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Jennifer Matthews reviews a new selection of poems
by Marie Coveney, Clare McCotter and John Saunders




Jennifer Matthews on Matthew Geden's 'The Place Inside'

Jennifer Matthews was born in Missouri (USA) and has lived in Ireland since 2003. Her poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review,and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). She is currently working on a collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano.






Measuring: Dedalus New Writers

Measuring: Dedalus New Writers

by Marie Coveney, Clare McCotter & John Saunders

(Dedalus Press, 2012)

ISBN: 978-1906614584


Buy from Dedalus Press





Anthologies are a great, low-commitment way for readers to try out new writers. Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe (UK) has excelled at the gift-anthology (the beautifully designed Being Human, etc), arranging classic, established and new poets within wide themes to allow for easy browsing and new discoveries. Irish publishers are producing uniquely focussed volumes, such as Salmon’s Dogs Singing or Dedalus’s Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland, which admirably attempt to widen audiences for poetry, reaching beyond the stalwart literary set to the new readers who are surely out there, should we attempt to engage with them.

            Measuring:  Dedalus New Writers 1 is an interesting creature, not quite an anthology, but much more than a single collection. It introduces only three poets (Marie Coveney, Clare McCotter & John Saunders) who are no strangers to Irish publications, but have yet to become as widely known as more established poets. Each poet has about twenty pages in order to give the reader a more in-depth taste of their work, and an idea of their style, voice and range—which will hopefully also work as a calling card for their talent, earning them well deserved readings with the ‘stamp of approval’ of having been included in a Dedalus publication.

            As someone has long admired the work of County Cork native Marie Coveney, it is a mystery to me how she does not yet have her own individual collection. (The answer, I would imagine, is that poetry presses are under the same financial strain as any arts institution in a recession, limiting the number of collections that could be printed in any one year. In the summer months of 2012, Dedalus launched two more collections by Corkonians: a new volume from Kinsale Book Shop’s Matthew Geden, and a début by UCC French lecturer Mary Noonan.)  Although in poetrics she’s considered “emerging”, Coveney is already an accomplished visual artist--recipient of the 2003 Eigse Painting Award (Carlow Arts Festival) and graduate of the Crawford College of Art in Cork.  Although she does not exploit this overtly in her poetry through ekphrasis, she has skill in condensing moments and images into an evocative but contained scene, held clearly in the mind’s eye. Her style is elegantly simple, giving quiet dignity to whatever she sets her pen to. 

            One of my prejudices as a reader is a distaste for poems that are ‘too autobiographical’—the poems that feel like endless stacks of photos of unremarkable family holidays, full of people important to someone else (but not to you). While in my more cynical moments I believe it is impossible to write a good poem about memories of childhood or of family members, Coveney prooves (deftly) that is indeed possible, and important. Her portraits of loved ones are delicate and perfectly restrained. ‘Leaven’, for example, describing a family friend, was particularly moving. “Our parents’ first names on his lips sounded/ like wild flowers: Timothy, Julia -- / hinting at life before us.”

            In many of her other poems she turns the pastoral on its head, leaving the romantic paint-by-numbers view of life in rural Ireland for a harsher, more brutal honesty. ‘The Hare’s Corner’ is a startling landscape of a field during harvest, with details revealing to the reader its darker matter: “Tines caress then grasp the trembling ears,/ blades level the feet”, “The huge red harvest moon swells/ with the blood of the sun.”

            The selection of Clare McCotter’s work is entirely in the forms of haiku, tanka or haibun. There is an established and sizeable cross-section of contemporary Irish poets who are strongly influenced by eastern forms: Joseph Woods, Paddy Bushe, John W. Sexton and Gabriel Rosenstock immediately spring to mind, so it is a pleasure to see a woman poised to become more well known in this specialised poetic community. As a reader, I (like many readers) rarely purchase contemporary haiku-based journals or collections, returning instead to the classics like Li Bai. This is a sin on some level, surely, as I frequently give out about those readers whose most recent exposure to an Irish poet was Yeats for the leaving cert. McCotter’s work was enjoyable, particularly when  straying from traditional natural motifs into a surprisingly modern idiom:

            a spring hits the city
            a drunk with a can
            in each pocket
            raises a jubilant hand
            and stops the traffic

Drunks are no strangers to haiku, of course, but McCotter’s city, cans and traffic all work together to create an experience fully familiar to the modern reader, honouring the humour, mystery and beauty in the moments of daily life.

            I much preferred her haiku and tanka to the haibun (a combination of prose and haiku)—her images are so skillfuly condensed that they cry out for line breaks and the spareness that the shorter forms allow for.  Saying that, the arrangment of her work (several pages of haiku interspersed with tanka and haibun) was very pleasing in its variety. Often the four or more haiku on one page shared a theme or common concern (drunks, moonlight, etc), allowing them to be read singly or as companion pieces to each other. Her vision is unique, and makes haiku relevant to the modern reader.

            John Saunders is the director of Shine, a voluntary mental health organisation. An experienced poet who has a previous collection with Lapwing, he helped inspire Dedalus to produce an anthology of poetry and prose named Shine On: Irish Writers for Shine to raise money for the organisation. Befitting the concerns of a mental health professional, some of his poems are simple meditations of self-exploration and self-affirmation. ‘Nyaminyami’ describes the figure of an African god kept in his office, “half serpent, half fish” which:


                                    ... sits close
          as if to protect and perhaps
          to prompt me to believe
          beyond reason that somewhere
          above or below water a benevolent
          being is shielding me from harm.

Exotic, older gods seem a safer starting point for modern spirituality, when our Christian institutions have caused so much latter-day grief. His struggle with faith and religion is clear, and explored over several pieces in the selection. He holds traditional Catholicism to task, particularly in ‘Respect’, challenging the absolute and abusive dominance which allowed for institutional abuse over generations. Told by priests to “wipe that grin boy, you whinging pup”and later the omniscient warning “He will touch your cheek -- / expect him to touch your cheek”. This is a particularly powerful poem, and shows Saunders at the height of his talent, able to convey a crucial message with urgent and chilling poetic lines.

            Some of his other ambitious poems are less fully realised than ‘Respect’. ‘Jig Saw’, for example, explores the nature of violence in crimes of passion, but feels incomplete in its effort to address a massively complex issue as a whole, rather than in tight focus. Nevertheless, his work will be very important to many in need, the lonely or abused, who are trying to make sense of what’s missing in their lives.

            Some highlights of his work include 'Duckling', 'Measuring' and 'Connection' in their well chosen details ("soft egg yolk feathers") and emotional wisdom ("each of us wishing/ for the stuck-together-ness of magnetic attraction/ where we share the ions of human connection").

            It's heartening to see the return of the "Introductory Volume" to bring readers to "new" poets (experienced though they are). Coveney, McCotter & Saunders are good choices to kick off what looks to be a series of volumes. These writers bring a sincere humanity to poetry, with a strong examining eye for the ills and oddities of the present day. Measuring is a recommended purchase, for its scope and variety, and for the saintly knowledge that you will have supported the growth of real talent by giving it audience.



©2012 Jennifer Matthews



Author Links


Matthews poems at Poetry International Web

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)

The Stinging Fly







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