Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Luke Morgan, Mina Gorji and a two-for-one Irish anthology – The Irish Times

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In one of the last poems of Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s brilliantly accomplished debut collection, Calm (Faber, £10.99), women gather in the Night Garden, shattering the world and rebuilding it. Their actions are “mycelial”, accompanied by laughter and tales: “they weave the future like a child’s hair / sing & / sew dark and shining seeds into it”. Through Calmthese powerful forms of connection and production give a thrilling and immanent sense of the power of collective effort and also of joy.

The collection opens with Declaration (there are other poems with the same title in the book), a catchy statement of intent. Living in the “heart of the empire”, the speaker could corrupt the hierarchies of power and dismantle them from within: “if I live in the belly of the beast, / let me breed sickness in his belly”. This sense of being “inside” the beast suggests, first, the possibility of a timely and late attack (and this positioning recurs in the book); what is most powerful, however, is Bulley’s interest in and advocacy of interiority. It does not only mean the interiority of the self, but the powerful collective of a community: “it is better to speak a language / between those with whom / it could be shared”.

Among the more outward poems, then, there are moving and shimmering examples of romance, calm, and beauty. Of the Snail & Its Loveliness lyrically balances love and eco-poem with real skill; and whose name means that honey is wonderfully tender. Hoping to remove a fallen eyelash from another’s face, the poet writes:

& he is still there, I would like

be the one who says hold,

Come here, let me, a minute, stay here,

almost, here it is, everything is done, perfect. & when

you look up and now it’s gone, swept away

distracted from the surface of the earth

by your black hair, oh I’m sad

missed my chance.

It’s rare to find a debut collection that launches a complex and compelling vision like this.

Moments of wildness

In his second collection, The beast (Arlen House, €15), Luke Morgan searches for animal disturbances and moments of savagery in humans, lodges confessions and personal revelations in the lives and behaviors of various creatures. As in a medieval bestiary, the poems here cross real and imaginary fauna: hydras and mandrakes share the pages with rhinos and armadillos; the púca (which appears on the cover of the book) rubs shoulders with tapeworms and whales.

There is real ambition displayed, and Morgan has a good sense of image. A bull has a “smoky anger”; the children see a local man leading him like “a giant black cloud on a leash / in the field at night / where he waited”. In the best poems, these images show a vivid and forceful imagination with the potential to load a poem with enough tension. Self Portrait as a Mandrake and Eight Arms show a poet capable of constructing skilful and elegant pieces.

Sometimes the narrative impulse overrides the poems, so we lose the music and the clarity of the images. There are brilliant poems on the inside all of these poems, but some needed to be unearthed more fully. In Godmother, for example, the opening lines show a striking and unsettling lyrical impulse:

The first thing I remember

is Nutley Lane Pond

she saved me.

Willow lily and pollen

formed a dancing skin

when I touched it,

and suddenly I was underneath

in troubled blood,

frantic rosary bubbles

carrying the last of my air

to the top.

sonic caution

Mina Gorji is a poet who knows exactly what to say and how to say it. Pursuing his fascination for short, colorful and rich works, Ladder (Carcanet, £11.99) is a book of deep sound attention. Gorji – who is also a Cambridge scholar specializing in romantic poetry and aurality – carries her fascination with sound throughout this book. With immense mastery of crystal language, Gorji can paint landscape, soundscape and emotional core with breathtaking brevity. It catches our attention near the page: “the wood frogs lie in wait, / frozen so hard / if dropped, / they would clink.” There are tremors of personal experience here: the first days of insomnia after a newborn are traced in a haunting image of “a baby’s face, / cherry blossom / seen through glass.” Sometimes unsettling, recording sounds almost out of earshot, Gorji’s poems are shaped through listening technology. Their scales range from the personal to the global, from the real to the dreamlike, in unsettling and beautiful ways, as in Thaw:

At what point

Is a life

Held in ice

Start quitting?

*

A lumberjack

carry a heart

(always hot)

Out of the forest.

*

I’m up

At the edge of the forest —

where the foxgloves

Will appear.

The ground is hard

Frost white.

From the acute work of Gorji to an expansive new anthology, it is impossible to do even a little justice to the rigor and value of the work undertaken by Samuel K Fisher, Brian Ó Concubhair and their team of editors in the production Cnámh agus Smior / Bone and Marrow: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern (Wake Forest, $35.95). Each section of the book, 14 in number, is edited by poetry experts of the time and is introduced by brief and informative background material. Not only that, but each poem is given its own introduction, emphasizing its significance, interest, and something of its particular use of meter, rhyme, or style. We begin with one of the most famous poems in the language – “Pangur Bán” – and trace the evolution of styles and contexts through bardic poetry, plantations, Jacobite poetry and penal laws, famine, the revival, until today, with poets like Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, who comes full circle with his Manach Eile agus a Chat (Another monk and his cat).

Not only the poems, but the prose of the book is given in Irish and English – really it is two books in one. Yet the effect is to try to complicate the balance of power between Irish and English. Fisher and Ó Conchubhair are acutely aware that translation, particularly from a minority language into an imperial and global language, “easily becomes the blade that separates the past from the present or the cobblestone that smoothes cultural difference. It runs the risk of destroying what it ostensibly tries to make accessible”. Not only that, but “it risks a situation where the translation supplants the original and effectively becomes the text of the poem”. In this spirit, Cnámh agus Smior/Bone and Marrow has a liberal approach to translation: no model is preferred, and where some poems are given in “literal” translation, others are more free. We’re still very aware of the originals, even if our Irish isn’t good enough to fully analyze them.

This is an indispensable anthology, rich enough to pay the reader years of special attention. Bringing together an ambitious collection of Irish-language poetry on this scale, Fisher, Ó Conchubhair and their editorial team chart a vibrant and detailed arc of history told through the voices of some of the most eminent and attentive witnesses to Ireland.


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