White Whale, Victoria Kennefick

Southword Editions, 2015  €10 inc. international shipping

Dead or alive

My favourite thing that poetry does is turn familiar objects into beauty, or horror, or a message. It can shock our eyes open to a new perspective like an optical illusion — young woman or crone, black vase or white faces. It works the other way round too; demystifying the difficult and strange, putting words around the unfamiliar until it builds something we can understand, and love.

In Victoria Kennefick’s work, a washed-up tree turns out to be a whale carcass (‘Beached Whale’). A domestic iron ‘wraps its long thin tail around us’ and is a dragon, instantly full of danger (‘Iron Dragon’). Sea and shoreline settings play these tricks especially well — in a world full of driftwood, whalebone, rigging and ribs, dead things look alive and the living look dead. In ‘Marie Céleste’ the eponymous ship is personified and freed from its body — ‘the old and splintered thing’, whose ‘sail flaps in tatters, loose angry skin’. This is reversed in ‘Lighthouse', where the skin of a mourning woman is ‘sail-taut’ and her face is ‘a perfect sphere’, mistaken in legend for the moon by navigating sailors. A more modern illusion is at play in ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’, which exposes a dark fetish world behind the innocence of Snow White and Alice in Wonderland.

These transformations are assisted and animated by some interesting verb choices: I love ‘washing foams at her feet’ (‘Iron Dragon’ again) and ‘sun gropes my body back to skin’ (‘(I Don’t Know How to Spell) Meningioma’). There are suitably unsettling similes too: rain that fuses with a woman’s skin to ‘fizz like sugar’ (‘Ritual’) and a cap ‘flat as road kill’ (‘Clarence’). The sweet but haunting ‘Zero’, which feels like the heart of the book, perfects these enchantments; I don’t know how a school satchel can be ‘like a hollow eye’ — but I accept it totally.

Rachel Playforth