There is plenty of sorrow finding a strong and affecting voice through these poems. All they need now are many attentive readers.
If Eavan Boland’s vision feels ambitious, Roísín Tierney’s aims may at first appear modest, especially if we extract an ars poetica from her poem ‘On Watching Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival Guide’, mid-way through her intriguingly titled first collection The Spanish-Italian Border, and it does feel as much of a declaration of intent as Heaney’s ‘Digging’. Tierney writes:
…I picked up my pen and found true north forming an intention as solid as any:
to write what can be said, do what can be done.
If that sounds like a curb on the imagination or an unnecessary limitation, bear in mind that the poem concerns a man who survived at sea on an inflatable lifeboat for 38 days. What can be said and done is astounding and as worthy of poetry as any attempt to express the inexpressible. Tierney’s poems are grounded in the world and the best of them invite new ways of seeing and thinking. ‘Hunt’ employs repetition to unify disparate elements. A springbok “twists” and “turns” while the sun “burns the black earth and turns it into dust”:
poem’s language and structure, the repetitions binding the springbok, huntsman, sky and earth to one fate, which doesn’t feel contrived if we reflect how human violence is damaging the world.
Again, this is not a collection of thematically unified poems, even if some themes recurred. I felt Tierney’s work was stronger when she pulled away from straight narrative into something stranger and multi-layered. The anecdotes on family and childhood memories rarely succeeded in transcending the occasion they described and some, like ‘Swanky’, felt as if they could have been written by anyone, despite their specificity. The two previously toothless greatuncles with fresh dentures may have looked handsome “with their new ‘American film-star’ smiles” but this foreshadowing of the final line — “they were Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant” — caused an already run-of-the-mill poem to fall completely flat. Tierney is much better when she subtly connects images and ideas, and extends their scope with her conclusion. ‘Lucid Interval’, a term describing a period of great mental clarity before an epileptic fit, often linked in ancient times with possession by the gods, concerns a normally highly rational woman walking into a lake with her dress held over her head “as if seeking oracular answers”. Nothing unusual happens but the woman later remembers only “a confusion of feathers, clouds, wings,”
so turns the earth, so turns the yellow sun, so hefts the huntsman his blue-barrelled gun and twists to catch the springbok in its sights.
The springbok is doomed, we can tell, and the poem could have ended with that solid intention to say no more than could reasonably be said, with a death, and leave the reader to ruminate on the issue of hunting, but Tierney attempts something less reasonable. The animal
…swerves to catch the bullet with its heart, shatter the sky, and tear the world apart.
No lack of ambition there! Such an apocalypse would very often be a step too far, unjustifiable in context of the preceding narrative, but Tierney pulls it off by virtue of the before which we, our parents, children, friends, were as ants marching along a timeline. Some fell off at intervals, while some crawled over other ants, and some just ran for cover. This raises many questions on the nature of reality, faith, human behaviour and death, all conveyed in a plain style cleverly utilized to strip back the hidden complexity of what people say and do. And this is what Roísín Tierney does best.