Liz Quirke’s The Road, Slowly
is prefaced by a short paragraph noting that the book ‘pays tribute to the achievement of family’, and that it ‘celebrates the connection between parents and children within a non-nuclear family’. While this note does provide some useful context for the reader, it quickly dissolves as a necessary framework. Quirke’s work requires no scaffolding, and from the opening poem, she brings the reader into the gentle, all-consuming intimacies of family, and the continual balancing between the identities of mother and lover, as well as the individual selfhood of the poet herself. Throughout, Quirke maps a landscape of mothering that is both entirely familiar (‘instead of the resting hollow of your hip, / my words now know the fit of skull and cheek/ against my shoulder, the weight/ of each of our babies as they fall asleep – ‘I Don’t Write You Love Poems Anymore’) and new, or new at least in the representation of the family within Irish poetry.
The Road, Slowly is an assured celebration of the abundance and quotidian joy of the life of a young family, beautifully expressed in ‘Vacancy’, ‘Nocturne with Bathtime’, and ‘Night Vision’. Although Quirke writes in ‘I Don’t Write You Love Poems Anymore’ that ‘These days those stories don’t fall easy into ink’, and that ‘writing them is like carrying a lake/ in my hands, too much lost/ by the time pen meets page’, the poems are unhurried, careful observations and investigations of the texture of motherhood and its various relationships. ‘Waiting Room’, for example, attends to the particular physical anxiety and hush of the IVF clinic waiting room, noticing that ‘chairs are a decent size and spaced / so couples don’t have to touch each other / unless they want to.’ The poems in the first section of the book focus on the temporal quality of waiting (‘Our failure to coalesce./ When skin splits and blood runs / and the life we planned vanishes into dust’ – ‘Carving’); of carrying (‘Fall at 33 Weeks’); and, in ‘Newborn’, of imagining the encounter with a newborn with trepidation and excitement (‘Scared and hopeful, I know / I will leave fingerprints, / watermarks on your surface,/ reduce your glass to less than perfect’.) Quirke maps these experiences from the perspective of the woman who is waiting to become a mother, but who is not carrying the child in her body, in poems like ‘Nurture’ and ‘Juno’. In ‘Nurture’, Quirke writes that ‘In the nine months I didn’t nourish you,/ I made notes, I studied the seasons/ for ingredients to encourage your growth.) In this way, she articulates this particular position of motherhood which is unique to Quirke’s own experience, but which immediately seems to occupy an essential part of the poetic tradition of writing about the subject.
Quirke writes this tradition of motherhood into the canon in a deliberate way, particularly in the second section of the collection, titles ‘All The Hidden Truths’. ‘Counterfeit’ tracks the tensions of bringing this identity into the broader sphere of mothering, and its assumption of a shared physical experience. She writes that ‘Propriety requires my answer to be my lack of sleep, chapped nipples, swollen ducts,/ all the bruisings and restitchings of childbirth. I hum and rock the baby/ knowing the moment my interlocuter sees through me.’ This is a powerful poem which registers the sense of the assessment of the outside world, the sharp evaluation of the family that is so whole when in private – ‘I can see her put those parts of me between her teeth/ and clamp down, finding nothing but a lightweight metal,/ a hollow ring, a counterfeit’. In countering, or extending, the exclusive connection between certain physical experiences and the identity of the mother, Quirke also addresses the canon of writers that she values in ‘Women Poets Teach Me How To Be A Woman’, and although she finds much to sustain her, she finds ‘the lexicon full of all I couldn’t name/ handed over heavy as bad news’. The Road, Slowly is a collection which speaks directly to poetic tradition, and that wants to be part of that community of love poets and poets of family, a desire reflected in ‘Boluisce’ – ‘I want them to teach me how to inhabit this place’, but on her own terms. It is an assured and confident first collection that has successfully opened new doors within the house of poetic tradition in Ireland, and that I as a reader, am grateful for.
Liz Quirke’s The Road, Slowly
(Salmon Poetry) invites us to join the poet on her journey through new motherhood. This is a collection which specialises in the intricate and insightful exploration of that life-changing event. Quirke has a fresh and surprising linguistic approach, her lyrical flights deftly balanced by a careful approach to rhythm, metre, and sound in poems such as ‘Nova’, where a child’s instinctive trust is described: ‘Little cup of courage, you jump / off the round of the earth, unafraid / to spill yourself but you never lose a drop.’
While these are poems that deal with the deep instinctual love of a new-born, they eschew easy sentimentality and explore parenthood’s deeper anxieties. ‘Fall at 33 Weeks’ takes an unflinching look at physical vulnerability around birth, using imagery designed to raise a shudder:
She said it was like falling
on a small dog,
that she felt each rattling jolt
of baby bones
These poems also deal with the complex emotional landscape of new parenthood, its discomforts, its small resentments, and its terrible (and often justifiable) paranoia, in poems refreshing in their honesty. Notable among them is ’Counterfeit’, which records the judgement of a group of women who have come to realise that the speaker’s route to motherhood may have been different to theirs. The imagistic flight of the last lines raises the poem above the realm of skilled narrative to something even more universal and affecting:
I see her hold these facts loose as coins in her palm,
I see her put those parts of me between her teeth
And clamp down, finding nothing but a lightweight metal,
a hollow ring, a counterfeit.
This is a longer collection of poems and, as the title suggests, they take their time, exploring the experience of motherhood through a variety of lenses over three sections, with a prologue and an epilogue. Perhaps the divisions of the book are not as accessible to the reader as the poet, but their considered titles speak of the poet’s care and attention to the poetic weave of this collection. It’s certainly worth taking the time to walk the road with Quirke, seeing life afresh through eyes that ‘don’t know the horizon’.
Beauty and truth shine through this debut collection of love poems from an original and gifted poet . In this compelling and moving collection Liz Quirke vividly captures the difficult, all-consuming, beautiful business of becoming a mother and raising a young family with her wife.
One of the great strengths of this collection is how it hangs together as a whole, each poem adding to and illuminating the other poems. I found myself immersed in and captivated by the story of the collection, which begins with a prologue, followed by three chapters and an epilogue.
We follow the poet through the challenges and joys of becoming a mother: the search for a home to start a family in, the longing for conception, the ambivalence of her place in society as the non-biological mother and the intensity of becoming a mother – how ‘…she arrived and fitted into place / into the arc of my body on this bed / into parts of my days / I didn’t know were empty.’
Although the poems about motherhood take centre stage in this collection, equally evocative are the poems about her wife; we get glimpses of their time together – ‘The heady risks of our early years’ -- before the arrival of the children. ‘I remember you before real life / mattered, all fire and softness’. Some of the most poignant poems deal with the inevitable impact that having children has on their relationship and their lives – ‘I Don’t Write You Love Poems Anymore’, Quirke said ‘All my words are kept for the children’, whereas previously ‘In our years together, love, I have written you with all the heart a pen can hold.’
The poems range from the tenderest of moments to the bleakest, with great integrity and honesty. Quirke skilfully weaves grief, loss and the isolation of the outsider alongside poignant moments of vulnerability, intimacy and wonder. Her vivid phrasing and powerful imagery beautifully capture the hurt of a child shunned by its mother, who ‘…swallows her dismissal / washes it down with a mouthful of burning Summer’, or, in another poem, the devastating loss of a child – ‘What a swing looks like when a child no longer plays in it.’
Several of the poems unflinchingly examine what it is to be a non-biological mother, with a body ‘that did nothing to make her.’ They question her place in society, how others may view her – ‘…that way of strangers / how their hungry mouths linger wet / around words like ‘real’, words like ‘mother’’. The poems also question how being the non-biological mother places her outside the cosy circle of mothers at a child’s party, viewed as a ‘counterfeit’ – ‘knowing the moment my interlocutor sees through me.’
Yet, it is the integrity and courage of these poems, firmly and sensually located in the body, in the visceral experience of being a mother, that leave us in no doubt - how she feels ‘…necessary under their touch’. These are poems ‘tethered to the earth’ and it is here, in the earthy physical descriptions of mothering: the teething – ‘Your new teeth allow you to howl / like the quietest of wolves’, the sleepless nights – ‘Knuckles soft / with sleep / ankles weak / as though boiled / your cries meld / into the walls’ that Quirke is at her most evocative. We can practically feel the weight of the child who is – ‘…is lodged into my chest / a comfort from thigh to chest ‘ or hear – ‘…the rasp of breaths lovely in my ear’
With the rare exception of one or two poems. theses love poems avoid any hint of sentimentality. In ‘For She Who Loves Mw’ when the poet is ‘grief low’ her wife reminds her ‘that nothing roots us more than gravity’. And these are rooted poems: poems rooted in the body, in the earth, in the senses, in the small rituals of the everyday; rituals which Quirke imbues with a grace and significance with her eye for detail and her vivid imagery. Her great gift is to illuminate and celebrate the many small ordinary moments, reminding us to be present to the extraordinariness of the everyday, lest it slip through our fingers like’… water I scoop with netted fingers’.
These poems are a testament to the enduring power of love, in all its glorious, heart-breaking wonder and fragility. Sometimes, Quirke says ‘we witness the whole thing fall to bits’, yet, ultimately, like the collection itself, it all holds together – ‘Holding to the slope of a home / we salvaged for ourselves.’
Liz Quirke approaches parenthood from a more unconventional perspective in The Road, Slowly (Salmon, €12), in poems about her position in a same-sex partnership, uneasily moving between being “the mother” and “the mom”, “[mapping] journeys for us, / paths we could walk together, / a staggered relay to start / when your other mother / passed your tiny form to me.” (Nurture)
These are hard-won poems that rise out of a larger silence, re-doing the lyrics of Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Eavan Boland for 21st-century Ireland: in Women Poets Teach Me How to Be a Woman, this is not all liberating, but instead recognises, even as it quotes her peers, the difficulties of representing her experience: “These women put into words / what a swing looks like when a child / no longer plays in it, how bags of clothes / drag in a tearful hoisting to an attic’s dark. / One assured that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, / but how wrong she turned out to be, how wrong.”
Quirke’s approach to the material is conventional, and in poems like Four Parts Distinct (“Birds warble backwards, flowers retract to buds”, is how that poem of discomfort and alienation begins), Portraits of My Lover and the title poem, this pays off with images which offer a longer view: “At your height the world is all wall and bracken, / stone and puddle, you don’t know the horizon.”