Ireland has produced some of the world’s greatest poets over the years, but the Poetry Book Society brought three current, and female, Irish poets to the fore in a showcase at Durham Book Festival. Alison McManus was there to get a sense of how these recent writers fit into poetic and political history.
‘As a woman, I have no country’, wrote Virginia Woolf, leaving me to wonder how to write about three Irish women poets without mentioning the fact that they are women or Irish. With three sets of wild, dark hair, each is elegant and commanding, each has a distinct voice; yet the fact of their gender, along with their Irish-ness, pervades their poetry. Does the matter of this description diminish their work? Not in the least.
Although all three currently reside in North East England, Tara Bergin originally hails from Dublin, whilst Colette Bryce and Sinead Morrissey were both born on the other side of the border, in Derry and Belfast respectively. The politics of these locations, the Troubles in particular, feature prominently in their poetry, as do religion, psychology and power. There is both humour and anger here.
Bryce foregrounds her heritage in her reading from her latest Selected Poems, beginning with ‘Derry’, which contains the title line of the collection in which it was originally published, ‘the whole of the rain-domed universe’ and provides a youngster’s view of a city divided by sectarianism. Later she interrogates the accuracy of memory in ‘The Analyst’s Couch’.
Intensely subjective and often child-like, Bryce’s voice is deceptively soft and gentle. Meanwhile her words deliver a sharp snake bite, felt most acutely in an account of the dentist’s chair: ‘Perfect Smile’. Bryce uses the image of a python stretching its jaws to accommodate ‘the unexpected breakfast of a goat’, eliciting a nervous laugh of recognition from the audience. ‘Good lord’, she exclaims, also laughing, eyebrows raised at the end of the poem, before moving on to describe censorship and silencing in ‘Needles to Say’. Bryce is at once witty and unsettling: in her poem about a spider trapped beneath a wineglass, the silence of Marcel Marceau is used to rhyme with ‘I meant to let him go’ and ‘a circumstance I know’.
Bryce’s family is present in the poems, alongside her Irish ancestry. Her mother, sister and grandmother all appear in lines tracing breakdowns and inheritance. For her last reading, Bryce returns to the final piece of the poem ‘Derry’. In the penultimate stanza, she observes her sisters leaving Ireland one by one, until it is finally her own turn to watch ‘that place grow small before/ the plane ascended through the cloud/ and I could not see it clearly anymore’. The poetry is perhaps in the attempt.
Tara Bergin comes next and reads from her latest work, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Granddaughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor was the first to translate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English. Upon the discovery of her partner Edward’s infidelity, Eleanor also used the same poison to commit suicide as the eponymous character. Here Bergin’s anger is as toothsome and as lethal as Bryce’s python: she seethes on the grass-covered stage and the audience is gripped by her words.
My favourite poem of the event is Bergin’s ‘Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election,’ in which female friendship is juxtaposed against the identity-smashing aftermath of what Bergin rightly terms the ‘catastrophe’. Trump is never mentioned, nor is her anger made explicit, but Bergin manages to articulate a collective sense of madness: ‘[N]othing is safe / and I can hold off my breakdown no longer’.
This unsettling sense of a breakdown-in-progress re-emerges in ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’, the final poem Bergin reads. The allusion is to Strindberg’s play Miss Julie, the plot of which bears a slight resemblance to Wuthering Heights. Bergin’s image of a caged bird likewise recalls Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic, here unleashed from her prison. The poem’s repetition is disconcerting; Bergin warned the audience in advance that she has been told the relentlessness of the lines sound like a broken record. It is effective, the repeated lines get under the skin: ‘her travelling clothes,’ worn so that ‘we know / that she is going, and will soon be gone’. What does she do with the razor the lackey hands her? By way of explanation, there is only the final line: ‘Again’.
It feels quite symmetrical when Sinéad Morrissey brings us back to the Troubles with her reading from her newest collection, On Balance. The story of a near-drowning, ‘At the Balancing Lakes’ is set in the Belfast suburb of Craigavon in the late 1970s. There are more unsettling images, this time of a drowning girl’s blond hair floating beneath the surface, where she ‘is bouncing / on an underwater / trampoline’, and again there is the same sense of fragmentation and fragility.
In ‘Collier’, Morrissey tells the story of her Nottingham grandfather in a poem commissioned for the 2015 Durham Book Festival. It is a familiar tale in the North East, ‘A month at a Miner’s Rest, but no compensation –’ , an unlucky young man’s life blighted by injury in the mines. There is anger here, but poignancy and hope too.
Morrissey’s voice takes on the exuberance of an eight-year old’s punctuation-free speech while she inhabits her daughter’s voice to give us ‘My Life According to You’. This is a daughter’s version of her mother, hop-skipping over the pain of lost relationships and babies in order to focus on the highlights: a cat in a cardboard box, university, and (naturally) the birth of the daughter herself.
All three poets read beautifully together, recognising each other in shared glances and smiles, weaving stories of identity in lively, economical verse. Little wonder that the event in Palace Green Library is sold out. It seems particularly apt that the audience are surrounded by archaeological exhibits: our history defines us, as these women know.
These are three great Irish writers, but the North of England has some incredible poetic talent as well. Celebrate the region in a unique poetry gala at Durham Book Festival on 14th October, which will bring eleven poets to town.