Templar Poetry, 2010   £4.50

Reviewed by Jehane Markham, D A Prince and Kirsten Irving

Jehane Markham:
In 'Darkhaired', the title poem, the poet artfully entwines images of music and musicianship with those of adolescence and sexuality. There are suggestions of dominance and subjugation, uncontrollable feelings and deep pleasure. The poem is well controlled and finely nuanced to its subject:

     A fretful dream of being instrumental.

     [. . .]  A trainer with a colt
     who is close to breaking.

Olive Broderick is a young poet with an almost cryptic sense of self-expression which I sometimes found difficult to appreciate. She dedicates this book to her sisters and found myself feeling a little envious of them as I imagined they would ‘get’ all her allusions and references, whereas I sometimes felt as if I was on tiptoe, peering through a crack in the wall of a medieval castle.

She is a quintessentially Irish poet, as the title poem itself suggests, and her work is imbued with references to local places and landscapes. It is mysterious and serious with a streak of humour that is always present in the best of writing:

Somewhere on the banks of the Murray River

     [ . . . ] I meet someone like him
     and once again my heart is ripped
     like a page carefully torn at a fold in its corners—
     once again the ‘nays’ find favour.

          (‘Lament of the Wandering Worker’)

Mythology and landscape are never far apart and in ‘Leabharcham sleeps’ she explores archetypal themes to get closer to a personal feeling. It reminded me of Bruno Bettleheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, in which he talks about the importance of fairy tales in enabling us to understand our subconscious. In the poem a child asks Leabharcham to explain what snow is like and she answers with a chilling description:

     . . .  unrelieved cold
     like the forehead of your dead mother.

This line holds the tension of the poem in a static charge while the rest of it appears to meander innocently around issues of love, puberty and the unknown.

I expect that Olive Broderick reads her work aloud; I would like to hear her.

D A Prince:
Myth and legend can still be a lively source of inspiration for contemporary poets. Olive Broderick, born in County Cork but with an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s, Belfast, proves this: she draws on her Irish background for stories but does not remain shackled to them. In this first collection she is also exploring new ideas, fresh subjects.

In a pamphlet’s unforgiving length any unevenness in the poems is exposed; there is nowhere to hide. So I want to set the weaknesses aside first, and then concentrate on Broderick’s strengths. A couple of these poems feel like beginner’s work, leftovers from an earlier period of her writing:  ‘Solstice at Killard’ never rises above description: some lines are no more than prose—“The temperature drops almost immediately” and “I am still feeling unexpectedly and completely lost”.  And if the poem is going to experiment by dropping punctuation, couldn’t it also have dropped the initial capitals for each line? The language in ‘The herons of Harty’s Quay’ has, at times, a similar flatness—“On the far bank, the apartment complex is lit from below”. Did the editor not give any guidance about selection?

But the good in this collection is worth searching out. ‘Leabharcham sleeps’ is a haunting poem about longing, and snow, and desire, five-line stanzas in loose, long lines that allow the story and sensual yearning to develop at the same pace.

     . . . with the air current that stirs the snowflakes into a mist around me,
     catching my linen shift so that I feel I am part of the blizzard.
     I am wide awake for brightness.  I was not expecting it this morning.

The touch of snow is “warmer than I expected”; its appearance is a “tossed sheet’. Leabharcham, the wise old woman who raised Deirdre (the unnamed speaker of the poem), will have answers for the meaning of all this—but for the moment the desire and sense of wonder here is enough.  It is a beautiful poem, written with confidence and assurance.

So too is ‘A poem only in translation  (after the Eastern European poet who refused to read her poem in its original language)’. This poem confronts what happens when we listen to a poem in an unknown language:

     A pillowbook of veils and Autumn evenings.
     A litany of all the loveliest things.
     This lullaby that I will not sing to you
     because I cannot watch you slip into a reverie
     brought on by the sounds of words like this.

Yes, this is how it happens:  the language lulls us, even when the subject is a dark vision of  “how the streets of this place would soon/ turn a deeper shade than any/ Valentine’s berry.”  Listening to “sound without meaning”, the poem in the original becomes

     a caress of waves at evening time or
     a slow air on a finely tuned instrument.

Music has been a theme throughout this collection, but here Broderick puts it in a new light, showing it as surface sound—beautiful, but empty.

On balance, I’d recommend this collection: at its best, Broderick’s poetry is thoughtful, and with a rare musical beauty.

Kirsten Irving:
he overriding impression I got from Broderick’s staring at the moon in Darkhaired was not so much wonder (as one jacket quotes suggests) as a desire for, and fear of, escape. In ‘Diane’s Sitter’, the prose poetry form works well to evoke a feeling of crowding in, relentless chatter and needing to break away. Diane herself feels trapped by her home life, describing her mother’s influence on the children thus: “All of us standing, perfectly turned out for inspection by guests.” Hearing her mother tell her “most people wish they had what you have”, she flees and finds solace and escape in photography, in the capturing of a stranger on film.

Likewise, escape mythology is invoked, from the fairytale of Rapunzel to the Irish myth of Leabharcham, while in ‘A poem only in translation’, the unnamed poet noted below the title is trying to escape a language she sees as part of her past.

Art and emancipation go hand in hand throughout Broderick’s collection. The nerves and etiquette in ‘Social Dance’ (“I finger the bars/ of my prison . . .  I must find a partner”) are directly set against the freedom of the lone dancer in ‘Burrow’, and the threat that independence presents. Notes of perfume in ‘Etude for the Left’ mingle with musical notes to stimulate questioning and fear, while in the title poem, symphony and scent intermingle in a more sensual way; a cautious musician approaching a composer segues into bodies pressing against each other, as the speaker talks of “chaos”, “fractured lines of melody” and assuming her partner’s scent.

Broderick’s poetry is equally flowing with wind-blown, romantic language, a skill for tickling emotional triggers and an almost total absence of strict form, rhyme and meter. On one hand, the reader might find this last point lulling, enjoying the feel of lines like “Salt on your lips, melody unmade by the gale”, and Broderick provides many strong endings, frequently leaving a final “slow air on a finely tuned instrument” to enjoy afterwards. There is, however, not a great deal about this collection that makes it stand out from other contemporary writing in this genre, and at times the author tends to overstate her point. This is most visible in ‘Solstice at Killard’, where the author gives stanza-status to the line “I have no idea where I am”, before going on to talk unnecessarily about being “disoriented and agitated by my own stupidity”.

Along with a couple of notes which seem more for the author’s benefit than the reader’s, there is a feeling here of wanting to communicate a message exactly, with no chance of misunderstanding. Clarity is commendable, but perhaps Broderick should follow the lead of many of her characters and embrace her own naturally loose style as an alternative to rigidity and the notion of correct and incorrect answers.

Unfortunately I found myself distracted by inconsistencies in the book’s layout. One epigraph took up almost as much space as the poem it was attached to, and I tripped over a darkhaired/dark-haired discrepancy, typos and noticeably uneven tracking. Templar’s presentation is excellent in terms of cover design and materials, so it seems a shame to relax on the proofing.