Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Vona Groarke, Spindrift
There’s a queasy moment in Fran Brearton’s fine study, Reading Michael Longley, when Brearton describes the series of verse letters Longley wrote in the 70s, one of which, to Derek Mahon, he published in The New Statesman, and which describes the two poets picking their way through an ‘imaginary Peace Line /Around the burnt-out houses of /The Catholics we scarcely loved’. Cue a letter from Mahon the following week dissociating himself from Longley’s belief that he could speak for Mahon’s attitude towards his Catholic neighbours (and also from the phrase ‘two poetic conservatives’). How marvellous to imagine writing a poem to a contemporary of mine which its dedicatee would then be forced to disown, even partially.
Still on that generation, I remember reading Heather Clark’s The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast, 1962-1972 and, not infrequently, hardly knowing where to look as the subject turned once again to what this contemporary thought of that one, to how this writer had invested so much more than that writer in the idea of a shared group identity but now felt left out, and wondered if so-and-so had thought he was above all that now. If that was in private, that generation also did a fair amount of intra-group reviewing in the opinion-forming public prints of the time. Is that bad? Perhaps, though when I consider the shameless log-rolling indulged in by the young Ginsberg, and then consider the alternative of sitting around waiting for Lionel Trilling to start writing these raves of Kaddish instead, maybe it isn’t so bad after all.
My feeling on poetic generations, though, is that the agreeable business of being able to get drunk together (now and then) aside, it is wrong to start dressing up accidents of collective birth as mass movements. I was most blessed to have several inspiring and very talented writers as my contemporaries. I read them often, with much admiration, and wish them all hatfuls of prizes. But there are no class reunion photos for poetic generations, alas. The only ways are separate ways.
This by way of a circuitous preamble to the question of how to write with any honesty, never mind usefulness, about one’s contemporaries, as prompted by the arrival of Vona Groarke’s Spindrift. I wrote publicly about Vona’s third book, Flight, when it came out, but felt I was being on super-good anti-log-rolling behaviour and maybe sold myself and the book short. So let me get out of the way straight off that her, what, fifth book now since 1994 reminds us (me) again how much VG has been one of the small few making any kind of a difference in poetry from Ireland these days.
VG is a midlander, an inhabitant of what if Ireland were just a little bigger we who’re not from there might be tempted to call the ‘flyover’ counties. (Having once stopped in search of something to eat in Kinnegad I’d be in favour not just of flying over, but tunnelling under, around or right through the goddamn place in future). All that’s missing from many of these Auburnian landscapes, a lot of the time, is a spot of tumbleweed blowing past in the background. So even when the poetic locus is the home (and home is at least three places here, by my count), there’s a sense of camouflage or obliquity, of the home place lurking somewhere it thinks you might overlook, and not feeling the need to shout its grid reference from its inconspicuous rooftop. Consider the ending of ‘The Family Room’:
From here on in
light will be noiseless,
chastened, as if
holding its breath.
Ask any question
of a bolt of smoke;
the scissors will answer
Consider too the clothes horse of ‘Horses’ that segues from a clothes horse to one of the outdoors kind, and brings the indoors outside and the outdoors back in (and lo, elsewhere there is a poem called ‘Inside Out’):
He bred horses, fenced them in clean lines,
swaddled them in cast-off woollens,
gave them our names,
walked out to stand with them
one Christmas Day; bought back
to the house a voice infused
with inland fields and breath
that flocked above them
like damp flannel, streaming silks.
The tag-line to ‘The Difficult Poem’ proposes a poetry version of Gödel’s theorem: ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it’, but then the problem identified at the end of the poem turns out to be the use of the word ‘froth’ in a sonnet (‘That is all I can remember’). There is a ubiquitous reluctance to fall back on the poetry of first-person insistence, and when some poems do (‘The Difficult Poem’, ‘Cowslips’), they quickly shut down, as though having none of it.
The final title sequence is an audacious piece of writing, in several ways. I’d been rereading Mahon’s’ ‘Light Sequence’ lately and thinking about how far down the road of stripping away his usual stanzaic splendours he is prepared to go (answer: a certain distance but no further). What distinguishes many of these little will-o’-the-wisps of poems is their swerving away from anything resembling not just a punch line, but any manner of hop-step-and-jump towards the little something extra you may be looking for at the end, not to speak of a tuck-in and story before bedtime too. No, they insist, the poem stops here and that’s it, basta. These are poems of rare unadorned self-sufficiency and grace, to the point of being (like spindrift itself) exceedingly hard to make stand still long enough to say something meaningful about, if you’ll pardon the tortuous syntax. And why is this such a big deal for me, in the (usually) very small package of the poems themselves? At random:
swarm over them.
Hide and seek
in the windbreak.
I never grew out of it.
The final poem goes like this:
It is all a kind
of love song, really,
and I am only
listening to it,
trying to follow
I don’t mean to suggest that VG is some manner of superheroine of the oblique, doling out the thin gruel of facticity and no epiphanic garnish on the side. Not at all. There’s plenty here that’s straightforwardly direct, detailed and skilful (as ever). But there is also a quality of closeness-to-the-bone, of an insistence on this, on a this here and only this which manages at the same time to be so much more, that is new, arresting and moving.
I recommend this book.
(Vona Groarke, Spindrift, Gallery Press)