Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, Julie Irigaray
Nine Pens, 2021 £7.50
What is home for the traveller?
With coherence and depth, Julie Irigaray’s debut pamphlet explores themes that have made up her life and academic interests. The reader is taken on a journey through history, encompassing various countries and cultures along the way. By the end — as in all good travelling sagas — there’s a sense of expansion in understanding, perhaps even acceptance, even if this doesn’t equate to settling.
Irigaray enjoys playing with subtle internal rhymes, and quiet rhythms. ‘Tales of the Woodcock’ is the first poem:
A picture of me holding a woodcock
my father had freshly shot
takes pride of place in our living room.
What a peculiar thing to let a three-year-old
child pose with a dead bird
Each line has a clear image, leading the reader through the memory. ‘I spread her wing as one unfolds a moth’ Irigaray writes later in the same poem. There’s time to absorb each detail. We start by gazing at a photo, then the poem moves us into the actual experience of memory, as if reliving the moment alongside the narrator. We see the fragile beauty of the bird’s pin feathers ‘used / by artists as brushes for miniatures’, before becoming aware of the smell of cooking as woodcocks are boiled up for breakfast.
In that single opening poem, a whole family dynamic starts to take shape, and this is explored in later poems, with the father figure in particular threading in and out of the narrative arc. The poet draws on both personal and broader histories, giving the reader insight into the specific culture of the Basque region, alongside complex family relationships, and how it feels to exist as a foreigner in multiple languages.
Overall, this is a thoughtful exploration of a personal development, starting in childhood and progressing to an adult who finds the world opening out, loosening ties to home in ways that are both painful and freeing.