This Selected volume reflects the development of Vona Groarke’s poetic sensibility over a period of twenty years. The poems are drawn from her six previous collections, all published by Gallery Press: Shale (1994); Other People’s Houses (1999); Flight (2002) (which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2002 and won the Michael Hartnett award in 2003); Juniper Street (2006); and X (2014), which received a Poetry Society Recommendation.
A reviewer might observe that a particular poet is passionate, raw, visceral, working from the unconscious; another poet might be said to be intellectual, cool and refined. I would say that the adjective that best describes Groarke’s work as a whole is transcendent. Even in the midst of a grief where “I find I cannot speak of love /or any of its wind-torn ghosts to you / who promised warm sheets and a candle, lit” she manages to leave the shadows behind, and to keep instead, the “remembered light” (“The Garden in Hindsight”).
Groarke grew up on a farm in the Irish Midlands, so it is not surprising that her work closely observes the natural world. Yet, while it appears to focus on her own domestic and garden worlds, something about her aesthetic temperament reminds me of the title of Tania Hershman’s debut chapbook, “Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open”. Groarke’s images appear to embody an intuitive knowledge of the unconscious, while her lyric language, with its particular powers of inflection, expresses a subtle intellectual discrimination. Fuse these with her remarkably consistent tone and you have the embodiment of her powers as a poet.
Perhaps what is most true of her work is the way she “keeps faith with the world”, as Nick Laird has put it. Although she has responded to the 1916 Rising with a narrative poem here, called “Imperial Measure” (which focuses wittily on the sourcing and cooking of specific foods for the rebels) and includes another narrative, “The Game of Tennis in Irish History”, set in 1873, Groarke’s particular strength is in her attentiveness to human emotions. Her image-making is as painterly as the artist Vilhelm Hammershoi’s portraits and landscapes, whose work she admires. Like the paintings, her poems conjure largely blues and whites and earth tones, reflecting an outward calm. But, subtly encoded in their geometry, light and shadow is a hidden turbulence caused by hinted-at losses. Many poems are marked by an ache and a delicacy that reminds me of the poetry of Jane Hirshfield:
…the way your breath on the back of my hand
had three things to say, and none of them got said.
These are poems that have been clearly distilled and, though quiet, they resonate with a smouldering fire. There is, of course, an added poignancy to a retrospective selection, where earlier poems gain a more luminous resonance:
I would have you lie down
on young heather,
all the years between us
pressed clean like sheets of linen …
“Love Songs” (from the collection Spindrift)
It is fascinating that poets ultimately write the same poems over and over. Key motifs unearth what are perhaps unconscious obsessions at the time of writing, although the gradual intrusion of self-consciousness is almost inevitable, particularly when choosing poems to represent your life’s work in a Selected volume. Houses, for example, figure significantly in Groarke’s work. The idea of house as womb (the beautiful cover features a nest) or house as self, become apparent: “I am floor-length curtains and bookcases, / rooms that listen nicely to each other” (“3”). She appears almost compelled to use the house as a symbol for so many aspects of her life:
I already know
That … I have been required to fly
over the history of my house …
While the house could be seen as a refuge (as well as a symbol of the self), the garden is a project that offers purpose and also marks the passage of time:
… the afternoon staked to two kinds of hour …
“The Garden as Event”
Groarke’s love for her garden and for the tending of that garden echoes her love for language, and the tending of language too. Her attention to le mot juste has been observed more than once. Although there is a thread of pure magical delight in some of her images, for the most part her work is stripped down: “I begin to learn / the simple thing”, she writes in “Purism”. (I did wonder what was wrong with the more appealing word “Purity”. But of course she wanted the subtly different meaning. This is an example of her attention to, and precision with, words.)
A poet at an earlier stage in her career might seek to set off fireworks in her poems, but Vona Groarke is a seasoned poet, who has learned to listen, to wait, for the right words to arrive: “ … the rain has too much glitter in it, yes” (“Purism”).
Geometric shapes figure largely in this section: “my linear breath” (“Veneer”); “news falls in slanted beats” (“To Smithereens”); “arc of brilliance on the cloth” (“Athlones”); “A summer Saturday pitched / like a mansard roof” (“Just Exactly That Kind of Day”); “The night is required to fold itself up into squares that get smaller and smaller” (“3”).
The symbol X, the striking title of her sixth collection, is both a negative symbol (suggesting “wrong” and “no”) and affirmative and assertive (X meaning yes on a form, X marks the spot, the target, bull’s eye). It suggests both the rational (mathematical) and the intuitive (emotive symbol of a kiss). There is its central holding point, and also four directions heading off to the four corners of the page, or universe. Like the X, Vona Groarke is a poet of paradox – both spontaneous, full of fire, and also almost Prufrock-like in her caution. One example is the way this hesitancy is contradicted by a predilection for the longer line, something I associate with a certainty, a rational groundedness, rather than the spontaneity of thought suggested by shorter lines. Brilliantly, she takes the very open-ended symbol of the X and explores its myriad possibilities, ultimately seeking to find, amid all the contrary impulses, her core:
so I may walk in the room
of my own breath
Perhaps in order to prevent herself shooting off, like a Cupid’s arrow, into unknown territory, she confines the big abstracts to specific shapes and measurements: “squares of music”; “fractional slippage of love” (“Just exactly that kind of Day”); “square of light” (“The Garden as Event”). Time and space can also be elastic: “One minute is cavernous // compared to the next” she writes in “Ghost Poem”. Or she does the opposite – in “Front Door”, she reveals that the possibility of great magnitudes can be compressed into a small space: “The sky inside my head grows out / of a single cell of blue.”
Such visual images and symbols are both concrete and abstract, intersecting her physical and cerebral worlds. Other motifs are the moon, hands, water, a lighthouse, a windmill, and also language and accents – aspects that identify an individual’s roots. The clarity of language is balanced by subtlety; compelling recurring motifs are markers for what is left unsaid. It is the combination of all these elements that keeps the reader intrigued:
What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands …
Groarke is also capable of a wryness that leaves the reader guessing at undertones:
My mother has gone and bought herself a piglet
because none of us comes to visit anymore.
George has good manners and is clean in his ways:
he is courtly, thoughtful, easy to amuse …
When I tell him I’m glad he’s there when I can’t be,
he answers ‘thank you’ in a voice too like my own …
In her review of X in The Stinging Fly, Ailbhe Darcy queries Groarke’s “intemperance” in bandying about such an enormous word as “love”. Although there’s no denying her sensuousness (in “Veneer”, from the earlier collection “Flight”, she imagines her tongue grazing “the whorl at the base of his neck”), I feel that Groarke’s poetry is anything but intemperate. The X symbolises, for me, an attempt to contain that vast emotional realm, to prevent a spilling over into excesses of pain, loneliness, all the sorrow of a fractured relationship. These are not rhapsodic poems. Instead, there is a stoicism that ensures a life beyond loss:
Though there is only the road
and its sidelong songs
to mark time with you, walk on.
Trees talking shadow talk
will make no mention of you.
As she says in a poem from the collection Spindrift, written immediately before X:
Thistledown, fuchsia, flagstone floor:
this noun house
has the wherewithal
to sit out centuries …
“An Teach Tuí”
With characteristic humility, Vona Groarke is piercingly aware that her habit of staring long and deeply might cause her to annotate the trees forensically, but miss the wood:
and you look everywhere
but it’s not to be found
until there it is
right in front of your eyes
and still you keep on looking.
“Just Exactly That Kind of Day”
Not everything in Groarke’s poetry world is tangible. There is a strong presence of ghosts, for example. But they are welcome, helpful presences, who “gather / in their arms what light the house holds, / pooling it in doorways so none of us / will ever have to step out into the dark …” (“3”). This is a collection brimming with such lyricism. In both tone and content, Groarke’s poems are layered with sub-texts and juxtapositions. Her attention alights at times on the cosmos, infinity, and at others, on the bricks and mortar of her home: walls, windows, rooms. While the mood of the collection is one of solitude, it also explores the connection to all living things, in language that refracts our own experience, like light and shadow’s dance. Beneath the weight of life’s sorrows, her impulse for joy still stirs, nowhere more evident than in the wonderful “Pier”, from the collection Spindrift, where, again, the word “open” appears:
And then let fly. Push wide,
tuck up your knees so the blue nets hold you,
wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;
fling a jet trail round your neck like feather boa,
toss every bone and sinew to the plunge …
This energy and momentum contrasts with an otherwise stopped-time sense of her emotional state. Yet, even here, there is a hesitancy. One senses that these are instructions to the self, urging herself to overcome the paralysis caused by fear (in this case, of the tide): “release your ankles from its coiled ropes”. In “Going Out”, again, the impression is that she is talking to herself as much as to her daughter, to whom the poem is dedicated:
Walk your walk through ten thousand doorways
so the music of you is one and the same as the music
of starlings and new moons and traffic lights and weirs …
Why did I choose to call her work transcendent? Because, in a collection of almost sublime purity – and yes, I mean that word – she moves from a youthful confidence inspired by love, to a state of “chassis” (as Tom MacIntyre might say), and finally to a point where she looks outward, away from the enclosing confines of the symbolic house. And her images perform the complex, layered work of transcendence, as in “High Notes”, where the word “open” appears to be her new spur, to look both outwards and inwards; to be receptive, to write
for no one in particular,
written to be open, for the sake of openness,
this night and every budding night inside.
This review appeared in the Dublin Review of Books and was also published in Poetry Daily: http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_mcglinchey_groarke.php