X (noun) — 24th letter of the English alphabet;
signifies an unknown person or thing;
a signature substitute;
used to represent a choice or a vote;
used to indicate a mistake;
a mark for treasure on a map;
a sex chromosome;
a kiss . . .
From X-Factor to X-rated, the third least common letter in the English alphabet appears commonly in life. In this sixth collection from award-winning poet Vona Groarke, X occurs when the known and the intuited cross each other’s paths.These poems take pleasure in surface and depth. From the luminous colour of the garden sequence to its response to the transcendent spaces of Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammershøi, X marks feeling and experience in language as daring as it is beautiful. This is a book of candour and poise: a groundbreaking publication from a writer hailed in Poetry Ireland Review as ‘among the best Irish poets writing today’.
An accomplished formalist, Groarke has already proven what she can make with words in poems like ‘An American Jay‘ (Spindrift, 2009) and ‘Flight‘ (Flight, 2002). But in X, more than in earlier collections, formal hijinks are subservient to negotiating with the world, to figuring out what there is once the business of marrying, making a home and raising a family concludes or is cut short. The poems let loose little firecrackers of appalling emotion—betrayal, loneliness, unrequited lust—then work hard to move past these wormy horrors. The destination we’re after here, it seems, is pleasure in middle age. The heart, in these poems, might learn ‘to accept itself as autumnal‘ and earn the capacity to ‘sit out weather people fret about‘. And X does mine middle age for its real advantages: its earned intuition of the long length of a lifespan; its faith in the resilience earned through habit; its intensified pleasure in the sheerly sensual; its lessening reliance on witness. To describe Groarke’s collection in the terms of such a journey risks making it sound like some kind of prolonged, lyrical, talkshow whoop of, ‘You go, girl!‘
— Ailbhe Darcy, The Stinging Fly
‘X’ marks a new place for Vona Groarke, and for Irish writing
Vona Groarke: her new book moves away from the “given note” of Irish writing Groarke’s sixth collection marks a departure. The title is deliberately roomy and open to interpretation as a sign for a kiss, in place of a signature, a mathematical symbol, or the mark where treasure is buried, but also as a pun on “ex”. The book finds ways of following up each of these senses, but the title poem unequivocally declares its “ardent solitude” against the backdrop of the end of a marriage, “Brushstroked husband / and brushstroked wife/ finding in skewered union / a defence of loneliness”.Most strikingly, Groarke’s book inhabits the empty space it describes in a way that feels new in Irish writing: the poems tell a story of reclaimed and recovered spaces, albeit haunted by memory:
I am the clean slate. I am off-white walls
and open windows, a garden planted from scratch.
I am floor-length curtains and bookcases,
rooms that listen nicely to each other.
I am door knobs and reading lamps, blue glass
bowls on window sills, family photographs,
corners with silence in them, that sly peace,
a contrivance to which my blue and white hours
and too much clean bed linen give the lie.
Groarke’s ability to conjure place and feeling is characteristic, but the poems’ emphases on transience and the feelings they evoke and prompt are both fresh and familiar, even though the landscapes in which the poems occur remain almost entirely unnamed.
One of the ways in which Groarke’s new collection marks a turning point, in fact, is in its movement away from place names, away from that “given note” of Irish writing and from the associated, public themes that are conjured by the use of proper names. Groarke, with whom this reviewer works in Manchester, is much more occupied by time than by places in X.This is all the more noticeable because she had devised, in previous books, a distinctive way of dramatising public narratives: longer poems such as Imperial Measure , Or to Come and Athlones laid out a template for poems that somehow remade history without being just history, while sidelong lyrics like Parnell , Flight and Archaeology acted as a kind of critique of grand narratives. Those poems sparked, and were part of, a continuing generational interest among her contemporaries in writing narrative poems, although hers, with their typically lyric flourishes, had their own distinctive look and sound.That look and sound are intact in X but now serve a different imaginative imperative. “Beautiful” is a word that does not sit easily with contemporary poetry, and it is not, either, a word that usually describes a book whose subjects include absence, a break-up, a suburban garden . . . But beauty characterises what this book finds in or, better, makes of its subjects.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Poetry Book Society Recommendation
‘These are intelligent, sinewy and glimmering poems, aware of the complexities of our feelings and how they might be rooted in the exquisitely noted and coloured details of the world.‘ — Poetry Book Society Citation.
Publication Date: 27 February 2014
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 636 1