How Do We Get These Lives? asks the second poem in Vona Groarke’s seventh poetry collection Double Negative. “You want to be gentle, of course you do,/to slip through as your body does . . .” Then Groarke characteristically turns and the volta answers with eight terrifying, glittering lines of an extended metaphor:
Groarke’s fine lyricism and wit are present as never before, the humour more mordant, the vision darker; yet the poems are so exact and fine, it is an exhilarating read. Like the cartoon rider “on a horse so real” in Against Anxiety, we know “nothing about tomorrow’, moving on ‘to the next bit of road and the next,/past fury, exhaustion and bafflement/as he drags with his ears a shaft of light/from a moon he thinks is real.” This beautiful, visionary rollercoaster is steered expertly to earth: “I suppose that’s the thing about cartoons:/everyone sees the punchline coming/except the one who’s about to get punched.”
Double negatives count as positives, played out in several more poems which are also “against”, as in the terrific Against Nostalgia with its poignant, ghostly women with the “bunions and bills” and “missing back teeth” Groarke’s familiar haunting domestic interiors are here too, her trademark colours of yellow and blue performing as brightly as ever. But the road feels more dominant both as a metaphor recalling her fine La Route from her last collection X, but also as real tangible entity in The Mancunian Way or Against Monotony with its “two-hundred-mile drive and nothing/at the end of it but a glass of merlot/and a radio fugue for voice and clarinet/which is a lot/when you come to think about it.” This is a collection to exult in.
Vona Groarke states clearly at the outset what this new collection is about. In “As ever, Sunday Morning”, she writes:
That I am not as young as the morning
Is known even to the weather
Which knows everything.
Age, ageing, the small comforts of living, and the writing process are all tackled with her distinctive imaginative and poetic skill in this volume. The ruminations on time and its passing are many and varied. The poems cope with the theme of aging by setting it against past experience. In looking back on her life, the poet contrasts her present situation, be it emotional, geographic or physical, with previous hopes, ambitions and opinions. In the process she derives consolation and a place to stand to balance past with present.
The poem “Stone Trees” which deals with her mother’s spool box, helps the poet to understand,
My mother never sewed ‑ the spool box was for optimism,
It had no winter in it…
Vona Groarke is one of Ireland’s foremost poets. She has published six poetry volumes and recently a book of essays. She is also a teacher, having taught in Ireland, the US and Britain. The accumulation of the stuff of her past, features in the poem “Self storage”, where the act of sending boxes off to storage allows her to reflect on her past as time having been served.
In “Vanishing point”, the poet, who was born in Mostrim, Co Longford, talks of her youth:
I was small then, barely eleven, and every day
that summer was taller, more sure of itself than
No one could say I lacked imagination…
Nor do the poems in this collection lack imagination. In “The Making of Porcelain”, “The Picture Window” and “For Real” we see Groarke’s powers at their most imaginative. These three poems move from reality into “fairy stories”, where the poet may “listen to the stones”, then back to reality.
In one my own favourite poems, “The Lash”, both ageing and imagination come together with vernacular wit.
When you finally tease it from your inner eye
The lash is grey (which is maybe why you spent
Last evening lid-fidgeting a guerrilla itch)
and looks like nothing on your fingertip
except this little fucker is the future now
And it knows all about you.
Almost half of the poems in this collection include the word “against” in their titles, as in “Against Despair”, “Against Anxiety” and “Against Earnestness”. They are not of the Groucho Marx variety (“whatever it is I’m against it”) but rather bring to mind little prayers (paidirin, as they called them in Connemara, made up out of the personal experience and intentions of the speaker) as opposed to prayers which were out of the churches’ lexicon. They were personal utterances aimed at banishing misfortune, in its many guises. These “against poems”, though varied in theme, are full of emotional sustenance.
In “Against Despair” the consolation comes from resignation,
When the past sets you down
Between grillework and mirrors
The best you can hope for
is a warm day,
good news of this or that.
“Against Loss” asks:
Oh, little girl with the sun in your eyes,
where did you go?
Where did everyone go?
Perhaps because of the names of the women, “Against Nostalgia” strikes me as a very English poem, another personal favourite from this collection.
Beryl, Shirley, Doris, Gail,
Names that fell like coins between the floorboards
Oh, what did you think the days were for
that lodged, like pips, in the flesh of your throats
as if you were, somehow, fruit?”
Scattered throughout the collection these “against poems” form a backbone, adding strength and depth to the volume. Other poems deal with a trip to the Antipodes (The Blue Mountains, New South Wales) a trip to the Brontës’ Haworth with her daughter and a series of epigrams. These latter have a very Zen feel to them, not quite haiku yet not koan either.
Silence in a room before a telephone call
Is very different
From the silence after.
It is Vona Groarkes poetic imagination and her capacity to grab our attention and wrestle that attention to the floor that is most impressive. Images, words, colour and pacing working together to wake the reader and entice them into the poet’s vision. In “For real” she writes:
For the evening, for once and only, easy in itself, draped
across the chaise of the Bay, buttons loosened and hair
unpinned, all its blues losing the run of themselves amid talk
of the door of tomorrow being open wide, first thing.
In Groarke’s own words in ” No one uses doilies anymore” this collection is
an inkling of words
the way stars and, yes,
It is this and very much more. This is a collection that sparkles with imagination and wit, a collection to be read on any occasion as there is solace, innovation and fun in it. A collection for the ages.
— Sean O’Hogain, Dublin Review of Books
Sean O’Hogain is a former lecturer in the School of Civil and Structural Engineering at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Bolton Street.