch / of a horse, like sea-foam / under the breeze of a black moon." The poem is a cascade of imagery which deftly sets up what this collection is going to do: address the subject of the painting - (when)... "a bucket of sparks / empties onto the mantle-dark / shoulders of the early hour, / you become the early hour. "
The poems that flow after this brilliantly combine the physical and the romantic. There is repetition without anything becoming repetitive. Such is the vividness of McGriff´s brush strokes, it´s sometimes hard to distinguish whether the romance lies between the narrator and the surrounding landscape or the narrator and the living body for whom this landscape serves as a gorgeous counterpart. "When I say you have the beauty / of a dirt road / I mean you have thin shoulders / that twist in me / like the fault lines / in a minor planet´s moon." (Letter Sewn into the Hem of a Dress made of Smoke) Poems such as this bring us close to Hofer´s painting before the very next page places us outside the window, outside the frame, on the dirt road, in the fields, in the grass by the creek, on the river bank where "The moon is fishing for compliments / along the sandbar" (Sleeping beside White River) . It´s as if the poems wander as often as the thoughts of the narrator watching over his sleeping muse.
I will not suggest that the writer intended to tease the reader, but what I will tell you is that this book is filled with humdingers, punctuated by the Black Postcards that fizzle and pop like sudden moments of early hour genius that we wish we had written down.
I will suggest that this is a book you invest in, and, if you too are a poet, read Overlook, Cape Arago and then the last poem of the collection, I am an Ox in the Year of the Horse, and see if you can resist clapping in a public space at the last two lines of each.
Early Hour is available here.
New collection "Little Empires" coming in 2021