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Distance & A Tug of Blue:

Roisin Kelly reviews collections by Ron Carey and Eleanor Hooker




Roisin Kelly was born in Belfast, raised in Leitrim, and currently lives in Cork City. Her first chapbook of poetry, Rapture, was published by Southword Editions in 2016. Her work has appeared in POETRY, Lighthouse, The Stinging Fly, HeadStuff, Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear 2016) and in The Irish Times after it was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. www.roisinkelly.com


Photo cred: Simon Curran





Ron Carey

(Revival Press, 2015)

ISBN: 978-0-9934101-0-9

€12 paperback

Buy from the Limerick Writers' Centre



A Tug of Blue

Eleanor Hooker

(The Dedalus Press, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-910251-22-5

€11.50 paperback

Buy from The Dedalus Press



“[My] mother and father walked to the measured clip / Of his clopped horse.” These are lines 2 and 3 of the very first poem of Ron Carey’s debut collection of poetry, Distance, and their simple rhythm and eloquence instantly signal that we are in their hands of a writer who knows what he’s doing. His skill isn’t limited to the careful handling of measure and cadence; in this poem, an ordinary evening and an ordinary childhood event—moving house—as seen through the eyes of a four-year-old narrator becomes something strange and momentous. His description of the journey to his new home is a curious blend of a child’s hearing the hum of cars as “bumble-bees in September” and an adult perceiving the retreating city as a woman having “slipped into her evening dress.” On arrival, the estate’s houses are at first a depressing “thousand boxes”, yet as the mother runs, excited and impatient, to the front door, the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” and the new house is transformed from ordinary to extraordinary. We can almost sense the coming years' potential trembling at the limits of windows and walls. It’s a profound little piece about the bittersweetness of arriving at a new home.

            It’s made all the more moving by a poem that follows shortly afterwards, called ‘Upstairs.’ Again, this deals with the themes of mothers and homes—but the four-year-old narrator is now a grown man, with his mother asking him to wear his dead father’s coat and lie on the bed beside her. But the poem maintains the same measured tone that wears lightly Carey’s obvious skill and craft in lines such as “Turpentine bottles click / Against the cold and crackled pane of night” and in such small details as the bedroom scene being lit “by the nibbling light of the Sacred Heart.” And the particular, chilly world of ‘Upstairs’ (capitalised) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in an older Irish household:


Here, Upstairs, where the air is old

And the blue-painted radiators are singing

And the cold cream is liquefying on the dressing table.

My mother can no longer take the cold.


This section of the collection, called ‘Time Travel’, comprises a series of poems in which a child’s voice comes to us clear and convincing in his descriptions of his environment and the adults who populate it. His childhood memories paint vividly for us a vanished world: the father who loved pig’s toes but who loved God more, and thus abstained from eating meat on a Friday until midnight, when the youngest would be sent out with some shillings to buy the treat. When his old aunt asks him to help her catch and kill chickens, he is “half afraid of the slashing claw / But wanting to be a small part of a big adult thing / Like death.” Meanwhile, his house is transformed by an innocent, fearful imagination into a realm where leopards lurk in coal sheds and lions sleep in the hallway after the night’s kill; their pants “are the heartbeat of the house” and they must not be woken.

            Then there’s the strange, ambiguous figure of Aunt Lilly in ‘Kilkee.’ Having had her heart broken by an American, she takes her young nephew to the seaside where he hears the cry of gulls as the scream of “washerwomen”, and when the wind starts to lift him from earth he is held secure in “the jewelled grip of her hand.” It’s a not entirely un-sinister image, followed by the child’s sense of uneasiness when he witnesses her casual flirtations with men. What does it mean when, in the evening, he imagines putting “his finger into the ring of the sun" and pulling it into the ocean despite its "sharp, protesting shouts of light"? Are the references to Aunt Lilly’s jewelled grip and the sun as a ring that he wants to drag into the water an expression of the child’s empathy or his disgust? His distaste at her flirtations suggests the latter, yet his very distance from her pain only emphasises her isolation and loneliness, meaning that this subtle and masterful little piece only provokes the opposite reaction in the reader.

            In addition to its strong depictions of character, Distance is peppered with lovely instances of lanuage. On a letter, “the loose head of the English Queen” is held “only by a single artery of gum.” When the father comes home on winter’s night, the open door lets in a blast of cold air that “spun the orange star of Bethlehem / On its bare bulb.” ‘Churchfields’ contains some of the most luminous examples of writing I have seen in a long time. At a family picnic, the milk-bottle is kept “in the stream, necked / With string, glowing in a dock of stony shadows.” Through language, something as ordinary as a milk bottle is elevated beyond the realm of the everyday. We can almost see it, glowing like something otherwordly amidst the light and dark of the water, while in the world above "a child licks the ruby spoon of sleep” while resting in "the burnt arms / Of Summer."

                 Image after image will have a special resonance to those who have lived in rural Ireland: “Under the car lights, the boreen to the house sways, /  Scumbled in rain.” But these images are revealed to also have a mischievous, transgressive side, as when the boreen in the light of morning is described as “stunned / By flowers; wild as hermits; scented as Diana.” Ireland’s strange balance between its own insularity and its obsession with foreign powers is again revealed in ‘Scorpio Rising’, about the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination:


Now she walked to the edge of the farm where

The hedges knelt against the dry-stone walls.

She stood and watched the storm-petrels fall

From the air into the black waves of potato drills.

Above her, the hawthorn shivered, its red nipples

Hardening in the cold lips of November.


As the poet seemingly feels no need to provide further comment on the scene, neither do I feel it necessary to pry it apart for meaning. The meaning is all there, as is the plain lack of meaning. It is just a scene, a perfect, recognisable scene of an Irish landscape, and of a woman walking in it and thinking. And the things she sees are as intimately connected to any notion of Irishness as was the love that existed in this country for an American president, as was the shock at his untimely death—and at the meaningless of that.

                 In ‘The Water-Table’, we find the declation: “Now, I never ask questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers.” This is as good an attitude for a poet as it is for the child who asked his father what a water-table is, only to prefer the “Marian blue” table of his imagination, with fish swimmming “up and slowly down its liquid legs.” When the mother tells her child that there’s no leopard haunting the coal-shed before kissing him goodnight, she leaves the window open "[a] little too wide, for an imagination like mine." The author may have continued to fear the leopards in the coal-shed, the lions at the bottom of the stairs. But given the quality and poise of these poems, it would seem that that aforementioned window was left open exactly wide enough.

                 A Tug of Blue follow’s Eleanor Hooker’s debut collection The Shadow Owner’s Companion. Being already familiar with Eleanor’s admirable work as an RNLI helm, I was curious as to whether that instinct for a brave but necessary journey towards danger would come across in her writing. I have to admit that she is something of a role model for me, in her balancing of a dangerous, difficult, and heroic job with good writing.

                 The very first poem strikes a surreal note—which will be sustained throughout most of the collection—with the personification of rain. “I keep my appointment with Rain. / We meet in the wrong room. Upstairs.” This unsettling tone is reinforced by the poet’s clever use of ellipses, not commonly used in contemporary poetry, but here it works perfectly. “Rain is…melancholy,” the narrator muses, but why the pause that is signified by that ellipses? It creates both a belief in and wariness of the narrator’s voice. We are not used to being confronted with rain as entity, so we have only the poet’s version of events to go on—but her uncertainty reminds us that just because someone is telling us a story, it does not mean they are automatically to be trusted.

                 As ghost ships “filled with memories” sail away through the open window, Rain describes the four questions only that the narrator may ask:


                 Why is it they hide in there?

                 Why is it they turn from me?

                 Is it to the same place they go?

                 And is it the same story they weather?


We are told the questions, but no answers: if there is truth to be found there, it has withdrawn into the shadows, like the hummingbirds that “fly backward” into the poet’s throat. The poem, with its mysterious setting—the wrong room upstairs with its single bulb hanging from a wire, its ghost ships, its unanswered questions, its personification of Rain—displays carefully crafted lines and a desire not to give too much away, as well as a formidable talent in how the reader is drawn in and caused to wonder, what memories do the ghost ships hold? It is against the rules of poetry to assume too much of  a correlation between the art and the artist’s life, but I couldn’t help but wonder, is it possible that the ghost ships are related to the poet’s work with the RNLI? What exactly do they mean? Of course, the questions that I was ultimately left with were the very questions posed in the poem’s text—the unanswered ones. Perhaps the rest of the collection would provide me with answers, but the only thing clear to me at this point was that Hooker is indeed a clever poet, drawing us ever deeper into the dark seas of this collection, this tug of blue, as if we ourselves are the ghost ships drifting through her imagination.

            And so we find the narrator as a solitary creature who “is told not to be a solitary / creature, to let others in” in the way that “everything gets through”: like rain between slates, like wind between gaps in the walls. On an escape ladder to the sky, crows surround the narrator and her companion. “I hear their cautionary caw-caws and cover / your ears against their thin black sermons.” It’s all nightmarish, surreal, and strangely honest, as if we don’t quite have the right to witness the poet in these scenarios, but are grateful to be shown them nonetheless.

            Rain and birds are recurring themes throughout A Tug of Blue. Rain falls “like a punishment” and ravens are “black as guilt.” Animals have their own agendas and secrets, not as indifferent or detached from the human world as we might think. Ravens are said to have punished a man for stealing their eggs: “’tis known those birds neither forget nor forgive.” The man’s dog is said to have “crawled out of the lake as a pup”, the same lake where his blue-eyed daughter drowned, and later he raves that the dog’s eyes are "of his missing bairn”. In another poem, a dead calf in a stream raises its head to gaze at the poet. It, too, senses the buzzards overhead, “watching from their loop of sky.” Even more unsettling is the suggestion that even water, like the animals whether alive or dead, is its own force; the author acknowledges that such an alien consciousness could not recognise human distinctions between good and evil. She only knows that water “is tender to the dead, and will return / what it cannot own…eventually.”

            The collection progresses, like dark water finding its way forward. A phantom doppelgänger’s song sounds like “a heavy body / dragging itself, deadly, up the stairs.” Crows fill mirrors in the narrator’s mind: “huge-beaked, hungry crows. That fed.” I would not be surprised if many of these poems were drawn from the well of the dreamworld, which the poet appears to have one foot in most of the time. These poems are disturbing and rich and as half-familiar to us as our own dreams.

                        Against my better judgement, I continued to search for elements of the poet’s psyche in her words, for further indications that her work on water has infiltrated her very self somehow, urging her towards the tug of blue that tempts her ever further from the human world. She searches for her “feathered Shaman” in her dreams, her only quest to find him and remind him “how as my dæmon / he must take the sea’s chill from my bones, that began / with the drownings.” How little is said here and yet how much. The emotion and trauma hinted at by those few short lines are almost too uncomfortable to witness. I felt like a voyeur, gazing beneath the dark water’s surface for things that have floated to rest at the bottom. But I am as curious as the poet in my stirring of the waters, my shifting of silt to see what is buried.

            Later in the collection Hooker outrightly states her allegiance to the supernatural, the pagan natural: “On my father’s side / I am part fish. / When I am dead / return me to water.” On her mother’s side she is raven, but will not resist burial in the lake, where the sediment will “form stone-crystal / casts of every sealed cell, / death-bound inside me.” Going inside a clock, the narrator finds a snowglobe which preserves her old schoolroom and classmates, and ladders that lean against a “bruising sky”. Such a sky, the narrator’s dæmon tells her, “has dealt beatings, it can no longer assure the stars, / let us go from here.” A darker undercurrent rises from this dreamy fantasy with the appearance of the narrator’s little girl stepping “out of time” and holding “my tattered present”. It’s a great and almost playful pun on the concept of time and the present, but we’re left uneasy—why does the daemon tell her to “let her go now, / let her be”? As the poet struggles to obey this order, so do I find it difficult to let her go, to let her be.

            The surreal imagery is often wonderful. In ‘A Calling’ the ship Humanity is anchored in the dark offshore, waiting for the signal of “the black caw from the crow / manacled to its nest.” That is so metal. ‘Encrypted’ is a short poem with a similarly hallucinatory quality, about a twin who died in the womb:


I eat the dark so she can see me.


She plucks an acorn from my iris,

says my eyes are the precise colour

of the forest floor she’d imagined.


This poem perfectly encapsulates the ambiguous world Hooker has created between what is unsettlingly dark and what is heartbreakingly moving. Some of that ambiguity is shed as the collection progresses—after saving a stricken boat at night, she and her colleagues are told of a previous incident that ended with a grapnel dragged along the seabed that snares “unanswered prayers, unused flares, / a mother’s dream as they hooked her child / and brought him, punctured, to the surface.” Following are more straightforward poems that deal with the challenges and joys of Hooker’s job—I was glad that she led up to them with the darker poems of emotion and trauma, inviting us to witness the consequence before being allowed a further glimpse into her daily life. It feels more earned, somehow, especially coming after an earlier poem in which a sinister female figure with “two rows / of concentric teeth […] cracking bones” taunts the poet, “Nobody will believe you.” But we do. Given what we have allowed the author to lead us through, how could it be otherwise?





©2017 Roisin Kelly



Author Links


'Oranges' at Poetry Foundation

Poetry in The Irish Times

'Robert's Cove' in The Harpoon Review

More work by Roisin in Southword








©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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