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UNBELONGING

& SONS:

Róisín Kelly reviews new Salmon Poetry collections
from Nicki Griffin & Noel King.

 

 

 

Roisin Kelly

Róisín Kelly was born in Northern Ireland but has mostly lived south of the border. After completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway, she moved to Cork City where she currently lives and writes. Previous publications that feature her work include the Stinging Fly, the Bohemyth, Wordlegs, Mslexia, HARK Magazine, The Weary Blues, the Interpreter's House and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2014. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Synaesthesia poetry prize and longlisted for the Melita Hume poetry prize, and read as part of the New Writers’ Salon at Listowel Writers’ Week.  Follow her on Twitter @RoisinKelly24

 

 

 

 

Unbelonging by Nicki Griffin

Unbelonging

Nicki Griffin

(Salmon Poetry, 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-908836-30-4

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

Sons by Noel King

Sons

Noel King

(Salmon Poetry, 2015)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-21-1

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

 

 

 

 

 

What is the significance of the title of Nikki Griffin’s debut collection of poetry? Surely it is a marker or a signpost hinting at something of the contents that follow; titles are never chosen lightly. Indeed, the poems had relayed the poet’s sense of belonging to no particular place but to somewhere in between before I flicked to Griffin’s bio at the back of the book, which states she was born in England but has lived in Ireland for almost twenty years. This explains both the poet’s love of the familiar Irish landscape found in this poetry and her carefully delineated status as an outsider. But whatever the poet’s tenuous sense of belonging, it is a powerful position from which to write.

            Unbelonging opens with a short, stark poem that gives the impression the poet has begun as she means to go on. She tells us there’s "no light to drive out the black animal / that creeps about my head / tonguing its way around hidden hurts / like an evil mother". There’s something wonderfully pagan and totemic about those lines, which allow a glimpse of something dark and primitive that the poet acknowledges in her own psyche. ‘The Last Jewel’ is also haunted by a mother figure—in the blue of a kingfisher’s feather the poet glimpses the flash of her mother’s engagement ring, and what is at first a simple kayak trip is transformed into a bittersweet recollection of a vanished life. Appropriately, given the poem’s title, there are great moments of bright, jewel-like language: the kingfisher "jinks" downriver, while damsel flies "fizzle".

            A conversation between the poet’s body and the land emerges repeatedly in this collection, as when the poet likens the way her tongue begins to learn the Irish language to a "hidden landscape" revealing itself. The assigning of the landscape to a body part is reversed to reveal the body in the land in ‘Interloper’:

 

Fog sits in the valley silence,

seeps into crevices and private places

 

Here is where the poet draws on her position of outsider with a pagan connection to the land most effectively. The poem is all darkness and wind and allusion to something older than humankind shaping the land. Trees "bow in supplication / to some foreign god" and although the poet describes herself as an outsider in the very title, she finds herself drawn back to that place: "still connected to the mossy cup".

            As well as figuratively, the poet is also to be found literally digging into the landscape to try interpret it. Unearthing long-buried glass bottles and pieces of crockery from around an old home is a familiar game from my own childhood, but here the poet transforms the ritual into a declaration of belonging and ownership. These relics are described as "shrapnel", like they’re being eased from a wound, and the process gives the speaker permission to "claim the garden as my own".

            Unbelonging is a gentle manifesto, a return to roots that go deeper than the boundaries of countries. What does it matter which country the poet comes from to the mushrooms pushing up through earth like "messengers from the underworld", as the poet stands at the "hinge of the year" on Samhain? This world existed long before we did, the poet reminds us, and will exist after we are gone. Yet the world can only exist for us through human perception; thus the stars are "a million tiny heartbeats", and even human trash scattered across the countryside can be beautiful: "Sweet wrappers glitter across snow". It’s a shame about the occasional stray into cliché (no more crackling autumn leaves, please) and I wasn’t enthralled by the book’s more political section, which is a typical deriding of the wealthy. Yet the collection’s assured sense of itself means that these faults are only cracks in otherwise fertile creative earth.

 

            Sons is Noel King’s third collection of poetry by Salmon, and as the author’s biography informs us, 2015 marked the year in which he reached the mark of having had 1,000 poems published in various outlets during his lifetime—impressive stuff. Whereas Griffin’s collection debut collection was all wild paganism and the shedding of past lives, this work by King has a more rhythmical, old-fashioned quality that’s not found in much poetry these days, and is nearly all the more refreshing for that.

            These are poems of the family, as the title implies, although perhaps a more appropriate would have been Mothers—these poems are populated with mother and grandmother figures more than anything else. ‘22 7 1976’ is like one of RTE’s best episodes of Reeling in the Years, mixing the wider world’s dull horror with the sunlit local, and all of it overlaid with a haze of pop culture. The speaker and his family work in the fields; the IRA has just blown up the British Ambassador; Paul McCartney is on the radio. It’s a quietly devastating poem that details the poignancies and rituals of family life before tragedy tears it apart as violently and suddenly as one of the bombs that were everyday news back then. We’re left wondering how the speaker can ever regain the sweetness of life he paints in the poem’s opening lines:

 

Leaving the heatwaved meadow before the rest of us,

the curtained window waited for your hand, Mum,

to light the lights,

 

prepare supper […]

 

The figure of a grandmother is also present in many of these poems, symbolised by her decaying cottage, by a locked box. In ‘Curiosity Killed the Grandson’, the narrator rushes upstairs every time he finds a possible key to the box in an attempt that is movingly described as trying "to make the magic fit". Pandora’s Box is a powerful trope in literature, and the title of this poem suggests that the grandson is perhaps better off without the knowledge he desires. This poem and ‘Taller Trees’, in which the poet visits the ruins of his grandmother’s home, are concerned with the hidden and discarded—yet the useless, tangible things they describe will be the portal with which the poet can make sense of some deeper mystery.

            William Carols Williams said that poetry should be found "[not] in ideas but in things" and King is skilled in seeking out the meaning and symbolism in what might seem otherwise ordinary objects. Even the most everyday items, that through having been used, touched and loved, can transcend normal life to become powerful totems. In ‘Briefcase’ a whole, vanished life is symbolized and made holy by a briefcase that contains only "a few crumbled aspirin, a sachet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum". ‘Breadboard’ reminded me of Heaney’s ‘Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication’ as both poets describe a beloved female figure in the familiar setting of the kitchen. But King’s work has a casually grimmer ending, and although the object’s power is again acknowledged, it is also in the end just an object. Despite the memories evoked by the breadboard on which the woman prepared bread for her family all her life, the poet will still "watch it burn in [his] stove".

            The fact that many of these poems are persona poems threw me a little as a reviewer. It is not appropriate to confuse the lives depicted in writing with the writer’s own life, at least according to Roland Barthes’ influential theory proclaiming the death of the author—a theory I’ve always believed I ascribe to. However, knowing that these are persona poems made me realise just how much I search for the grain of ‘truth’ in poetry. Here, where the lines between fact and fiction are especially blurred, I was somewhat perturbed at having my perception confused in this way. It made for a disconcerting and instructive experience, reflecting to me my own complacency in assigning a certain power what I take to be experiences and memories from a poet’s own life.

            This is particularly to the fore in ‘Winter Beach’, a surreal scene in which it is impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction. The elemental aspects of the beach suggest the uncertainness of its sphere: "A stream that flowed away time is frozen". As the poet writes haiku on the back of his hand, and his parents walk away from him in different directions, I couldn’t help but wonder how close this was to a real memory of the poet’s, or was it purely imagined? In the end, as the poet could not open the box that belonged to his grandmother and thus know something of her secret, inner life, neither could I decipher the truth of these lines. What matters is that this collection is open-hearted in its honesty.

 

©2015 Róisín Kelly

 

Author Links

 

'Selkie': poem by Róísín Kelly in the Weary Blues

Prizewinning poem by Róisín Kelly in the Dromineer Poetry Competition

'Otter': poem by Róisin Kelly in the Bohemyth

More work by Róisín Kelly in Southword

 

 

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