Published by Arlen House, (September 2016), the front cover of Miceál Kearney’s latest poetry collection is astounding – an amniotic depiction of a pre-natal lamb, diaphanously clad and laid out on shards of dark fabric. The poet’s name is planted firmly at the lamb’s throat, between its almost-born head and a non-beating heart.
Juxtaposed with the back cover, where three rectangular steel tubs of seedlings at various stages of growth, emerge verdantly in sunshine, against a rigid stone wall, providing apt imagery for the themes of birth, personal development and death which run through the collection. There is also an autobiographical strand, with poems that spawn from within a working farm, across cultural divides to the intimacy of unorthodox relationships.
Kearney’s is a distinctive voice, at times cynical, intelligent, light and dark, pensive, and sometimes shocking, as in The Department of Suicide Prevention, which is dedicated to Brian. ‘You woke early, I’d say,/ rope ready, it’s what I would have done/so not to disturb anyone/then slipped into something more comfortable/ naked as the snowdrops.’
The human struggle is given equal purchase with the poet’s observations of the bovine and ovine community. Larry and Barry are ‘a Galway and Suffock ram/employed on our farm/to fuck. When the midwife is due/Larry and Barry are left to themselves/and two into Alpha doesn’t go.’ Larry developed meningitis and the speaker says he ‘will never be able to tell Barry/I was there/when life left his body.’ Tenderness and intuition among farm animals is well understood by the poet but without delicateness. Kearney will not be accused of anthropomorphising, take the cover image for example, elucidated in the poem Midwifery. It speaks of a stillborn lamb and its mother – the ewe realising her offspring is dead, ‘looks at me, licking her cold heap of nothing.’
Same Sex explores homophobia on Quay Street, Galway: ‘It’s something truly fantastic, / secretly held love-/pure heroin in virgin veins. We came out/in McDonagh’s fish and chips shop. / Held hands above the table/ and lips. Some diners didn’t care. / Others said Uh…and finished off their haggis.’ Intense in its brevity, Same Sex is a young man’s somewhat comic observation of a controversial topic.
Kearney’s father and paternal grandmother make regular appearances in the collection. Nee Linnane, Gran, has an epistolary feel – told in three parts, the much loved Gran ‘never burnt her bra. / Always had the kettle boiled/ and the sweets well hidden.’ On her ‘High Nelly,’ she cycled ‘down to Sweeney’s in Mulroog/or Lane’s of Toureen for tea and talk.’
Gran brought with her, a clock from her home place in Carron, County Clare, on a circuitous journey, until it was eventually hung in the hallway of her home in Creglucas, where the poet and poems are now based. Kearney animates the ancient timepiece. ‘The year our constitution was born/she was nineteen years ticking. /Six more years of flawless-timekeeping/my father arrives into this world. /Sixty four years later I turn twenty seven.’ Gran gets Alzheimer’s and in ‘in her 89th year at 5.21 am/gathered around her hospice cell/choking on our anger, smoking cigarettes, /trying to beat her to it. Back home/in the hallway the clock stops dead.’
Kearney’s first collection, Inheritance, published by Doire Press in 2008 makes a cameo appearance in This one’s for you, Miss Kealy – angry verses of boyhood pranks, rebelliousness, a dislike of regime and authority raging through it.
In the Miss Kealy poem, Kearney points an accusatory index finger at the now deceased teacher. ‘But did you actually expect us to learn anything, / double English first thing every Monday morning? / Even more poignant: you died before/ I could share my Inheritance with you.’ Such an intelligent opening and the not too subtle use of ‘my Inheritance,’ because regardless of Miss Kealy’s miserable attempt at teaching, a poet with an talent like Kearney’s was fortunate not to have learned anything that might contaminate him, in the double English class at secondary school.
Kearney had ‘other teachers/ who taught yer father/ and who knew well where the line was/straight across the side of your head./ Then there was those bi-polar ones-/horrible forty-minute periods/when we quickly learned what/we could get away with./Those types of lessons aren’t taught.’
This reviewer was reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s response when asked if she thought the university stifles the writer. ‘It does,’’ she replied, ‘just not enough of them.’ Kearney will never be stifled. He might consider inserting a glossary of agricultural terms for the cosmopolitan reader of future collections! The Inexperienced Midwife is available from Arlen House, Kenny’s bookshop Galway and Charlie Byrne’s. The Galway launch is scheduled for December 3rd. Details TBA
Reviewed by Anne Marie Kennedy