Review: Vacant Possession reviewed by
Hélène Cardona for Pratik: A Magazine of Contemporary Writing
Soul retrieval, deep healing
Anne Fitzgerald’s recent collection Vacant Possession (Salmon Poetry) is exquisitely crafted, a beautiful, heartbreaking and haunting read, which begs revisiting time and again. It opens with a stunning, hypnotic love poem which casts a spell and sets the tone, for this is, above else, a book about love:
From afar it comes like the smell of rain
in off the sea, with an urgency of waves
breaking, you weaken at the thought
of it happening again, as naturally as heat
making its presence felt on the globe
of your palms, you spread your fingers
wide as water between two bodies
of land, trace boundaries, sea stacks ‘n’ coves
on the bend of where paradise might
be your judgement clouds like a compass
that’s let moisture in, devoid of magnetic
field you falter, give way to the rhythm
of waves as though sirens in pursuit of kelp
and driftwood like lovers on a beach.
In poems about redemption and a love that transcends all, Fitzgerald works to reconcile the world she knew with the world she lives in. She writes about finding her compass, her mother, her identity. From “Finding Myself in Werburgh Street”:
Without Theseus thread of Adriane, nurse Gallagher
cuts the chord, registers me by her own hand,
every slope and ink incline a natural fabrication
of this twenty-six year old’s maiden name, who
didn’t comfort me as my first tooth breaks through,
hold me at night as my breath is given over to
coughing for the loss of you, or watch me not fall
down as one foot follows the other in a gait you’d
half recognise disappearing into a crowd years later.
Instead you commend me into the geometry of a life
you’d not foresee, all the while, wondering from a distance.
And from “Bellybutton”:
my first breath-cry
lines my lungs
with a dampness
will carry like
the pain of arrival
and your departure
into thin air
born like the memory
of mist falling
my innie pit
our belly to belly
is all that
of our attachment.
When witnessing her mother’s death, she mourns, “When whiteness does hold / the world as I know it is no more.” … “a blizzard / of disbelief / whitens my / world as / I knew it.”
The triumph of Vacant Possession is that Fitzgerald, against all odds, deftly and with unparalleled grace, rediscovers and repossesses the lost parts of herself. For this is poetry as shamanic work, soul retrieval, deep healing and testimony, as well as a searing indictment of a society where mothers and their children born out of wedlock have been prey at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Fitzgerald conducted astounding research. To quote her postscript, “From engagement with various State and Church agencies together with research conducted I can confirm that Éire’s Architecture of Containment thrives in matters pertaining to the release of Adoption Records in Twenty-First Century Ireland. A trinity of control and culpability pervades within the Catholic Church, the Irish Free State and its Religious Institutions specifically established to contain, to profit from and to manage the lives of those who bore children outside marriage and the little lives born outside of the bands of holy matrimony.”
At once lyrical and precise, Vacant Possession stands as witness, a heartfelt tribute to her mother and to all who underwent such fates. This is a powerful and necessary collection on the human condition that everyone needs to read.
Review: Vacant Possession reviewed by Rick Larios for The Manhattan Review
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Vacant Possession, Fitzgerald’s fourth collection, is a subtle yet compelling narrative suite in four distinct parts. The narrative arc is implicit, not one of telling, but one of recognition of continuity and connection—between desire and consequence, between morality and hypocrisy, between family and politics, between youthful self and adult self, between understanding and outrage. The poems start with human longing for love, sex, relationships in part I; shifts to parental loss and its complex impacts and revelations regarding family in part II; then to institutional trust and betrayal in part III that is consequent of the sin of desire from the opening section, and a final poem, a requiem of witness for those who were separated from their birth mothers, like the poet was, by the Irish Catholic Church, is part IV.
The lover in the collection’s first poem, “Anticipation,” feels the familiar pangs of desire arriving “like the smell of rain / … as naturally as heat / making its presence felt on the globe / of your palms.” The person who experiences these pangs is the poet—though described by the second person singular: you, your—she and everyone who has ever felt the insistent tug of romantic longing. The subject(s)—she, you, we—of “Anticipation” is us. We’ll learn as we read, that the poet is also the product of such an urgent act, but then so are we. She will also be the daughter caring for her declining mother in the second part, and will further appear as the to-be-enlightened witness to Archbishop McQuaid’s powerful estate, one part theocracy and one part corporation, in the narrative sequence’s third part. McQuaid’s is a personal fiefdom built on the confiscation of newborns from single moms whose children were then sold—probably put more politely: a donation for our holy work would not be unwelcome to be sure—to middle class families in Ireland, Europe, and North America.
The starting with desire is important because of that recognition of self in vulnerability to desire—
Somewhere between Lexington and Park
I spot you, ever before our chance encounter
at the Algonquin blossoms to obsession.
Lush with Dry Martinis and Manhattans
we relax into shadows of movement before
ice melts in to the arms of intoxication.
Even if we tend to be more timid or disciplined or wary in the face of opportunity, we all recognize this progression from casual fancy to chance encounter to martini glass ice melted. We also recognize the hidden nag of conscience as the above poem, “Belief in Momentary Lapses,” comes to its end.
Paper boats released from the palms
set sail on the lake at Central Park
while the host is raised skyward in St. Patrick’s.
Fitzgerald’s deft hand sews threads to be tugged from one poem to another across the sections. She does it with images of weather, intoxication, faith and ritual. Not to mention the recurrence of certain words like “palms” in the poems. The host raised in St. Patrick’s is unseen by the person whose hand is releasing paper boats in Central Park, but she knows the Church’s location, the Mass schedule, and the moments of the ritual of Communion. The shadow of it all reaches north and west, to her in the park. It also previews the centrality of the Church to come in the collection.
Desire, its possibilities and disappointments, unites us. In Part II another, perhaps even more universal experience connects us further, familial grief. From “Saudade”:
Geraniums on the windowsill catch
evening photosynthesising, spreads
itself across the body of mahogany
dining room table as if the Atlantic.
Rays light up family photographs
on the mantle like could-be Broadway
icons facing just west of happiness.
So, where does all our love go after
you have gone, back over the mountain
and downhill to the scent of sea.
Faith and politics also come into play here. As does the special wounding that family can do almost without thinking through presence and absence, word and gesture. Both of the poet’s parents pass here, though greater attention is given to the mother’s illness and death. In it, the poet’s mother’s voice comes through and you realize that its echoes were in the first section’s contractions of “and” to “n” and the sardonic wit. “Use candles,” her mother dictates from her death bed, “in that bottom // drawer, John XXIII thrice / blessed, making a bishop // of Tom Ryan back in ’63. / Light them so I will find // my way through d’eye / of the needle, ease tight // squeeze, deaden clamouring / at the gates.” Yes, this woman’s daughter would be aware of the host being lifted in a cathedral a mile away from her postcoital bliss. Unlike her daughter’s, the mother’s faith remains a comfort to her, even as local scandals break regarding a priest who fathered two children. “Women must be to blame sure look at Eve // and the damage she caused with an apple.”
The complications of family under stress surface: sibling rivalry (“who was loved most // and who loved more, in a home where / a demonstrative hand was slow to show.”), incomplete understandings, an abandoned homestead, migration’s separations, belief’s discrepancies (the damage Eve caused with an apple, indeed—what about the fecking priest’s pecker?). In the wake of deaths, the siblings shatter. The poem “A Great Fall” summarizes, “Was not much / more than twenty // four hours, for us / to come asunder // after our parents left us for holy God.” As we head toward part III, other doubts, too, are raised.
In “Bloodline” comes a recognition and a wondering:
Thing is, we have
of one and other.
In certain lights you
can see it, like
a doubt questioning
what is known.
That slight resemblance
for ease of saving face.
Otherness, the opposite of the universal we, us, humans, is introduced. Otherness: other than your parents, your siblings. Otherness: to be taken in with measured/unmeasured love. But, also, otherness: decidedly not us, available for use and abuse, though you may call the latter fair punishment. The first otherness is normal, even in families where there are no real “bloodline” questions. We have ways of feeling different from each other, but it leaves us all human. The other otherness is harder, harsher, excluding. We do not choose to feel it; we are made to feel it. That is coming in part III. Children separated from their single mothers for reason of their sinful origins, brought to life by life’s most basic impulses. The women are others, their motherhood can be erased from their own children’s birth records. Within a faith that knows as a foundational creed that we are all sinners, yet still ostracizes these particular sinners from the family of the faithful, judges them categorically: Eve’s children: recidivists, the fallen. Yet forgives the equally fallen priest, and rationalizes and hides the sins of greed and pride that animate the further sins that follow on them to corrupt not just individuals but the Church as an institution. The archbishop we meet in “What Will Remain” in part II comes to the fore in part III, more for his othering than for his welcoming God’s children to the faith.
Charlie McQuaid is the narrative sequence’s villain. He is, in the words of the section’s first poem’s title, “Eire’s Holy Roman Emperor.” A rich prelate who, from 1940 to 1971, runs Ireland’s Catholic Church like an independent Pope, a CEO of an international business, who “rescues” newborns from their fallen mothers and repurposes them for middle class families in desperate need of children. “His reign reaches beyond Ptolemy’s // foresight becomes the pentimento of Irish weather / systems moving over a landscape that allows no change.”
Not all children who come into his network are wanted. Some never find homes. If not adopted, the children grew up as free labor, working in one of the archbishop’s side hustles—most notoriously the industrial laundry (“the Swastika Laundry,” with its double ZZ logo) that served hotels and restaurants across Ireland. The work was strenuous, the discipline harsher still, and mass graves were discovered to prove whispered rumors were true and the truth was worse than the darkest rumors. (The book has interesting backmatter, including notes that identify individuals, organizations, slang terms, and other culture-specific items—Lady Laverys, for example, are banknotes—but also a bibliography of sources: books, journals, newspapers, and other media reports on the broad subject of the Irish Church’s abuse of children in its care and the cover up of those abuses.)
Vacant Possession steers clear of much of the worst of the scandal, which is well known, focusing instead on the seizing of the newborn children, the foundational wrong, and takes us on to the poet’s own adult discovery of her origin. One’s own sense of outrage simmers and boils but the author’s doesn’t. It bears relentless witness.
In “Mrs. Doogan” Fitzgerald writes,
… Afterwards, for a few quid
more, Doogan leaves Eve’s day-old baby
in Temple Hill. Every All Soul’s, two
hundred Lady Laverys appear in Doogan’s
palm like footed turf, from his Grace
for her to do-good, as she sees fit
with proceeds of two babas bound
And from “The Book of Bees,” the mundanity of bookkeeping:
to ecclesiastical ledgers
he commends little
Church registry ledgers will eventually betray the scheme, and despite efforts of obstruction years after revelation, Fitzgerald, through detective work and relentless petition discovers her own birth mother, whose story is not unlike the book’s beginnings. From “Bellybutton”:
Do you wish
for a backstreet
in Hatch Street,
or not been
caught off guard
in the first
From “False Start”:
I am three hours as the crow flies
undetected for decades. The spit
of you cannot be denied.
Yet truth-drops rub against lies,
aggregates bound by secrecy
hardens as if lime, till I show up
falling through water like stone.
Vacant Possession speaks its testimony precisely, like a naturalist describing life from the field in patient detail and rigorous, demystifying bluntness. Fitzgerald’s field is the past that endures, doesn’t die but echoes, vibrates, and, if ignored, may still undermine like the aftershocks of an earthquake. She gives voice to lost and damaged lives by using—another favorite word of hers—pentimento to reveal not only what remains but what was removed, the ghost of lives meant to be erased. In so doing she reveals the past and its living consequences, where some sins count and are punished and others are discounted, hidden by cassock, institutional pillars, and the accumulated dust of malign neglect. These are beautiful, aching, defiantly moving poems. They work one-by-one and in the aggregated narrative. They speak of tragedy, resilience, love, family, faith, and loss.
—Reviewer Rick Larios is a reader and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Cara. He reads because it saved his life as a child growing up on the West Side of Manhattan and he'd be a fool to stop now.
Stella Pye's review of Vacant Possession from Stand Magazine
This review is taken from Stand 224, 17(4) December 2019 - February 2020.
— STELLA PYE Review
Vacant Possession, Anne Fitzgerald’s fourth collection, is a chronicle of love and loss. It is a fierce, yet quietly uttered, indictment of the Irish Catholic Church and State’s inhumane treatment of unmarried mothers; babies taken from them for a pittance and sold for profit. As Aiden Mathews states in his introduction, the book consists of ‘three trimesters of lyric poetry that conclude in the birth of a single solid volume’, yet there is also a crucial Requiem. Trimester one, the body of ‘self’, is reminiscent of Whitman in its exploration of the ‘body electric’. Because of their rhapsodic imagery these poems seem somehow innocent. In ‘Desire’:
…You colonise my thoughts
like twists of fallen away wishes...
...You are the squatter who claims
vacant possession of all that is in me.
‘Vacant possession’ alerts us to the oppositional elements of ownership and dispossession evident in this section and, indeed, throughout the collection. In ‘No Air’, we have:
‘You have bedded down my waking thoughts in a slumber so deep,’ while in ‘Blackout’,
we have: ‘Unlike fog thickening at sea through sounds of the horn you arrive unannounced.’ There are shades of Prufrock in ‘Myopic’, ‘... you arrive, spreading yourself slowly and deliberately across the evening’, and ‘Compass’ contains meta-poetic connotations of captivation: ‘Charmed by small refinements in your run-on lines’ – which do indeed run on.
Similes taken from the natural world pervade section two, which traces the deaths of Fitzgerald’s beloved adoptive parents. In ‘Come March’, a magnolia’s ‘folding and unfolding white petals’ are likened to ‘the sheet I shake creases from to spread over your body after you’ve gone’. And in ‘Saudade’ she writes: ‘And as you slip away love pours out of us like a river making for the sea.’
Fitzgerald’s ‘Postscript’ chronicles her attempts – thwarted by Church and State – to trace records of the first eighteen months of her life under the ‘care’ of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Trimester three is an exquisitely crafted shaming of those twin institutions.
In ‘Finding Myself in Werburgh Street’ she writes:
Not five minutes shy of two hours I lean into
a past of myself, as unrecognisable as a wild
pearl, iridescent and luminous as the shell itself
or my fingerprint smudged. Reading my birth
name given is like a foreign language forged
The poet’s notes contain a photocopied ‘Bill of Sale’ for a baby, signed by a nun, for the sum of £3. Trimester four, a single ‘Requiem for the Sold’, is not afterthought, but afterbirth, reparation for all sold babies everywhere.