A selection of recent reviews of Salmon titles. Click on the book images to find out more about each title.
Review: Jewel reviewed by Jim Burns for Ambit (210, November 2012)
It's not often that I sit down and read a book of poetry right through without a break and, when I get to the final page, think that I've been listening to a remarkably consistent voice. It happened with Peadar O'Donoghue
, though, where the tone is set by the opening lines of the first poem:
Along Capel Street I stagger into Slattery’s
and stagger out again to be sure I have my wits.
What the hell have they done?
Is anything safe from their blandiose renaissance?
A curse on them whoever they are.
It's all there, the bemused narrator raging against a world that is changing in ways that are not to his liking. And it's a mad world, and not necessarily a nice one, as he tells us in another poem:
Last night I heard the screaming,
I wanted to call the police,
I prayed for change, I prayed for justice,
I prayed for a law to protect the vulnerable,
to insulate the poor. Who will listen?
Who will answer my prayer?
The catalogue style occurs in several poems, and is effective in terms of pushing the lines along and building up the tension. The poet, or at least the persona created by the poems, looks askance at society, noting its falsities, frailties, and cruelties, and spicing his comments with black humor. Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' gets a working over in which there's 'a crowd,/ a host, of golden speculators.' And the bitter 'What is it good for?" asks why we're lured into wars for no good reason:
to give him freedom of speech.
is one of the liveliest and most provocative poetry books I've read for some time.
Review: Merman reviewed by Beth McDonough for DURA: Dundee Review of the Arts (April 2014)
Merman opens with the obliquely powerful titular poem (an Arvon International Poetry Award winner 2010), justifiably described by the Poet Laureate as “wonderful”. Indeed, it is the outstanding poem in this excellent, multi-layered collection – O’Brien’s fourth. The cover representation of her post-Arvon collaboration with visual artist, Ray Murphy, weights that single poem still more. Yet it is the sole poem on that theme. No matter; there is much to be explored and only one other poem stands out strangely from this well-edited collection, and for very different reasons which I will come to it later.
If there is nothing mythological in the wake of “Merman”, there is certainly Catholicism; its take on the underworld receives a witty slap in “Hell Reinstated”, “The Pope he knows he’s got the inside track”, whilst “Keeping Shtum” has a humourous childhood take on remembered Easter rites.
No memories waiting to ambush
and snare her back[…] (“Clear Water”)
That’s not quite true and also taken out of context. O’Brien casts memory very well – “the smell of summer/potted in a jar –” (“Summer Preserved”). Those evocative, visual (if sometimes incomprehensibly punctuated) pieces work: “[…] outside Greengages/ slowly ripen” and sits more easily alongside her lyrical recollections of the natural world in poems like “Rowing” and “Snow Ciphers”, where “Lambs hurtle like tossed snowballs”.
However, when it comes to close family memories O’Brien really excels; from her Grandmother, almost hauntingly to “My Mother Ate Electricity”, which is as remarkable, fine and disturbing as the title suggests. Its sister poem “Euphemisms” paradoxically speaks great truths. Nor does the poet shrink from the graphic nature of her own serious illnesses, and while loss and losing are strong waters, her hand is equally strong at the tiller of hope and happiness – “She is ghosting her way here in flickering lines” (“Attachment”) tells the love story of her daughter’s adoption across continents. Later, in “Clear Water”
How free she is. Does she know
how to grasp it, land it like a salmon
Swim we call to her breathlessly.
If O’Brien works most powerfully with those closest, she also includes a wide array of characters and influences. Anne Frank, William Carlos Williams, Rene Magritte, Adrienne Rich and more feature, and perhaps most surprisingly given that illustrious company, the daft Father Dougal in a salute to his unforgettable and unlearnable lesson (Small Cow, Far Away Cow Perspective).
Wide-ranging indeed. O’Brien can slip into a sestina or a sonnet, turn shape poems, reference the Bible and popular television programmes, yet one poem, on page 19, sticks out like a thorn.There may well be moments in the private study of any contemporary Irish poet when that island’s extraordinarily rich poetic heritage cast as much shadow as light. “Brown trout”, “Lamping”, “Fossil Fuel”, poems of childhood, of Catholic tradition, death, water, foxes, weather, landscape …well, perhaps in the poet’s thoughts anything Irish really. O’Brien does have some reason to fear that someone might have been there already.
Images of drowned faces upturned
like supplicants trapped [..]
However, if any poet feels inclined to indulge in versified shillelagh rattling at major names and at their supposed hinterland, then the poem fashioned for that purpose must be an incredibly fine piece of blackthorn.
She should take heart. As far as I know, Seamus Heaney never wrote of the rising of the Arab Spring in Tunisia (“Nesting Democracies”), and I’m certain he never framed the very true and funny
I’m Irish, we keep our clothes on
most of the time. (“Skinny Dipping”)
And Paul Muldoon possibly never laughed at Father Ted, but then nor did he write the brave “Fragments”.
Jean O’Brien did and she should be proud. Next time, just leave out “Dear Reader Seamus Heaney Doesn’t Own Them”. We know.
Beyond the Sea
There is something mysterious and enigmatic but at the same time mildly addictive about Anne Fitzgerald's writing. Just as when you are reading Joyce, you stumble along saying in your head "I think I know what he's on about", so it is the gist of Fitzgerald's writing that carries you along on the tide.
Beyond the Sea is Anne Fitzgerald's third book of poetry and is published by Salmon Poetry. Living in Dún Laoghaire, the cover of Fitzgerald's collection shows a beautiful painting entitled Dublin Bay with Cloud Sky by George Potter RHA. The book consists of over forty poems and prose pieces which all display a very distinctive style of construction. There is much use of song lines mid sentence that make the reader stop and find the tune in their head as well as the spelling of words to give an accent by the preceding use of the letter 'd', as in "The year d'flying duck flew off the wall of flock,..." in 'Pure Fiction'. Fitzgerald's writing is very firmly placed in its Irish identity and there is also a theme of the characters imbibing various different alcoholic beverages.
The enigmatic style of writing, almost unstructured streams of consciousness, draw the reader in and it is the subconscious that starts to identify recurring themes as the words flow along creating patterns and meaning. There are four prose-style pieces with one in particular, 'Feast of the Assumption',being particularly interesting, with its parallels with the father's pacemaker, his "black box", to the backpacks of the suicide bombers on their way to Heathrow.
There is much to come back to in this collection, to retrace the words and find new understanding and meaning. Likewise, there are other poems that speak straight to you in their clarity; 'Mass Rock at Glenstal' has familiarity in its lines, "this blessed flock wallpaper of ours; where I've traced/ and retraced times spent listening to family histories,/ the Rising, price of the pint and good weather for drying."
Anne Fitzgerald's work is very modern and yet at the same time speaks of Ireland's past, its character and its characters. The experimental nature of her writing is teasing and confusing at the same time and read as a whole, the reader is in turn rewarded by becoming attuned to the voice of Fitzgerald and that voice starts to speak a language that is being shared as you venture forward into the work that is Beyond the Sea
A Promiscuity of Spines: New & Selected Poems
Mayhew On Chapman
Newly arrived in London, I was struck by the constant chatter that stole through the previous occupant's grey curtains and into my room. Lovers' tiffs, actual tiffs, drunken revellers tossed from the night buses, all punctuated by the call-to-prayer. Reading 'Night on 109th Street' by Irish poet Patrick Chapman, I was gripped by his keen observation of the enforced intimacies of city life. "Forbidden to smoke in the apartment," the speaker of the poem sits on the roof and watches aeroplanes and fire hydrants, and all the debris of the streets. However, the speaker's attention soon switches, until he is spying on the neighbours. The activities begin seemingly innocent; the reader hears the "sudden creak of cello" or a football game, but curiosity soon uncovers a driver asking a girl "Baby, how much for a suck?" This penetration of privacy continues, and the speaker watches:
A man in an adjacent building - cooking supper in the nude -
Will later masturbate into his window box nasturtiums.
('Night on 109th Street')
The speaker of the poem sees through the communal/private dichotomy of apartments. The assonance of "masturbate" and "nasturtiums" creates a false kind of smoothness, making the image even more jarring. However, this discomforting voyeurism is reversed in the final stanza:
After I have smoked enough I walk towards the stairs
And climb across the walls by which someone from down below
Found me asleep this morning, in the sunshine, getting burnt.
('Night on 109th Street')
Here, the visual focus of the poem is reflected back to the speaker. Through sleep, and exposure to the city and the unknown watcher, the speaker of the poem is found to be as vulnerable to the gaze as the neighbours of 109th Street.
Chapman's poetry is marked by this close observation, which often has a disturbing undertone. The fragmentation of the body is one such reoccurring theme in A Promiscuity of Spines
. The collection opens with 'Love,' which could be the story of a murder, or simply the removal of an ex-love interest's possessions from a person's flat. The speaker relates:
I tucked you underneath my bed:
The closest you had even been
To sleeping with me
The familiar comfort in the juxtaposition of "tucked" and "bed" is made sinister by the preposition "underneath." This domestic setting is marked by fear:
I find you in my headphones
When I listen to the symphony
That used to terrify you.
The silence between movements is like you,
Holding your breath.
The ex-object of desire is deconstructed through the poem, ending with silence and the potent suspense of held breath, which seems to also demonstrate the way that language can be used to take things apart. This sense of being unmade is also clear in 'Backward Child.' In this poem, the speaker imagines his birth and conception in reverse, ending with the italicised possibility of his coming into being. He describes:
Waters, unbroken again, swirl.
I curl and close my eyes, an embryo.
Sound-patterning is very effective here, with the rhyme between "swirl" and "curl" drawing the phrases into themselves, mirroring the reduction of the poem.
A Promiscuity of Spines
is a collection speckled with "you," exploring the nature of contemporary love. In 'Easter Comet,' a woman contracts poison ivy. She is aligned with a comet in the sky:
...seems to call: 'My jaundiced skin!'
As though the sky has run off with some luminous
The fact that the comet was a "portent of the plague in other ages" suggests that the woman herself is dangerous, as well as fearless. However, the final stanza is touched with gentle regret:
The tide is rolling out. The sea goes on into the dark
The tide suggests a pull across a growing distance, whilst the woman herself is linked to the night through the comet and her "night-dress." Chapman is skilled at expressing the ways in which people touch each other's lives. 'Cicatrice' reveals how imprints can be left by others. The speaker notes:
Bleeding your wrist on invisible shards
As you opened the frame just a crack for some air,
Letting autumn leaves in from the fingers of trees.
The poet uses the sonnet form effectively, using regular rhythm and internal rhyme, which lulls the reader along. The traditional volta reveals a turn in the sonnet and the lover departs:
You tried often to show me how two falling leaves
Might collide in the rain, on a current, and sail
As one leaf. In the end, Winter rattled us loose.
These poems often appear to revolve around an absence, whether it’s the lack of truth, "that you left more in me than I ever let on" ('Cicatrice'), or the presence-as-absence of former lovers, as in the title poem 'A Promiscuity of spines.' In a way these poems appear to stand as records, and are coloured by a fear of forgetting. 'The Forest' explores the notion of suicide and natural death, personified as a "sniper:"
One day you observe yourself alone
Walking that cold forest in your head.
You never hear the shot. The weapon is not found.
Everything you ever were is buried under the snow.
This stylised scene betrays a fear of death as the great eraser. The image of the snow acts as an annihilation of the self. However, the act of poetry goes some way towards sustaining the identity of "what's forgotten by the ones/ Who do not know they have forgotten."
A Promiscuity of Spines
spans six collections, and yet the poetry flows to make a coherent whole. It is a very human collection, and Chapman is skilled at confronting the complexity of emotions through simple scenes, and immortalising them before the fall of numbing snow.
Jessica Mayhew is a young British poet and reviews for Eyewear.
Marrowbone of Memory: Ireland's Great Famine
Marrowbone of Memory is a [collection] of poetry by Jeri McCormick, whose deep connection to her Appalachian and Irish heritage shows through her striking re-imaginings of the trials of her in-laws, who emigrated to escape the ravages of famine in Ireland. Drawing heavily upon stories of the terrible famine passed down through the generations, Marrowbone of Memory evokes the voices of witnesses to the tragedy (fictionalized, yet grounded firmly in a realistic understanding of world history): a baker's son, an undertaker, an orphaned girl, a workhouse guardian, a curate, and more. Powerful and profound, Marrowbone of Memory speaks to the heart of what it is to be human and struggling to survive. Highly recommended. "Scarcity has stretched its ragged shawl / across a cherished island, stifled / the famous green with pestilence and blight. // Tragedy summons ambassadors of kindness; / and news of the Irish plight engages / The Society of Friends, British and American."
Review: Marrowbone of Memory: Ireland’s Great Famine reviewed by Kathleen Serley for Verse Wisconsin Online, Issue 112 (2013)
As Americans, we are drawn to our immigrant ancestry. Some of us trace our ancestors back seven or eight generations to dukes, knights and vagrants, fascinated by this connection to our past. I admit to falling under the genealogy spell, tracing my grandfather’s grandfather to a farm in Norway. According to records meticulously kept in the Norwegian farm books, I learned that this great-great grandfather had been “ a good farmer.” I am amazed by the sense of pride I felt.
Jeri McCormick in Marrowbone of Memory Ireland’s Great Famine writes of the circumstances that compelled her Irish in-laws to emigrate to America. The poems are heartfelt and worthy examples of an accomplished poet’s craft; they also comprise an interesting history of the time. Along with stories passed down within her family, McCormick draws on research for the subjects of her poems and includes a list of sources at the end of the collection.
The title poem introduces the collection:
Marrowbone of Memory
Recalled or unrecalled, memory is embedded
in the way we love, hope, believe...
it will not disappear.
Ring-marked, like the core of a tree, we carry
inside us the truths of our lives—the pain, the joy,
the all that we’ve known—encased,
indelibly traces, into calcareous bone.
But memory’s etchings waver, veer, collide;
grow scrambled with the porousness of time.
When free at last to contemplate the past,
we tend to bypass its heartbreaks,
thought we know they belong. We call up
instead the bright scenes, comfort-hued,
the fresher engravings of ‘now,’ setting our sights
on a future limned by fortune’s light.
But the deeper mind refuses to revise its epic,
clings with dire logic to what-has-been,
even the unwanted. And so a sorrow burrows,
clinch-digs in the dark, marrow-gnaws,
waits for the slow acceptance
that will someday dredge a naming.
At first reading, I am impressed with the number of strong verbs such as traced, waver, veer, collide, grow scrambled, clings, burrows, clinch-digs, gnaws and dredge. A poem is carried on the strength of its verbs, and McCormick has honed the verb craft to perfection.
A second reading gives me time to think about memory—our immigrant memory. Based on the epigraph attributed to Peter Quinn, the poem explores the significance of memory to our daily lives. “Ring-marked, like the core of a tree, we carry inside us the truths of our lives,” and “indelibly traced, into calcareous bone” are vivid images expressing the power of memory.
The remaining poems in the collection are divided into four sections. In the first section McCormick graphically established the conditions of hunger. Starvation: Three Stages is an example:
First comes the clamorous stage, say the experts.
The victim seeks food vigorously wherever
it might be__
The second stage slows the starver to pale passivity,
to a standing-about in reverie, to a mute
distraction like gazing all day out a window;
Finally, the body lowers its upright stance, the spine bends
inward, curving downward. ....
.........................The unfed is grave-ready.
In the second section, she includes poems that trace the conflict between Irish peasants and landed gentry. In Lament of an Irish Landlord, McCormick begins with a description of the farmer’s inability to pay the rent and builds to the tragic climax:
Recourse is lawful.
Landowners have their rights--sacred,
undoubted, indefeasible--set forth
by the House of Lords, spelled out
in the Bill of Ejectment: REMOVAL, it says.
Take down doors, burn roof thatch,
dismantle walls, lead away livestock.
Remove the offenders.
And though it assaults the very soul,
bemoans the Major, summon the militia.
To preserve an honoured tradition,
what other means can there be?
How else can we save the island’s proud estates
from the blight of insolvency?
The third section includes poems with haunting imagery of death. In Bindings, 1847, McCormick writes of a mother joining her young daughter in death:
Through tears I call up your beginnings,
tiny rider in my belly, feeding on the bond
of better times, our bodies sweetly joined
as you tipped your way toward arrival,
wee swimmer on a life cord. I carried you
into this world; I carry you out.
Bound by a braid of thatch—our final tie—
you ride my back, cold cheek at my shoulder.
We stumble graveward,
hunched and tethered once more.
In The Fever the lament comes from a wife burying her husband:
...I dug a hole
in the sod alongside the pallet, rolled my love
into it; into it, my smoldering soul.
A poem has limited time and space to make its impact. McCormick must understand this because she succeeds in “speaking volumes” with images of “We stumble graveward” and “my smoldering soul.”
In the fourth section, McCormick explores the Irish diaspora as immigrants leave for Australia and America seeking security in a new world. In You Can Look Now, the last poem in the collection, she describes the Ireland they left and the one their descendants return to visit:
the sky spreads it ragged shawl
dins the stars, smothers sleep
darkens the luck of this island
where black potatoes and white bones
haunt stories, pile up
like glacier-pushed rocks
along the banks of time.
Acknowledging that there is “Sun after rain, light after shadow,” she admonishes historians to “bring out the dark parts, the bright, tell us the story now; tell us the whole of it.”
Historical accounts are important, but it is the images we remember. In Marrowbone of Memory Jeri McCormick gives us those images in abundance, deepening our understanding of the Irish emigration and impressing us with the significance of memories in our lives.
A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Kathleen Serley enjoys all of our seasons: spring gardening, summer beach combing, fall hiking and winter snow shoeing. She teaches English.