Poetry bears both the opportunity and responsibility to take on taboo subjects like life, love, death, and politics without descending into the sound-bite conclusions of a social media status post. Yet some of its most hard-won insights can get buried under the modern avalanche of content. Here, dug out from the snow, are three slim volumes of poetry taking on big themes in new and striking ways.
Josephine Corcoran's The Misplaced House (Tall-Lighthouse Press, 2014) ripples outward in concentric circles of widening imaginative fascination. At the centre of the book lie the matriarchs of childhood, who like a "Candle," "Illuminated the distance / from Maternity Ward to Funeral Home," widows with, "their doors ajar, the solemn whispers / of their nighttime prayers beating / as sweet as deathbed love-making" and a ghost who has "poured herself into my bathwater."
Out from here, the collection encompasses felt others, noting in the opening poem that, "Stephen Lawrence isn't on the National Curriculum," and thus ensuring the speaker's children learn at bedtime about the young man who was murdered for being black that, "He wanted to be an architect." This circle sweeps up Polish villagers alongside the Brontë sisters, imagining their human lives. Finally, the collection touches on the widest circle, politics, in two poems that know exactly what they are doing by pretending to misunderstand.
"You say 'drone'" begins, "and I think of bagpipes / refrigerators / aeroplanes" finally touching on the modern sense of "a pilotless missile" which concludes, chillingly, with only, "a low moan." In "The Exquisite Corpse," Corcoran protests against the popular group poetry-writing exercise of the same name that, "I wanted to write about life / before an explosion," asking finally and pointedly, "Which one of us will lie for days unnoticed? / Who will be blown into a million pieces?" No matter their departure point, these poems grapple with past and present in a firm but compassionate embrace.
In White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015), Victoria Kennefick explores the erotic body and the corporeal body in a language all her own. Here are poems that aren't trying to sound like poems, resisting the almost planetary gravitational pull of the Irish lyric tradition. Referencing Carver and Bukowski in the speaker's acquaintances with Canadians, Texans, and (my favourite) the "Mexican wave," Kennefick clearly looks across the Atlantic for disruptive New World modes to communicate grief's intimacy, "desperate to hold onto something real."
She finds a symbol for loss in the animal body, from "desperate kisses" of a hooked fish to the "distended belly" and "cataract eyes" of a dead calf. The same language applies to the "bloated body" of a sailor who, in a moment of magical realism, is dried by his lover's red hair, and nearly re-drowned by her tears. Fascination with the line between life and death hinges on a devastating realisation in "(I Don't Know How to Spell) Meningioma," where the speaker laments, "You are not here but you are warm."
The self most alive, by contrast, is a source of "secret games our bodies play," including sexual flutter and fetishisation, as in "The Preacher's Daughter" who rebels against her own body with "big-cat scrawls she told us she cut herself, / because it's art and her clients liked her that way." In the end, though, it is in contrasting the vivacity of those loved with the grim void of their absence that the collection attains the white-hot heat of elegy.
The poem "Zero" ranks among my favourite, on par with Wordsworth's "Lucy" for its concise insight into the speaker's love for a boy whose, "satchel dangl[ed] / like a hollow eye, my name in Tipp-Ex on the strap," and then suddenly for whom a funerary bell "moans" in the very next line. (cf. "...she is in her grave, and oh, / The difference to me!"). Concise, unexpected, and intimate, these are poems seeking after a living response, like the violinist in "the anechoic chamber" who simply "couldn't bear to be the sound."
Cuts (Happenstance, 2015) by Rosie Miles takes an off-kilter look at intimate relationships and unavoidable systems. Violence brims beneath these pages, from the homophobic butcher leaning toward the speaker, knife in hand, "to enquire, for the umpteenth time, / whether I'd got myself a boyfriend yet" to a litany of Cluedo murder guesses, each more grim and strange than the last.
Yet in poems like "My Daughter," a mother endures her child's attacks -- "a brick through the window / ... set[ting] fire to the gate again" -- while the mother notes, "The last time she entered the house / it was with a protective hand / held up against her face the entire stay." Later, "sweeping up the glass," she remarks, "I can't really tell / but I think she's gotten thinner." In the end, we come to see the daughter-attacker as the vulnerable one, imprisoning herself literally and figuratively, while the speaker's motherly perspective becomes her best defence.
These poems take on bigger anxieties as well, such as the uncomfortable "whirring / cleverness of our times" and "the city's ... inescapable hum." It is the poet's own peculiar turn of mind that likewise becomes a means of survival against the backdrop of more sinister and systematic violence. This brief but potent pamphlet culminates in the title poem, a work of satire of which Jonathan Swift would be proud, proposing modestly that to save money whilst downsizing of the NHS, surgeries be performed at home with tin openers. Like that popular emoji, both laughing and crying at once, Miles succeeds in "open[ing] up the serrated edges of [our] heart."
There you have it -- three poets daring to face down the concerns of the living, and the memories of the dead, with sensitivity, wit, and a fresh belief in language.
Seek out their books, and their work online, to keep warm in chilling times.