What Just Happened



This is what I chose —
the airport departure halls, the agonized farewells,
and now these hills, my northern moon,
my pre-dawn birds.

Sara Berkeley Tolchin’s new collection begins: ‘I’d like my heart /to be without conditions, / to crack each day a little more open’, an ambition these vibrant, airy poems explore in the book’s copious reach. It reflects on themes of loss and losing: ‘My mother is missing. The stars too, / the stars are not where I left them, / they are not in their constellations.’

As Wes Davis observed, in his Harvard Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ‘her rich poems — and her sharp eye for details of the natural world — are given a resonant tension by the stretched ties to her native country’. What Just Happened includes poems set on the west coasts of Ireland and the United States. But ‘the rumble beneath her poetic language’ (Davis continues) ‘is most often the noise made by the tectonic plates of personality as they shift beneath the surface terrain of relationships’.

Flights — actual and imaginary — embrace a search for ‘true north, / the secret heart of all things’. Though they address places where ‘much hurt comes to rest’ they sing ‘O holy life’ and frame a time that was ‘a good day . . . full of miracles’.

Opening the world in intimate, surprising and revealing ways

The title of Sara Berkeley Tolchin’s What Just Happened (Gallery, €11.95, €18.50) catches the way in which her poems emerge out of events and moments when the poet is caught unawares or somehow reminded of another life, as when she sees, in Swan Geese, “two geese/ fly honking over the hot cars/ in the Target parking lot”, an image which leads her to observe: “Something should arise / from their regal passage over/ the cheap jewellery of Vintage Oaks/ mall and parking emporium, / even if it’s only this.”

Berkeley Tolchin’s sense of vocation is both process-based and serious. If something happens that can be made into a poem, she seems to be saying, it is her work to make that poem, albeit she couches the ensuing poem in modest terms (“even if it’s only this”). That sense of openness informs all of her work and it is no surprise that so many of her poems take place in in-between spaces, in car-parks and on beaches, or that she is often mid-journey when she writes, flying across the US, driving or sailing. Getting a grip on the ordinary locations where life is lived, she runs a risk by using language that is humdrum until she turns her attention to more philosophical questions:

Should I grow older
and the light more distant,
small animals hiding under the skirts of
I’d like my heart
to be without conditions,
to crack each day a little more open.

(Cracking Open)

And this poem, like many others in the book, is strengthened by an undertow of sadness which the poems acknowledge without being overwhelmed by, as in fine poems about patients she has nursed, a pair of elegies, The Last Word and On Not Scattering Michael’s Ashes in Death Valley, and a series of poems about mothers and daughters. St Laurence’s Ward powerfully imagines one scene,

When I hugged my glass mother with her
slippery slopes
one time before she gave up her ghost
she was pulling at dawn’s chains, she was
at the children only she could see at the
end of the ward

—John McAuliffe, The Irish Times

In poetry I was moved by What Just Happened by Sara Berkeley Tolchin. She works as a hospice nurse in America and the everyday realities of death pervade poems that reflect on nursing and explore the relationships between mothers and daughters, written in the shadow of her mother’s final illness in Ireland. She refuses to seek comfort in platitudes so that while these poems are heart-breaking, they never lose their poise or sharply minted clarity.

— Dermot Bolger, Books of 2015, The Irish Independent


Sara Berkeley’s new collection, What Just Happened, contains poems that explore ‘The heart without compass/The journey without a map’ in an Irish and Californian setting. These wise, sensory poems about living far from home, her other’s death, an ex-husband’s suicide, her 13-year-old daughter learning to drive and coyotes, achieve ‘a benediction of some sort’.

— Niall MacMonagle, Books of 2015, The Irish Independent

Published: July 2015
Details: 72pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 654 3
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 646 0