Both of these beguiling collections start and end in Ireland. Both feature saints at their heart, and explore the sheer weirdness of saintly psychology. Both are written by gifted young poets who carry their learning deftly. The ancient description of Ireland comes to mind: ‘The (is)land of saints and scholars’. This hallowed phrase, a consolation to many bright Irish migrants whose poverty had left them ignorant, is now used by Professor Google as a link to attract international students to Ireland’s world-class fields of research and its ‘long tradition of educational excellence’. Heigh-ho.
Victoria Kennefick’s poetry, in contrast, conveys a powerful and actual sense of sanctity and scholarship in modern Ireland. She excels in an intellectual and emotional dance across its culture and cultural memory. The self-consuming or self-communing nature of postmodern life is conveyed with intelligence, artistry and verve, in a range of rhythms and line lengths. At one extreme is the sparseness of ‘January’: ‘Emptying myself / of all things ripe / and wanton, I am winter grass. / Observe me survive at earth’s shoulder blades / that jut, cut up the sky […]’ (p. 51). At the other extreme is the largesse of ‘Open Your Mouth’, where toddler Krishna, eating mud, invites his worried mother to follow him and find ‘inside that baby mouth / the whole universe, / moving and unmoving creation’ (pp. 73–74). Each creation contains a further baby mouth with its own universe within. The lines themselves swirl across the page’s space. Obeying her son’s command to ‘Eat or we both starve’, the mother swallows mud and feels full.
Such oscillation of the carnal and the spiritual is astonishing but also heartening. Life is not reducible to one or other domain but must be experienced in the interplay of both. Saints appear and reappear in thematic chorus, mainly women of an inexorable conviction, evident in their mystical behaviour that might nowadays be defined as anorexic or self-harming. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) is here, with Columba of Rieti (1467–1501) and Gemma Calgani (1878–1903), now the patron saint of pharmacists, paratroopers, parachutists and those suffering from back injury (she recovered from spinal meningitis). One notes the brevity of their lives.
The poem on Gemma Calgani’s life is laid out as chapter headings from the kind of pious ‘Lives of the Saints’ pamphlets to be found for sale on little stalls at the back of Catholic churches. A presumably male and clerical authorial voice (‘Chapter 12: Attacks by the Devil. Chapter 13: St Gemma’s Gift is Raised on the Wings of Contemplation to the Highest Degree of Divine Love’) is countered by the footnoted testament of the woman herself: ‘For sixty days I vomited whenever I ate.’ ‘I was threatened by flesh or its opposite’ (p. 58).
Such pamphlets are still published in clear print and bright covers by the Catholic Truth Society (founded 1868), but any single truth, Catholic or otherwise, is challenged by the poet’s vibrant contemporary persona, who shares nevertheless the intensity of those emaciated mystics. Patriarchs in home or church might try to contain them – in vain, for the body politic comes up against the conviction of the resistant body, and a redefinition of nourishment. This is not merely a feminist issue. In the Irish context, use of the hunger strike to shame one’s oppressor has persisted into modern times, notably during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. I was abashed suddenly to realise that each of the poems to these holy women is entitled ‘Hunger Strikes …’. This includes ‘Hunger Strikes Victoria Kennefick’ with its pared-back lines:
Stuff cheese sandwiches
and chocolate blocks into a wide
moist orifice. Or, alternatively
zip that mouth
closed like a jacket,
a body already
It doesn’t need
to feed. (p. 67)
Ireland’s historical memory entails the study of hunger. ‘Researching The Irish Famine’ (pp. 39–40) directly faces ‘Hunger Strikes Veronica Giuliani’, focusing on a different order of female suffering. Bulldozers at the old workhouse site ‘uncover babies’ skulls / curved like tiny moons’, and their mothers beside them:
Mothers exhausted their own bodies
to produce milk. High nitrogen
evidence of body tissue
Such a national history of dearth may have led to a focus on material consumption in contemporary Ireland. Yet that easy view is extended by poems about Internet and media images of women. Here different heroines emerge, such as TV star Mary Tyler Moore, whose decision to wear capri trousers on a 1950s US situation comedy caused consternation among producers and sponsors concerned ‘about the fit of her pants, … cupping under’ (p. 47). Audrey Hepburn also seems on the way to canonisation in the final ‘Prayer To Audrey Hepburn’ (p. 75):
O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting
bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing, I’ve missed
your nightly visitations.
The teenager cutting this slim image from her mother’s fashion magazine to decorate her pink bedroom wall had earlier learned to contemplate a woman’s ‘ideal’ image when playing with Barbie dolls (she breaks their moveable necks).
By the end of this collection, the poet is an expectant mother: ‘Years later and there’s a person growing in my uterus, / my body a building-site.’ A visceral unease with her own and her mother’s bodies in earlier poems has been transformed, or else contained within a larger understanding. Men are not the enemy here. There are touching references to her husband at Sylvia Plath’s grave (‘In Heptonstall’, p. 65), and to her dying father also. After feeding him in hospital, she ‘fell out of love with food’ because he died: ‘I marvel how death turned me too to bone.’ The one male saint of the collection makes his appearance here, St Anthony, patron of lost causes. After having failed to answer her desperate prayers, it seemed, during those hospital days and nights, he now reveals somehow in the final broken line ‘a gift given back –’.
Such co-existence of primal and contemporary ways of feeling brings great energy to the writing. In ‘Selfie’ the poet shares her various ‘Victoria(s)’ (p. 37) but ends with her own vibrant initial. She always knows which envelopes in the post are for her
because of the shape
of that word/that greedy V –
its two arms open wide/ready
to accept anything.
The male world of A.B. Jackson’s The Voyage of St Brendan is wide open to experience in a diffeent way. Chock-full of wonders, it gives a Scots-eye view of the legendary fifth-century Irish saint and voyager. The Scots who gave Scotland its name were originally an Irish tribe of settlers, so the cultures are kin but different. There is throughout this masterly re-telling a lively focus on the grotesque, the far-fetched and the liminal which Scottish writers seem to feel at home in – not po-faced or pious but taking an intellectual delight in the dichotomies of, for example, mainland/island, monster/human, bodily smells and heavenly sights and sounds. It is often funny too, with a slapstick skill in rhythm and rhyme that is captivating. The tale is strikingly presented – part old chapbook in its use of Kathleen Neeley’s detailed woodcut images of key incidents, and part skilful bardic performance, playing to the crowd:
Visitors flocked, and Brendan washed their feet.
The guest house was a barn of souls in need:
aspirants, penitents, paupers, budding martyrs,
peddlers, druids, lords, professional farters. (p. 11)
Yet behind the wonders there is also a realism that appeals to the practical mind. Some of the detail is based on the experience of the explorer Tim Severin, who in 1976 re-enacted Brendan’s voyage in a wooden framed, leather skinned boat, sailing from the west coast of Ireland to Newfoundland via the Faroes and Iceland, to prove that such a feat was possible, and that details of those actual landscapes can be traced in the early medieval myths. The poem is based on Jackson’s doctoral research into all of the editions of the tale from the 9th to the 20th centuries. Yet the poem is a post-doctoral combination of scholarly and creative ingenuity that gives a contemporary slant to the notion of doctus poeta.
The poem achieves a tone of ‘child-like’ wonder that may also engage with the Scottish literary tradition. One thinks of the verse and prose of George MacDonald (1824–1905), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) and George Mackay Brown (1921–1996). Jackson has consciously followed the tone of Mackay Brown’s play on St Brendan, and also his advice about writing ‘as if’ for children. So there is a bright liveliness about the diverse episodes, each pulsing with the rhythms and rhymes of old nursery rhymes or playground songs. Here there is an admirable interplay of the strongly rhymed Dutch-German version on which it is mainly based, with various syllabic forms of traditional poetry in Irish – a creative achievement that gives variety and constant interest. Intermittent prose pieces are introduced to give the reader a more solid footing in reality. These are prose poems really, and serve to bring Brendan’s crew of six chosen brothers alive, as here with the first recorder of these adventures:
Brother Aidan: scribe, vellum tattooist, wave stenographer.
Old feller. Quill stash. Ink horn. Satchel. A martyr to his
cramped right shoulder, his candle-ruined eyesight. Hunched,
the way a heron can be hunched. (p. 17)
Each brother has his needful skill and character, even the baby of the group, who will later be burned almost to a crisp when he succumbs to temptation and steals a precious but devilish bridle:
Brother Seamus: youngster from Limerick, just two years
tonsured, freckled as blue tit’s eggs. Earnest of eyebrow, cub-
curious, impossible slender fingers.
Their coracle or currach becomes a character too with its own name, Cog, and its pungent odour of hides waterproofed with wool grease, ‘tacked on, an outer skin / whose reek made every Dingle dog a pilgrim’ (p. 15).
The story-telling throughout mimics the coracle’s riding of the waves: subtle and risk-taking, transcending many dangers for the sake of distant visions. The voyage itself is in part a punishment for Brendan’s disbelief in a book of Amazing Tales, which he had burned. An angelic visitation in a dream forces him to build his little boat and set sail to find that these tales are in fact a reality. He is a sort of everyman, though his pets are unusual (his crow Préachán and his fly Quilty) and his is a spiritual voyage through temptation and challenge. The brothers encounter sights that have endured in cultural memory: mistaking a whale’s back for an island; meeting a tiny man on a leaf whose work is to measure the seas by the thimbleful; spying Judas on a rocky island: ‘a naked man flame-grilled on one side, / his flipside blue and mortified by ice’ – and yet this is actually his Sunday break from the far worse pains of ‘Hell’s hooks, Hell’s dark, Hell’s grindstone’ (p. 42). They touch the earth of a ‘New found land with safe harbour / … doing flings / in fields of ripe corn’ (p. 44) – precursors perhaps of future Irish and Scots immigrants to a brave new world with its castle of illusion. It seems psychologically apt that at one point in his journey Brendan suddenly realises that he has gone far enough. They return to Ireland, and he dies. The Cog is buried too in a rather touching quasi-epic echo of Nordic culture, from Beowulf to Shetland and to Dublin.
This is a poem of the sanctity of every day, then. We move forward into the unknown alongside our friends, each morning-to-evening a test of ingenuity and staying power. A.B. Jackson’s hero’s ocean voyage is a sort of parallel to Victorian Kennefick’s persona’s psychological journey on the mainland, from disturbed adolescence to her later iteration in motherhood. Raised on the coast of Cork, she can vividly catch life and near-death on its shoreline, as he does time and again on the ocean. Poetry too has its staying power and depths, and the poetic skill of both of these poets is to be measured in bucketfuls not thimblefuls. Where does their gift for language and remaking come from? Saints Catherine and Brendan would have called it a special mercy, and certainly it seems a kind of miracle. The final Notes in both books, however, also indicate the years of postgraduate supervision, of applications for travel grants, fellowships and scholarships that make up the curriculum of our contemporary bardic schools. Yet out of such efforts – lightness and grace.
James McGonigal is a poet, editor and biographer based in Glasgow. Recent publications include Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language. A New Prose Collection 1950–2005 (ASLS, 2020) and a poetry collection, In Good Time (Red Squirrel Press, 2020). This article also appears in Painted, spoken 35 (2021).