A selection of recent reviews of Salmon titles. Click on the book images to find out more about each title.
A Taste for Hemlock
This is a book of consequences, but it is also a book of consequence, it matters.
Martin Egan (multi-platinum selling songwriter)
By far the best and most challenging collection of poems by a poet issued in 2011 is Michele Vassal's, A Taste For Hemlock (Salmon Poetry), with a cover by the author. Here is a European sensibility charging through the conventional staidness of much Irish contemporary work. It is richly to be hoped that this book receives the critical attention and promotion that it deserves; a book without decent promotion behind it by its publisher can often sadly wither and die. Ask for this book in bookshops or chase it up online.
Fred Johnston, Western Writers' Centre
The author of A Taste for Hemlock is not just sensual but uninhibitedly sensuous, as anyone who has plucked les fleurs du mal must be…Sharp, clever, funny, wonderfully evocative and with more hard-won wisdom than most, this is one of the 2011’s best collections of poetry....There’s a Baudelairean sensibility and aesthetic at work in A Taste for Hemlock, a delight in and of the senses, a savouring and appreciation of all that the wide world has to offer, and the bitter flavour attendant on wisdom. There’s also an understanding that the brightest moment of an object’s life, whether that be an animal, plant or fruit, or even a human, is just before the turning point of decay or a bruise; but that this is cyclical and to be anticipated is one of our consolations for loss…
Alan Garvey, Gloom Cupboard
A Taste for Hemlock is a mystical journey of transmutation birthed in the crucible of cultural dichotomy. Grounded in myths and storytelling, Michèle Vassal’s vision is uncompromising, incisive, and laden with a rich painterly sensuality. In this book, she unravels, with honesty and sensitivity, the golden thread that runs through personal and collective memory, honouring both the frailties and beauty of our humanity. Each section, indeed each poem is like a way-station in the development of the human spirit enduring and then emerging from incredible adversity into true identity and ability in all its different guises. It has been said that beauty has nothing to do with being pretty. This book bears that out completely. And it still manages to be mythic, absorbing and beautiful.
Michele Vassal has the rare gift of turning poetry into music. Each elegant, spare, melodic verse lingers in the mind like a beautiful song.
Ferdia McAnna (Writer and Film Director)
The title poem “A Taste for Hemlock” is a flawless sequence of short verse. It distils the complex, the communal drive to inevitable death at the end of a systemic melancholy thread. “Defining desire and death,” a conceptual, moveable verse, disperses its acquired wisdom beyond the dull ache of long pain, above the throb of ritualistic grief. The verdant background of the book cover, the glistening cerulean undertones understate pure, passionate, pleasure.
Nadine Sellers, Last Known Nest
The Juno Charm
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Review: The Juno Charm by Nuala Ni Chonchuir reviewed by David Harmer for Orbis, Spring 2012
ROOTED IN LOVE AND EARTH: REVIEW BY DAVID HARMER
There is much to admire in this collection of poems that can swing their mood from the nuances of 'Menses' - 'Before the butterfly days / are the fly days / and before those / the days of the spider' - to the earthy and often rural basics of poems like 'Sofa': 'I squat by a farm-gate like a sneaky pisser/hunched low, arms bent, wearing ruin heavily.'
The poet is herself the centre of the work and the work is centred on her experience. The cover notes make a reference to Blake and it is not without foundation. There are in this collection many examples of poems describing with a disarming simplicity the poet's worldview, one which has often been hard earned, but of course that simplicity masks a richness of poetic sensibility at work beneath the surface. Here there are moments of profound love, of bitter betrayal, of childbirth and joy, of disquiet and of peace and all resting in a deep sense of the writer as a woman. It is no surprise to find a poem entitled 'Poem Beginning with a Line by Plath'.
Equally important, is the sense of the poet and the work being rooted firmly in a place. Sometimes she is in America, where a poem like 'Chinatown, New York' rings out a list of specific evidence line by chiming line glorying in the esoteric, the newly revealed ; or in 'Valentine's Day' where the poet is in a Lexington Avenue hotel, with the sounds and smells of the city rising up to surround the lovers nestled in bed. 'We steal heat through our skins / safe from the wind that hurtles up the island.' These urgent, urban moments are often contrasted with calmer more reflective rhythms and with a sense of Irishness and the land itself. A good example is the poem 'Galway' where 'Skirling origami swans decorate / the Claddagh basin while Galway / settles her night-shawl down, / boats and birds safe at her breast.' One of the best poems 'Dancing With Paul Durcan' seems so deeply Irish and funny and mad that really I should quote it all. Two lines will have to do.
'Paul,' I said, 'your poetry is filthy with longing.'
He said, 'Would you like to dance?'
At times there is a clunk or two, perhaps because the poet seems too knowing, too aware of her craft, giving us writing too arch for its own good. In 'Airwaves' for example we find a 'newly-minted marriage' which is scarcely original, in 'Gull' I wish the bridges didn't 'bracelet the river' and the wedding breakfast in 'This Is No Cana' didn't agree with me. However, these are rare moments. In the magnificent, enriching and boldly coloured 'Frida Kahalo Visits Ballinasloe', any such carpings are knocked away by a poet who sings out the belief in art, in the creative life, in the need for the mustering of perceptions, energies and strengths to fight against whatever painful, grey version of reality the artist and writer finds herself in:
'Viva la vida,' says unflinching Frida, painter of pain.
The Book of Water
John Murphy is the greatest ex-Olympic-style wrestler and professor of computer science ever. He is also a very good poet, as this first collection confirms.
The Book of Water
is sort of Cabinet of Curiosities, and a bit of a teaser. The poem 'Seems to Be', for example:
What with me being me and you seeming you,
and you being you and me seeming me:
mirage, motive, will, and fixed point of view,
transcendent other, yet singular being:
in mode of the seen and mode of the seeing
we are nothing at all if not seem and be.
Neat, but unexceptional? Not in the collection's context. The timelessness - it could have been written at any time in the last four hundred years - is juxtaposed (deliberately?) on the opposite page, by 'Riding with the Pig Man after Later with Jools' which, with the aid of, e.g., Radio Times, one could date its birth: the opening alone gives cultural relevance:
So here goes, son. Breathe. No pressure. Speak now.
I say the black guitar is a Burns and the band
is Chris Barber’s fronted by Andy Fairweather-Low—
I’ve gambled on this late night music program
hoping you’ll put down your paper and we’ll talk,
though lately all I say seems forced and false.
It's a cracking poem (I assume the 'program is an IT man's programme), and indicative of his cultural range. Which is wide. There's 'The Man Who Built Ireland', where Murphy doesn't play the Irish card, but embodies a tiny and moving Irish moment:
My father troops us along the North Circular
Pointing at churches, schools, and select houses.
He says he built them all and we half believe him.
At Doyle’s corner DeValera’s coffin passes,
Flag-draped on a shining gun carriage.
My father reloads his nicotine-stained finger.
I shoot my mouth off and say it’s rude to point.
My face stings and my eyes burn with grief.
I stand corrected before the man who built Ireland.
His range is wider than these examples indicate, but there's hardly a dud. The blurb, accurately for once, says 'John Murphy could break your arm, but chooses to break your heart instead...'
Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives. Essays & Interviews
This book is ostensibly an essay collection, but poet and creative writing teacher John Morgan has also filled the pages with poems, biographical information, journal entries, book reviews, interviews, and reading and writing instruction. These various elements within the same volume combine to create an intimate portrait of the poet and his spirituality, teaching methods, family life, writing practice, and interactions with nature and place.
Morgan’s credentials include a BA from Harvard, where he studied with Robert Lowell, an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and several prestigious literary awards and fellowships; however, despite his impressive accomplishments, Morgan frequently reveals his humility, exalting the book’s veracity and the writer’s authority. For instance, in the essay “Why I Am Not a Novelist,” in which he explains his arrival at poetry after two failed attempts to write novels: “You see before you no superhero—just an ordinary, striving, fatherly, husbandly figure, trying somewhat bumblingly to make his way.”
In this expansive portrayal of a poet, his life, and his work, the reader understands that for Morgan, poetry is a way of life. He reveals how writing poetry has helped him emotionally deal with several difficult events, including his wife’s miscarriage. He includes three of the twenty-four sonnets he wrote in response to his son’s sudden, serious, chronic illness to demonstrate the “true sonnet feel of powerful emotions being controlled by form.” He explains his affinity for poetry: “Poems are like messages in bottles hurled into the sea from a cliff and we may never know when one reaches some distant shore and is taken into a reader’s heart.”
Morgan shows a number of his poems in various stages of revision, explaining in detail how and why he made particular changes. He generously shares his philosophy about poetry and includes detailed accounts of his writing process, quoting classic and modern poets as well as his own original work. As a bonus, he suggests several writing exercises.
One of the most instructive essays is a close reading exercise. The essay opens with William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” which Morgan recommends reading several times before beginning the exercise—a reading guide composed of twelve questions, followed by Morgan’s expansive answers to these questions. These questions encourage the reader to examine word choices, tone, mood, sensory details. I’ve never studied poetry, but I found this exercise helpful to my creative nonfiction writing.
Morgan confesses that during the four years he spent writing his failed novels, he took LSD on two occasions, the second time two weeks after the first. He describes the experiences in explicit, agonizing detail—the terror, hallucinations, physical collapse, and the fear that his mind wouldn’t find its way back. This event becomes a metaphor for the shift in Morgan’s writing focus from novels and fiction to poetry: he converts a short story to a poem, finding his way back, as his mind found its way back from the LSD trip, to the practice of poetry.
Morgan’s letters and journal entries chronicle his journey from his childhood in a Jewish family in New York City to teacher of creative writing graduate students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Much of his writing focuses on his strong sense of place and his relationship with Alaska, demonstrated in the two book reviews—one on a book about the catastrophic Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the other on a collection of Koyukon Indian tales. Morgan ends the book with a passage about the importance of place, “the most profound use of which is as a metaphor for the self in its deepest, meditative self-knowing. All places used in this way are mythological and reach between people, across decades, across continents.”
This unique book appeals to a diverse audience. Writers of all genres will find the book informative and instructive as well as entertaining.
Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems
States of Irish Poetry
New Collected Poems by John Montague (Gallery Press €15 / £20)
Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems by David McLoghlin (Salmon Poetry, €12 / £10)
Though the popular idea of modern Irish poetry may seem to be dominated by Seamus Heaney, other poets who emerged in the 1960s, such as Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, and John Montague, have always been admired too for their very different, but quite distinctive styles.
Montague's collected later poems are now to hand, reminding us in detail of a great talent first admired in the pages of The Irish Times in a fugitive way.
An Ulster man - not for nothing is an earlier collection entitled Poisoned Lands - his meditations on that province’s bloody past, and still troubled present, appeared first in The Rough Field, a title taken from Garvaghy, the rough field in question.
"Like Dolmens round my youth, the old people" that haunting line from one of Montague's early poems still echoes in this volume, when he an older man himself he returns to explore familiar rooms, ancestral homes, native places. The tone is by turns elegiac and fierce.
This is a magisterial volume indeed. It is to be expected that, as with his late friend Robert Graves, Montague's collected poems will go on growing with the winnowed additions of his future work.
John Montague belongs to a generation of Irish writers for whom the cross roads of the world is where the Boul' Mich meets St Germain. But over his life the main focus of Irish life culture has moved from Europe to North America.
The first collection of a young Irish poet exemplifies this. Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York. David McLoghlin has moved there.
In his poems, however, affected by different kinds of poetry, evoked in Whitman and Lorca, the pain of past emotions is consoled and shaped, and made into art.
On the other hand, man of McLoghlin's poems are ecliptic and controlled in a very controlled manner. McLoghlin might learn from Montague to run with a looser rein at times. The incidents of his poems, such as those about abusive relationships, in other hands might be far angrier.
His images draw on the legend of St Brendan, but his glimpse of Judas bound to his mid-ocean rock from the voyage of Brendan, suggests an imagination, which like the navigator, is trying an Atlantic crossing, have travelled into many parts of Europe, but is haunted perhaps by a sense of betraying somewhere else.
Indeed travel and displacement seems to be a dominant theme in this book. For McLoghlin perhaps the south tip of Manhattan carries the same emotional response that the corner of rue Saint Benoit might for Montague. He exhibits a creative tension between cultures which promises still richer poetry in future.
It remains to be seen whether like Brendan, he has found an earthly paradise on the ocean’s far side.
It is always interesting to see poets searching for their themes among the images of scattered lives. Human frailties over the decades break up the movement forward.
Yet in these encounters, these losses, are awakened hopes that give the poetry of both John Montague and David McLoghlin their distinctive thone. Both demonstrate that the various states of Irish poetry, at home or overseas, are flourishing, providing varied riches to explore.
David McLoghlin's new book begins with "how easy it is to lose a place" ("Dun Chaoin"), and the book takes the reader on a search for what is lost, traveling from Madrid's metro to a Belfast train compartment, from Lawrence, Kansas, to the Paradise of Birds. There is a great cohesion to the poems in this collection; their power accrues the deeper into the book a reader goes. Focusing on memory, place, dislocation, and identity, these central concerns shift, revise, and alter just as memories do themselves, where not only the speaker but a whole "country had slipped its moorings/ and was navigating into a different time zone" ("Climbing Mount Eagle"). Searching, the speaker says in the title poem "Waiting for Saint Brendan," "In the playground,/ I was the boy who is not seen:/ silent, as he learns he is without a people." This journey to locate the self in people and a place shifts and narrows near the end of the book as in the poem "Beal Ban: Nocturne," when the speaker says, "I bent to the page, learning to write more than I/ and you entered my poems." There is a settling of the journey here. The speaker seems to have finally located himself, "And I'm here,/ listening to you breathe beside me/ in the night light:/ I'm here, looking at you" ("Beginning of Trust"). In the end, both speaker and reader cover much ground in this fine first collection.
David's poems have such a breadth of material to draw from, one wonders how he ever settles on a poem's locality - but that's part of the point. What we have here is an unsettled poet, a rerouted and repotted writer with all the implied tenacity and adaptability. And, fittingly, the unsettling elements, the hardly-navigable, are his forte. "All I trust is the forward horizon," he tells us, a benediction against the maledictions with which his poems are fraught. But also: "in my country / the male witches rule always / the under-territories of silence." So we take his work as a manual for the voiceless, those snuffed or stunted in childhood, at times rising to invective against the various and inescapable cruelties: children betraying children, predatory authority, ritual as hiding-place. Listen for the pitch of the language, the way he inflects English with its neighbors, or with the awful rigor of a grimoire. The truth emerges "dripping, / armoured, ancient with feelers;" eyes are "the longship, / […] unself-pitying." In a way, these particulars grant location, so that one poem acts as a device to preserve intercourse between two or three luminous nodes in his memory. It's part consolation, part recompense, and it hearkens back to a time before the written word and all its attendant wrongdoing.