Wayword Tuesdays: A collection of poems by seven poets
Review of Wayword Tuesdays poetry collection
By Trevor Conway
The cover aside, Wayword Tuesdays, a collection of poems by seven poets, kicks off with a very original and frank foreword by Kevin Higgins, taking in the poetry scene and society at large. He briefly describes each of the seven poets. Each snippet is both astute and so much more refreshing than the typical sweeping observations of anthology forewords, though the hackneyed phrase “new voices” does appear towards the end. In any case, it’s hard to imagine this book getting off to a better start, with the appetite suitably whetted. Almost as welcome is the next observation a reader will likely make: the biographical descriptions of the writers are presented in the first person. This is reflective of the warmth and unpretentiousness that characterises much of the collection.
Breege Wardein’s seven poems follow. These contain some witty observations, but, for me at least, were generally quite underwhelming. Bernie Ashe delivers some moments worthy of excitement, her “Rebirth” providing some abstract imagery that reminded me of Bob Dylan’s more surreal lyrics: “a frost moon waits/ Pilgrim poets accept the trespass…hard piano tones of flight”. She also presents a notable trait of this collection: fantastic titles. In “For all the Barry’s I’ve Known”, the dominant tea metaphor is announced from the beginning, suggesting that a heavy, perhaps clumsy analogy will follow, but Ashe administers the comparison skilfully. The poem’s end feels a bit premature, though. It could have been developed, eventually shedding the metaphor, but it’s an accomplished poem nonetheless. Her selection ends with the simple, sad “Brother”, expressing the profoundness of grief. There’s nothing particularly new in this approach to the theme, but it does capture something particularly evocative: “I long for an end to my grief/ but cannot see a way,/ through the permanence/ of your decay”.
More on those titles: I was consistently thrilled to come across such names as “Song of Online Infatuation”, “Life Choices of a B-Movie Extra”, “The Matador Resurrects the Day”, “Looked Almost Real”, “One Woman’s Sardine is Another’s Poison”, “A Minor Concerto in Rahoon” and “My Ballyhappiness in 3D”. While simple, unassuming titles can sometimes be perfectly appropriate, it’s always a pleasure to encounter such careful thought in something that’s often a neglected aspect of the writing process.
Ruth Quinlan’s bio is particularly engaging and informative. However, I found her poems generally lacked a similar level of vibrancy. One exception is the simple “Not Writing a Love Poem”, which resembled Ashe’s heartfelt “Brother” to some degree. Such simplicity of expression is used to great effect by Stephen Byrne. Though both simple and direct, his style is quite unique. Reading through his sestet of pieces, a sense of the old-school is conveyed, not in language but in subject matter. Ageing and creativity infuse much of his work. There’s a whiff of the Shakespearean sonnet, though no hint of such rigid form. “I Want to Strangle Mick Jagger” could have become an annoying diatribe against the Rolling Stones front man, but Byrne delightfully contorts this into a meditation on time and ageing. “Room Without a View” is atmospheric, quite like a short story, with lines like “I listened like a hunted deer”.
“Passion” adopts an archaic tone, different to that of Byrne’s other poems, and less appealing. In a sense, though, the language befits a poem exploring the theme of creative passion, a subject that’s centuries old itself. “Take This Moment” again looks at time, and very much tallies with Byrne’s reference to Jim Morrison in his bio, but, unfortunately, it ends with a cliché, “the first kiss of dawn”, which lets it down. The final poem from Byrne displays his willingness to embrace variety and new territory, which is a commendable quality in any artist. “The Matador resurrects the Day” is a quite abstract, stream-of-consciousness piece, leaving the reader with sense of curiosity, which is a nice taste to be left with when parting from Byrne’s work.
Eileen Ni Shuilleabhain offers poems mainly based on short scenes or moments. “Past Lives”, her first piece, notably refers to a head “juddering”, and ends surprisingly, with evidence of careful thought. Close-up descriptions appear to be Ni Shuilleabhain’s forte, such as the following lines from “Returning”: “He nudges back/ tendrils of moss curls that/ clung for centuries/ hiding its face”. Dave Donovan’s “Looked Almost Real” is a somewhat suitably irreverent take on his father’s death, beginning “Our father who art buried/ in Rahoon”. A particular highlight of the collection comes in the verse that follows: “You would have been amused/ by two phone calls/ I made that day/ the hospital refusing to say dead/ as if euphemism could erase finality/ the other a wrong number/ Domino’s pizza not the Dominican church/ my joke on realising my error/ a different kind of takeaway”. “Stretchmarks” is an interesting poem that leaves the reader wanting more detail, but wisely gives just enough without offering too much. Donovan’s final effort was my least favourite of his poems, hampered by excessive repetition. It might have been best replaced by another poem, or at least not positioned as his abiding sentiment.
On the other hand, a sense of leaving the best for last was quite palpable with Anne Irwin’s selection. I’ve been a fan of Irwin’s work for some time. Her poems are simple and entrancing. They’re very Irish, and particularly very Galwegian. One of the things I admire most about her work is how well she ends her poems. We hear winter speak in the poem “The Loneliness of Winter”, and it’s not often that I come across a conclusion as powerful as the following: “I beat Napoleon in the Russian plains,/ Hannibal in the Alps/ I froze the Prussians who sat down,/ iced the Siberian gulags.// Rejected I seem lonely now/ but the battle’s just begun./ Oil and gas will run out soon/ then you’ll see my power”. As with Byrne, variety is evident here, with “A Minor Concerto in Rahoon” projecting a fascinating picture of Galway roadworks that no longer hammer out their tune. “My Ballyhappiness in 3D”, the final poem of Wayword Tuesdays, is essentially a list-poem, and truly captures Irwin’s sense of the playful and the nostalgic: “Eamon Dev, ‘The Irish Press,’/ Farmers looking for Venus,/ Sisters rolling down the hill/ And cousins dumped in nettles”.
Although presenting each author’s work separately would seem the logical approach in a collection such as this, I couldn’t help but feel that more mixing would’ve suited here, even if it was at the cost of structure or organisation. Some other framework might’ve worked successfully here, such as linking the poems by theme or subject. This would, of course be somewhat arbitrary, and might lead to new problems in compiling the collection. In any case, the present structure isn’t all that bad; it just might’ve been wiser to place the work of Stephen Byrne, Eileen Ni Shuilleabhain or Dave Donovan closer to the front. Placing Irwin at the end, however, was brilliantly apt. I’d be surprised not to come across her work and maybe that of a few other poets from Wayword Tuesdays, in various anthologies and individual collections relatively soon.