Requiem, Síofra McSherry, illustrated by Emma WrightThe jacket features a streaky dark grey watercolour, the central image being a one armed, one-legged skeleton holdng what seems to be a scythe at one end and perhaps a window at the other (hard to be sure). The skull is definitely grinning though. The collection title is in large quite hand-writing style caps, centred in the top two inches. Below this in small white lower case, the text reads 'Mourning poems by' (in italics) Siofra McSherry (regular font). Below this 'Illustrations by' (in italics) Emma Wright (regular font). The only other graphic feature is the small white logo of the press in the bottom right hand corner.

The Emma Press, 2019           £5.00

Irreverence, defiance and love

Written, as the blurb states, ‘in memory of her mother, who died of motor neurone disease in 2012’, these poems speak of loss with a mixture of humour and seriousness. Emma Wright’s lively illustrations of skeletons and skulls bring their own macabre wit to the subject, but it is McSherry’s use of irreverent incongruity which evokes the simultaneous banality and gravity of death.

The most obvious instance of this technique is the intermingling of the Latin Catholic Mass with other mythological depictions of death (and its personification,  ‘Death’). In ‘Sequentia’, biblical figures like Christ and David jostle for space with the Ancient Greek character Cassandra. The poem takes place in an ‘emptied-out saloon’ where a cynical Death watches the end of the world unfold and makes snide comments — ‘Even if the kid shows up,’ he says of Christ, ‘good luck finding / Him in this shit-storm.’ Meanwhile, David ‘snorts some / coke.’

McSherry’s poems face mortality directly — with bitterness, yes, but also with an awareness of death as commonplace through all cultures.

In ‘Offertorium’, incongruity again plays a part with ‘the attributes of death’ becoming a jumbled list of ‘maguey worm[s]’, ‘used condom[s]’ and ‘Channel 4 News’. In ‘Benedictus’, humorous understatement sees the presence of Death in the family home as ‘ill-mannered’, ‘awkward’ and ‘inconvenient’.

This approach lends moments of seriousness all the more poignancy. In ‘Agnus Dei’, for example, the poetry takes on a stillness and elegance which contrasts with the rest of the pamphlet. ‘For a year I watched the woman who bore me wane,’ says the speaker. ‘One by one / her chords diminished until a voiceless box remained.’

Through this balancing of reverence and irony, McSherry — aided by her illustrator — confronts death in all its magnitude, humanity and mess.

These are, as the jacket says, ‘mourning poems’ — but in their irreverence they are also works of defiance and love.

Isabelle Thompson