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Slow Bruise / Aideen Henry

Slow Bruise

By: Aideen Henry

Slow Bruise is a body of work with multiple layers and resonances. Emotion is intensely felt yet tamed, so that the poems are cool and palatable and yet red hot with feeling. Those who came before us forms the skeleton of the first section, Culvert, which, like a young child raising his head from the ground for the first time and looking around at this world, evolves into a ruthless account of what is perceived in that seein...
ISBN 978-1-910669-17-4
Pub Date Sunday, April 26, 2015
Cover Image Untitled from the ‘Instances’ series, oil on canvas 90x120cm, 2000. By Mary Avril Gillan.
Page Count 92
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Slow Bruise is a body of work with multiple layers and resonances. Emotion is intensely felt yet tamed, so that the poems are cool and palatable and yet red hot with feeling. Those who came before us forms the skeleton of the first section, Culvert, which, like a young child raising his head from the ground for the first time and looking around at this world, evolves into a ruthless account of what is perceived in that seeing and this continues in the final section, Trevelyan. The poems in Lure, the second section, reveal all facets of romantic entanglement from their tentative beginnings, on into the sensuous, finally reaching the forensic brutality of a relationship ended, combining unashamed desolation with a dignified grappling with grief. How we use language is examined and an undercurrent of Irish runs beneath these poems to surface at times as full translations and form eddies here and there in the Hiberno-English expressions throughout.

Aideen Henry

Aideen Henry lives in Galway and works as a writer and a physician. She was shortlisted for the 2009 Hennessy X.O. Literary Awards for poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Hands Moving at the Speed of Falling Snow, was published in 2010 by Salmon Poetry. She also writes short fiction and her debut collection of short stories, Hugging Thistles, was published by Arlen House in 2013.

About the Artist: Mary Avril Gillan is an artist and educator and lives and works in Dublin. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and has  received awards for her work both as an artist and educator. She is currently a lecturer in the National College of Art and Design and her work is held in both public and private collections in Ireland. For further information please contact

Review: Slow Bruise reviewed by Martin Malone for The Interpreter's House, Issue 61 (January 2016)

In an era of ubiquitous poetry, I increasingly find myself asking of a poet that they stink of their own fox; producing verse, however influenced, ragged or polished, which communicates something that could come only from their pen. Of course, “being human” ensures massive areas of experiential overlap but it doesn’t excuse a cut-and-paste house style of writing that levels out expression. The poets who excite me, then, tend to be those who manage to convey something convincing and real about themselves or their way of seeing, whatever the method or form utilized. I don’t pretend that this is a precise science – certainly it is a subjective one – but, for what it’s worth, Aideen Henry is a poet I’m convinced by. She belongs to a particular group of my favourite female writers – Vona Groarke, Carole Bromley, Frances Leviston spring to mind – who speak frankly and with a distinctive voice about their particular cosmic mote in a notional twenty-first century, clung to our shared rock hurtling through space.

Little-known this side of the Irish Sea, Aideen Henry is a poet/ short-story writer and this is her second collection published by the excellent Salmon Poetry. She lives in Galway, works as a writer and physician, is a humanist celebrant and daughter of the writer Siobhán Ní Shuilleabháin and linguist P.L. Henry, whose Dánta Ban was a landmark anthology of Irish women’s poetry; all of which comes into play here. Slow Bruise is organised into three sequences – ‘Culvert’, ‘Lure’ and ‘Trevelyan’ – each of which is prefaced by some intriguing artwork by Mary Avril Gillan, with quotes from, variously, John Updike, ‘Dublinia’ and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All three sections are distinguished by Henry’s unadorned style and sensibility; all the better for the quiet confidence and unflinching frankness with which she shares issues that are oftentimes prone to get lost amid artifice and cliché. ‘Culvert’ deals very much with the business of parental relationships, profession and home; which in this particular case is one dominated by language, both the Irish and English that characterized Henry’s childhood. The book opens with a pair of tub-thumping elegies to the poet’s mother and grandfather; the latter rendered here in English with an Irish translation on the facing page. Henry repeats this pattern five times throughout the book, as if repeatedly grounding herself in the mother tongue she describes as the language of affection. Like all Celtic strains, Irish is an inflected language so, in verse, the stress is often thrown onto different parts of the line. It is an impressive feat of bi-lingual composition on Henry’s part, therefore, which sees her render both versions of these poems so effectively: the fact that so little is lost, a windfall from her uncluttered style. In its early phases the collection contains some lovely poems of family life, none more moving than the tender-footed step through the small intimacies of her parents’ courtship in ‘Hiberno-English’:

How could you resist a woman
with that mountainous homeland in her nature he said to me later.
She never really left it,
Forty-five years exiled in Galway.
She reserved its language for him
For us her children and for dear animals.

These lines criss-cross and typify some of the key tropes of the opening sequence, capturing a tenderness that turns slowly to elegy in poems like ‘Living On’ and ‘Word Ancestors’ where we witness the poet’s father – a man whose life has been founded upon language – lose to dementia the very facility which defines him: when, “Ina ionad san, focail leamha/ Hipernascanna marbha.” (Instead words are flat. / Dead hyperlinks.”). The intimate crawl space provided by language, as a particular means of understanding and codifying an individual’s life, is apparent in the impressive melding of English with classical Irish registers, alongside those culled from contemporary science and medicine. This is,
indeed, a key source of the book’s lyrical distinctiveness; its echt Henry. Two other characteristics emerge from the opening sequence that feature consistently in the subsequent ‘Lure’ and ‘Trevelyan’: the poet’s scientific-humanist sensibility, which gives a dogma-shorn heft of objectivity to her rendition of medical practice, and her unflinching and passionate depictions of sex, love and loss. Throughout ‘Culvert’ in particular, we are aware of the unseen river of human feeling which flows beneath the surface of things and, at times, Henry appears to open up a marvellous inter-costal space between the human heart and its owner’s day job as a medical professional. Nowhere is this more truthful and apparent than in the personal lessons gleaned from the professional mode of ‘Hors d’Oeuvre’:

You only get glimpses of the fullness of an emotion, feel the presence of it pass behind the hedge
as you walk along, little practices for what’s ahead;
seeing someone else’s baby lying still and wary
in the hospital cot,
someone else’s son stretched on a steel gurney in the morgue,

This startling frankness is carried over into ‘Lure’, which is one of the finest sequences of contemporary love poetry I’ve read in a while. Sensual, explicit, funny and never less than 360-degree honest, these poems trace what I suspect is an aggregated arc through the modern love story; from the ‘Premature Intimacy’ of internet-dating (‘So you gave up meeting ‘the one’/ like you quit county football’) to the titular slow bruise of loss, which holds on to the habit of love when the object of it has gone. As ever, it is the matter-of-fact power of detail that so often carries the force of these poems and sets up dynamic resonance with the passionate candour and humour that is woven into the book. The early poems of ‘Lure’ unfold along these lines, as an illicit love affair commences amid the erotically charged infidelity of ‘Hot Sheets’ and ‘ATNA’’s humorous movement towards a mutually recognizable trigger for sex. Henry is a poet unafraid of being simultaneously ‘sensual’ and sexually explicit; such as we see in the short poem, ‘Outside and In’:

The splendour of you spread across my lap I tongue your velvet, your vellum
like the moist soft gills of a wild mushroom.

This isn’t a male reviewer getting off on a woman’s depiction of oral sex; rather it is one enjoying a poet willing to acknowledge her own female power and enjoyment of her partner even while the relationship clearly falls short of notional ideals. Certainly, she is unstinting in the critique of her man’s inability to “give me back how I loved you” and frankly concedes, in the bitterness of eventual disappointment, “That war is seductive as no love ever was”. The hilarious ‘A Garland of Freshly Cut Tears...’ certainly shows how a witty woman scorned can build the creative hell of her fury:

You sent me your socks.
The parcel so heavy
it might have been body parts. What could it mean?
That you’ll go sockless forever without me?
That life with socks is no longer worth living?
That you cried bitterly into them each day since I left?
That the world’d be a better place without socks or me?
That we, the socks and I, deserve each other?
That you’d like me to wear them in your memory? And your malevolence, shall I wear that too?

What makes this sequence so powerful, however, is the fact that its author is honest enough to conceive of it in human, rather than just gendered, terms; ironically capturing more fully, the female power of her own failings, as in ‘Unrequited Pathological’, or physical aspirations, such as the baby momentarily yearned-for in ‘Ripe’: “I want to be hostage/ to the echo of your pleasure”. We can all identify with the moment in ‘Impervious’ when she fantasizes about running into her old lover in Dublin and “I wanted you to see me strong, whole again/ like when I trusted you.” The wraparound nature of Henry’s honesty lends added weight to her clear-eyed analysis of loss in poems like ‘Crucible’, ‘Extrication’ and ‘Kindling’; which deal courageously with the inconvenient realities of love-after-love: “How to undo his intimate knowledge/ now unbearable” in despite of the fact that “You cannot unlove”. And this courage is important as the scale of the missing grows by the sequence’s end with the loss to cancer of the poet’s ex-husband and the father of their children; whom Henry laments frankly in poems like ‘Scintilla’ and the powerful ‘Month’s Mind’/ ‘Cuimhniú Míos’: “There’s a piece/ of me/ in that coffin. // I cannot dismount,/ unharness,/ unloved.”

‘Trevelyan’ sees the poet steal back the corn of her independence, somewhat, and feels generally more back out in the world after the brooding intimacy of the ‘Lure’ sequence. Henry’s nimble way with simple structures that carry big subjects is apparent once more in poems like ‘Mutability’ and ‘Cicatrix’. This final section reiterates many of the preoccupations and talents evident in the first two: the poet’s sharp phenomenological eye is caught in flagrante, with poems like ‘Surface Tension’, and ‘Undertow in the Everyday’, there is the sad hefted anecdote of loss in ‘Habit’ and, of course, two more fine examples of atavistic sexual energy in ‘Menace Attracts’ and ‘Scrios’; with their primitive male-female binaries:

The raw meat of it,
the crush-clinch of muscle
as it bears down,
the purity of its chaste fury.

Henry signs off knowingly with the implied meta-text of ‘Pocket Lint’ which claims, “It’s a stray collection/ cast together, /in this shape, at this time.” But there is far too expert a hand behind all this for that to be the case. Where she’s right, however, is in her depiction of a woman negotiating her own complicated sense of shape and direction at a time of great challenge, passion, and loss. The craftsmanship involved in turning all this into an honest and thrillingly confessional poetry is one of the great achievements of a collection I enjoyed very much indeed.

Other Titles from Aideen Henry

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