Eva HD – Shiner

Eva HD’s first book of poetry, Rotten Perfect Mouth, was published  by Mansfield  Press in 2015. Shiner followed a year later. A science  lecturer  and  poet friend  of mine,  who  is disdainful of most poetry, introduced me to her. “Now there’s a poet worth reading,” he said. With my expectations set somewhat higher than usual, I dived in.

“Our mouth is open, and what are we expecting?” So begins the first  poem in  Shiner. A few lines  on,  the  “we”  becomes  a singular  entity,  which  metamorphoses a couple  of lines  later into “carp walking on down the street”. In the surreal image, there  is,  perhaps,  a hint  of Beckett’s sense of the absurd, and also the state of his existential crisis in The Unnameable: “thirsting away, you don’t know what for”.

As with her debut, the strongest impression in Shiner is of her casual register (she  often  uses words like “dunno” and “uh”) and her focus on what Heidegger  refers  to as the  thingness  of things. While being swept along in a storm of detail, the reader becomes aware of a troubled consciousness, though the  occasional  indications are wry  and  anti-sentimental.  At a family lunch where her aunt is offering her figs and her nephew  “cat’s  cradles  his  / fingers  on my tongue”, she writes,  “I’m  running  out  of ways  to say  I’m fine  and  so I say  I’m fine.”  But  in the very next sentence:  “My nephew  addresses  / the  insects  personally  and individually”. This is her particular talent – deflection.

Why is she not “fine”? The process of revelation is oblique, until  “Thirty  Eight  Michigans”  (a poem that won the prestigious  Montreal  poetry  competition,  judged  by Eavan  Boland).  But even here, we find the speaker using a tone that elides full-frontal lamentation:

You are thirty-eight Michigans away from me,
thirty-eight wolverine states into your cups
in the sky, because being dead is like being
profoundly tanked, profound as an empty silo,
with your thoughts and your arms and your
credit cards ignoring you, just eyes, eyes, and behind
those eyes nothing, or the  sky, or the smell  of manure,
or thirty-eight Michigans of black, bloated ice.

With this long single opening sentence and  unexpected  juxtapositions of images,  “we”  (to borrow her  implied  complicity  with  the  reader in  her opening  line)   find   ourselves  being pulled along on a current, where  “thirty-eight  Michigans”  becomes  the  impossibility  of distance between the living  and the dead. And yet  it  doesn’t stop the  speaker from  attempting  a conversation.

Like Elizabeth Bishop, HD is aware of the power of anaphora: “just eyes, eyes, and behind  / those eyes, nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure”. While there is a flow that sounds spontaneous, the poem is calibrated so that one meaning is offered, and then immediately subverted. Her repetition of “profoundly”  and  “profound”  in  the  same  line  is  risky  but she gets away with it  because  she  links the  adverb to “tanked”  – implying  both “very”  and  also “in that  drunken  stupor  of deep revelation”  – then undercuts  it in  the next  phrase:  “profound as an empty silo”. Tone in her work  is  often  layered,  and  here  the  line  could  be seen to contain anger too, as well as a teasing sarcasm that may have gone on between them.

She goes on to loop one thought to the next, so thirty-eight Michigans becomes a unit of measurement: measuring distance in the first line, and depth in the second. The level of drunkenness implied is  perhaps a rebellious,  wild  act,  which  brings  her  to  “wolverine”,  a motif in the collection. Her line  ending  also  deliberate ly  manipulates  the  sense:  “into  your cups / in the sky”. Where the thirty-eight states earlier  implied  a stretch  of distance  between  the speaker and “you”, now the notion of death is introduced.

These container words – “cups”, “silo” (as well as the notion of a container  in  the  word “tanked”) –allow for the possibility of the sky being  seen as a container  too: “and  behind  / those eyes, nothing, or the sky”. Though  they  might  seem random,  “your  thoughts  and your arms and your / credit cards” all suggest a significant relationship.  The  “ignoring  you”  could also be seen to slide in meaning from the “you” addressed to the speaker herself.

In the second stanza, by extending the  conceit  of the thirty-eight  Michigans,  a stronger  sense  of personality is evoked, as well as the closeness of their relationship:

One Michigan is bigger by far than a football  field,
and two or ten is one of those I’m a man who needs
no woman type of motorcycle trips and fifteen is  all the
old routes of tea or silk or spice or Trans-Siberian
misery rolled; but thirty-eight is the size of the space where Oh,
I need to call you, though laying hands upon
the phone I am repelled by a force field of practicality,
grasping at the incongruities of the calendar year and my
desire and your non-existence.

While her selection of end words in the first stanza appears judicious, as the poem progresses, weak line endings  such  as “the”  and  “my”  slide  into  a haphazardness (also  seen elsewhere  in the  collection),  but  this flaw  does little  to diminish   the  power of the  poem.  Another strangeness is the lack of hyphens in  “I’m  a man  who  needs  no  women  type”,  but again,  this and the unfinished cliché, “rolled”, are part of her idiolect. In spite of the apparent openness, mystery  is  left  intact.  A reader might  be tempted  to guess  at the  cause of death, but  there  are so many options here. “Laying  hands”  affectingly  evokes the  biblical  image  of healing  (and thus, an illness); the mention  of motorbike  road trips  and  black  ice  hint  at an accident.

And then, later in the poem, “balking at being” could imply  suicidal  thoughts.  This  is  a poet who knows how to hold the interest of her reader. The  poignancy  of the  elegy  is  all  the  more powerful for her strenuous avoidance of sentimentality: “I am repelled by a force field of practicality”.  Another  motif  throughout  the  collection is  a notation  of time:   the  day,  the month, the season; so here, “the incongruities of the  calendar  year”  suddenly  give  all  those earlier markers an emotional resonance.

HD is an observer  who,  to paraphrase  Eavan  Boland,  forces  the  contours  of ordinary reference and experience into a new shape. In one  poem after  the  next,  unsuspecting  couples, old men, family members and even babies come under her scrutiny. The opening prose poem quoted from earlier eavesdrops on voices in a city street:  “That  one  punk  chick  in  the  lace corset going I don’t like that guy, I never liked him, with  the  weird  eyebrow?  I don’t trust  his face” (“Nuestra Boca Abierta”). But while  she  witnesses  those  around  her  with  a detached irony, affection,  bitterness,  or even  disgust,  as with  the opening  sentence,  she includes  herself  as well: “All my muscles are / unimpressed:  with  me,  the  air  / the  lovers  in  the  park” (“Baseball On The Radio At Night”). It’s safe to say that she is disillusioned by life – or at least, people – in general. “If Dickens were alive today, he’d / call it Managing Expectations”, she writes in “Bootblack”.

Most of her usually long-lined poems are formed  in  irregular-sized  stanzas,  but she is  fond  of the sestina  too, which,  in  this  collection,  are easy giveaways.  There  are no  fewer  than  three, and I would say they are the least effective in the collection – due, perhaps, to some unsubtle end-word choices: “marble”, “ticket”, “birthday”  etc. Her sonnets  – there  are  several  of these too – are much more successful.

A key concern for her is animal rights. She describes animal experiments and contrasts  the restless pacing of creatures in the Detroit  zoo  with  the  way  free  wolverines  “run  and  run, scale / sheer cliffs and  sprint  the far  sides”  of mountains.  With  cutting  brevity  she highlights the hypocrisy  of seemingly  caring  carnivores  and  fish  eaters: “Was  this  salmon  wild  / before it was dead?”

For Eva HD, “our lives are porous, slipping into one another” (“Feidakis’ Birds”)  and this seems the overriding theme of the collection. Poems touch on current world  affairs,  pop culture, history, music, religion. In her “Aubade in Eleven Postcards” she addresses Oppenheimer, Alex Bell, the French painter Albert Marquet, and  St Christopher,  among others.

Perhaps she sees gender as porous too, often using “you” to  avoid  gender  pronouns.  In a hospital visit, only the patient’s age  is  indicated:  “phlegm  hides  in  a crocheted  pocket of crinkled  neck”.  Gender-avoidance,  where  it  occurs,  might,  of course,  be to  disguise   the person she is writing about. Elsewhere, men are more overtly visible than women. There  is  a general masculine  energy  throughout,  not least  because  of casual  conversations  with  a male taxi driver, a crazy character on a bench, old men in the square and fishermen down by the harbour. Scraps of conversation are frequently relayed. “I wonder  if  something  could  be done for the pain”, she  says  to a night  nurse,  Petros,  who  replies,  “No.  It’s  important  to  suffer before you die.”

I owe my scientist/poet friend a pint for introducing this book to me. There is subtlety in the emotional range of Eva HD’s work, and the content conveys  a restless,  disquieted consciousness. But it is  her  idiosyncratic  personal  music  in  particular that  captivates.  In Eavan Boland’s words, this is a voice that “is making its own reality with a devil-take-the- hindmost defiance”.

First published in the Dublin Review of Books

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Afric McGlinchey
Afric McGlinchey’s début collection, "The lucky star of hidden things" (Salmon Poetry, 2012), which focuses on her upbringing between Ireland and Africa, was translated into Italian. Nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Net and Forward prizes, her work has appeared in journals worldwide. The core concerns of her work are to do with nomadism: physical, imaginative and psychological. Her poetry has been translated into five languages and used in the Irish Leaving Certificate Examinations Book. Awards include the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Award, and selection for an Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in 2014. She was listed as one of Ireland’s ‘Rising Poets’ in Poetry Ireland Review and received an Arts bursary to work towards her second collection, "Ghost of the Fisher Cat" (2016), which was nominated for several awards. Afric lives in West Cork where she works as a freelance editor. She has recently received an Arts Council bursary to research and write her next book. www.africmcglinchey.com