Poetry Ireland Review Issue 117 Editorial

Issue 117

Poetry Ireland Review Issue 117 :

Edited by Vona Groarke

Issue 117 includes new poems from over twenty five poets from Ireland, the UK, the US and elsewhere, along with three new poems by Michael Longley, one of the UK’s foremost contemporary poets. The issue features reviews of more than twenty new poetry collections, including books by Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Claudia Rankine, Louise Gluck, Eavan Boland, Dennis O’Driscoll and Dermot Healy. Interviews include a feature on photographer, Seamus Murphy, about collaborating with musician and poet PJ Harvey and poet Eliza Griswold on separate publications, as well as an interview with Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis by Colette Bryce. Colour plates include photography by Seamus Murphy and artwork by Niamh Flanagan.


You’d expect a squall, a downpour, a flurry of poems about winter in this job. We live northernly, after all, with nights that settle into stanzas of darkness punctuated by short, pallid breaks of what some would call daylight. Five months of it, give or take, if you measure time as we make clocks do, between the hour harking back and the same hour tripping over itself to face forward, five months on. Never mind spring and autumn: in this neck of the woods, they seem so often seasons in disguise, half-heartedly throwing shapes that don’t rightly belong to them.

It’s not as if there’s very much else to do (is there?) but to apply language to that darkness, to make sense or music of it, to make the ends of it meet. An indoor season. A private season. A season for looking out through cold windows, for noticing, as DH Lawrence did, ‘December’s bare iron hooks sticking out of earth’, and to spite them, pulling fast around us whatever comfort is to hand. A season for the rubbing together of words to strike a warmth to get you through. For the noise the world makes when it freezes or blusters or crouches or stalls.

Winter is the outside and inside of sound, the hard blow and the surge of darkness set against the spidery tinkle of frost on the side of the road. Winter is sound the way summer is colour. ‘Winter solitude / ’, Basho− writes (via Robert Hass): ‘in a world of one colour / the sound of wind’. Winter songs are difficult songs, and sometimes it seems that all the words have the clench of ice in them. ‘Like brooms of steel / The Snow and Wind / Had swept the Winter Street’, as Emily Dickinson has it, and those brooms of steel are what I hear in the wind against my bedroom window, these big weather nights on Winter Street.

Winter Street is dark, of course: Hermes broke all the streetlamps with stones on his way Underground to rescue Persephone. He’s like that, is Hermes, patron of thieves. He forgets he’s also patron of travellers, who might be glad of an obliging light to ward off the thieves. Perhaps he’s conflicted: how can you tend equally to both traveller and thief?

Or maybe he’s been trying his arm (again) at catching Euturpe’s eye, fashioning a darkness for her that she might strike a light of her own. Muse of elegiac poetry, she knows the truth of Margaret Atwood’s claim that ‘writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light’.

You’d think such elegant ambitions and intricate music would call on an equal poetry and that together, dressed in their best scarves and mittens, they’d skitter out to play. But doesn’t it seem like spring gets all the best lines, and the heartiest, most zealous poems? Nothing is so beautiful, Fr. Hopkins says. (Whereas the most cheerful news he has of winter is, ‘The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less; / The times are winter, watch, a world undone.’) In Spring, Philip Larkin (not usually known as a gusher) hears, ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’. And what, by comparison, does winter get? All those hours of soulful fire gazing, of being skinned to the bone by ice and wind, of leavening out the rations and stockpiling summer hopes, and what do we have at the end of it? Ogden Nash: ‘I knew one hound that laughed all winter / At a porcupine that sat on a splinter’.

Which would be plenty, god knows, but it is not all. Here’s US poet, Linda Gregg, making – in ‘Winter Love’ – a house of silence in which nothing quite rises to its occasion and yet, something about its small efforts and half failures rings true to the way this most demanding of seasons must be negotiated, however clumsily.

I would like to decorate this silence,  
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung  
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.  
It was not hot. It was only warm.

It’s thin enough on the ground, the poetry of winter, warm when it should be hot, maybe, sparse when lavish is called for. Perhaps that’s only as it should be, poetry following the rule of nature, like any living thing. But against that, I give you the final two stanzas of Rita Dove’s ‘November for Beginners’, a poem that does what few poems manage, in making music of decline.

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
a gloomy line
or two of German.

When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

A cargo of zithers: it’s as good a description as any of a poetry magazine, (and probably better than some). I hope the music of the poems herein helps somehow to decorate a silence for you, and to make light of winter hours.                                                                                                                             

Vona Groarke


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