Matt Mooney was born, a farmer’s son, in Kilchreest, South Galway in 1943. He was a graduate of UCG, a post graduate of UCC and a vocational teacher in Listowel. ‘Steering by the Stars’ (2021) is Mooney’s fifth collection. His first ‘Droving’ was published in 2003, followed by ‘Falling Apples’ (2010), ‘Earth to Earth’ (2015) and ‘The Singing Woods’ (2017). ‘Éalú’, his Irish language poetry collection, was published in 2021. Winner of The Pádraig Liath Ó Conchubhair Irish Language Poetry Award 2018, and a prizewinner in the Ballybunion Arts Festival 2022 . His poems have appeared in: The Blue Nib, The Stony Thursday Poetry Book, Vox Galvia, The Mill Valley Literary Review, Feasta, West 47, The Kerryman, Kerry’s Eye, The Galway Review and its anthology, Galway Advertiser (Ó Pheann go Pár), The Connaught Tribune, Pendemic, Live Encounters and in the following anthologies: The Amaravati Poetic Prism Multi-Lingual Anthology, Not the time to be Silent, in Musings During a Time of Pandemic, A World Anthology, and I Can’t Breathe and in the Italian publication, Immagine & Poesia. He is also listed for publication in the forthcoming Canto Planetaria anthology.
He has been translated into Spanish and published in the literary magazines Cardenal and Palabrerías in Mexico. He is Deputy Editor of The Galway Review.
Amy Abdullah Barry’s ‘Flirting with Tigers’
(A Review by Matt Mooney)
Her opening poems were so enthralling on first looking inside Amy Abdullah Barry’s first full poetry collection that I remained standing as I read on for some time, captivated by her tigers. Tigers that sent Imperial Army soldiers armed with machine guns in 1945 scampering for their lives, saving the life of her uncle that they had surrounded in the jungle or when ‘two tigers with lustrous fur like long-toothed angels’ guarded either side of the door to protect her heavily pregnant sister or in another situation where ‘two tigers emerge on her grandpa’s headstone, just sitting there as if it was natural, like rocks by the side of a stream.’ This special protection ‘in times of distress’ had been attached to her ancestors for years.
Straight away, for me, she is on a winner here with the wildlife and lore of her native Malaysia. I can vouch for her catching you in her net, it doesn’t stop with these tigers. Exotic birds like the large Toucan with its long red tipped yellow beak, a symbol of Malaysia, hide away up in the canopy of the forest, not left unnoticed by the poet.
Amy is no chicken when it comes to wild animals. We find her ‘squatting eye to eye with a boar’ who growls at her ‘from the woody beams of bamboo’ and she tells us of ‘the slithering of snakes.’
There is no turning back for us in her expertly worded tour of her early world in her native land, pictured in her poems in colourful and memorable images. In every other poem in the book where her location is never far from her adopted Westmeath, we feel what is for us a homecoming, but we want to go back for more. Maybe to land in Kuala Lumper and starting from there to explore the scenes of her unforgettable memories with her.
Her own native food themes belong to a Maison Gourmet second to none of mouth-watering traditional Malaysian dishes and the way they were cooked or baked. In ‘Farewell Mama’ she writes of her with ‘bubbling pots of spicy beef curry, an oven pregnant with crisp chicken, fluffy rice white as a bride’s dress, pretty in patterned bowls.’ In ‘Taste of Penang’ her mother is featured once more as ‘she sways about her space in the kitchen, gold bangles clanging at her wrist’ and she describes her ‘feeling her way through a recipe, cumin, coriander and cardamom simmering in the wok, Asian spices drift in the air.’ Amy’s inimitable imagery, rich in metaphor, makes you hungry.
There are references to the abundance of various species of flowering plants in her native environment with which she had been familiar, like the Rafflesia which has one of the largest flowers in the world, a yellow and orange shrub with huge trumpet-like blooms that only last for a day. The taking down of a mango fruit from a shelf in Tesco sets off a train of thought that led her to write ‘The Mango Tree’ in which she describes her brother, Jojo climbing up and shaking down the mangoes as she gathered them from the ground below. Setting the scene for us with photographic accuracy and clarity she writes evocatively that after slicing one open, ‘The flesh stuck out like the quills of a hedgehog. We’d scoop it up, to prepare cold smoothies, tangy and sweet, relief from the heat for a day or two.’ A beautifully remembered family twosome episode.
Just to remind us of where she is at now and where we’re at, in Ireland, she finishes by saying that she is ‘left now with sour apples if not sugared.’ In another poem ‘Ripe’ there is a somewhat similar occurrence. Her daughter buys frozen durians, a large tropical fruit, in the Asian shop and she says, ‘From miles away I smell them, sharp and bittersweet, hanging from branches, unhatched in thorny shells.’ Her punch line says it all for how much she misses these simple things, these simple pleasures of life: ‘I imagine the silky custard taste of the fruit even in my sleep.’
If it’s not ‘riding camels eastwards’ we are with her ‘the sun like a fierce creature in our faces,’ or watching her sheer cool headedness handling scorpions from a native, it’s in ‘a jeep bumping through the wet jungle’ pulling up suddenly, the driver inflicted by a leech stuck to his cheek.
‘Ruby, a chain-smoking doctor, who grins more than she speaks, draws on her cigarette as it burns lazy orange in her left hand, holds Omar’s face firm with the right,’ to extract the ‘blood hunter’ as she calls him, ‘She proceeds to cut his face with exquisite care’ and later ‘Quickly, skilfully, she stitches the wound, We breathe deeper on the woody cinnamon of air.’ The seige was lifted.
The author, like the doctor at her work, is equally adept as a poet in conveying to us every move here with great accuracy and imagery. We are there with her watching with relief ‘the bloody little creature quiver on the brown mud below’ in the silence ‘except for the grunting monkeys.’
At her Grandma’s place she says ‘her hair is sun-baked sand, her curls white-tipped waves.’ Metaphors to die for with alliteration and assonance to burn for good measure. She springs to life more than ever here as an action woman with echoes of Tarzan’s Jane in the jungle ‘plunging into jade waters’ and sometimes ‘poaching cockles from fisherman’s cages.’ She takes us to the limit as well in her poem ‘Tower Site Inspection at Esso Refinery’ up a hundred feet, dreading the descent.
There are so many poems of celebration, sunshine and joy, love and romance, alternating with sadness and loss, protests and war, abuse and suicide. The rose and the thorn aspect of life recognised right through this book.
This concept in her own mind is so well illustrated in ‘Between Captivity and Villa Maria’ in her mention of a prickly cactus with its ‘pink cactus blossoms.’
In ‘The New Woman’ in the same context she talks of a woman at her father’s funeral, a father for whom she had mixed deep-seated emotions, who says ‘mother in black, looks years younger.’ She reveals that her mother was ‘a captive in a stone mansion.’ Point made very succinctly by the poet.
There is a strong whiff of abuse in her poem ‘A Hundred Times’ where the victim says ‘I left my twelve-year-old body, calm as a robin singing in a field’ and ‘Bird song, to my ears, was like a taunt.’
‘In the Room of Marie Fogarty’ she returns to this theme where she utters two of the most resounding and damning lines in her book, ‘The muted sounds of bedsprings, are beasts howling in the dark.’ This time the theme is very clearly and disturbingly clerical abuse revealed in the lines, ‘as he removes the stiff white collar,’ poems that bring home to us the awfulness of sexual abuse..
On a brighter and funnier note we find her as a child like a chicken peeping out from under a hen in ‘A Himalayan Bus Ride.’ To say it was overcrowded would be an understatement. She says about her position on board: ‘My face lodged under the armpit of a tall bearded man’ and then when she could breathe better in a line of great liberation of spirit, ‘my eyes lift to embrace the snow-robed Himalayas.’
Years later in rural Ireland we find her being carried away on a magic carpet back again to her roots when one of the beloved tigers of her youth makes an appearance in her mind’s eye as she watches her cat Pablo prancing about to music on the marble island in the kitchen. She pictures him as: ‘A handsome Malayan tiger, eyes amber, irises black as burnt clay.’
There were the good times too on holidays ‘At Ferringhi Beach, Penang’ which in her words was a place where ‘racing rainbow kites colour the sky like rainforest birds’, and of ‘soft blown palms’ where she lay ‘naked on a bamboo mat, deft hands work nutmeg oil into tired nerves; above me a zebra dove singing.’ That to me is a picture of a sensual paradise which she has so mellifluously shared with us in lines of captivating imagery, craving for such a scene here in the Western Hemisphere. Her dreams are our dreams. Yet it was while on holidays there with her family she experienced, but fortunately escaped from, that awful tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 that caused such ravages and claimed so many lives. She talks of journeying in the dark away from it and of how ‘All around me, faces wore garish masks, like characters in a tragic opera, desperate to rekindle hope.’
Leaving the tropics for a while we journey with her to ‘Betrayal in Rome’ with, as she says, its ‘cobbled streets twisted through its heart’ and ‘where gladiators, slaves and convicts perished for the pleasure of the crowd’. She feels a desire ‘to be so close to the past that it could draw my blood.’
Whether Amy speaks of love or war we give her equal ear. The love poem that stands out in my mind is ‘Aging Mist.’ The saxophone player in her life left strong memories and lingering emotions behind him: ‘Restless brown eyes, silvered hair grown wild, white seaweed-ragged beard fluttering.’
It contains some of her most finely crafted lines. This image is so memorable we can almost hear and see him, ‘Your cracked fingers like spiders on the saxophone.’ Its imagery makes music for us and it’s a treat for the artist’s eye as well. Her drawing of this character, the object of her love at the time, is superb.
In ‘Don’t’ she speaks of tragic love and of the song ‘Broken Wings’ by Gibran playing in the background and she says of her beau, ‘You were so handsome outside the Embassy. You offered the elbow of your blue uniform as we stepped into the ballroom.’ Her last lines: ‘Our young voices still vibrate, learning to fly on the wind’ exude a strong flavour of young love as does the entire poem.
‘We want another life’ is a poem that speaks out for the victims of the war in Syria and war in general. She writes of a mother ‘digging through piles of rubble with bare hands to save the man she loved’ and of refugees ‘Here in darkening fields lit by blue cornflowers, a long way from the constant smell of burnt flesh.’ Standing up for Palestine in their resistance to Israeli domination she says to us in the words of a freedom fighter on a large poster, ‘I ask you now what are you going to do?’
There is great inner conviction in these war poems, a trait I believe Amy Abdullah Barry has in spades.
In a riveting tribute to Mandela, which awakened the admiration I have for the true grit of the man as a leader of his people, she says of his cell that ‘he could walk it in three paces’ and that he was cruelly told by his warden at the start, ‘This is where you will die.’ An outstanding poem on the great man who gave hope to mankind entitled ‘Prisoner 46664, Robben Island.’
We are arrested on our journey through the book by a stark but resonating poem ‘Seeing Rain.’ It must have been the hardest poem of all for her to write, a poem on the tragic death of her brother and the grief in her soul for which she tried to find words. The result is a classic of simplicity in the art of poetry. Neruda, of ‘The Clenched Soul’ that she mentions in another poem, would have been proud to write it and she should be proud of it as well. ‘I am left his recipes, his art, his Levi’s, his borrowed songs.’ She has also the song they shared in their teenage years, ‘Have you ever seen the Rain.’ We share her sorrow as we listen to it ourselves.
If there’s menacing with violence in any of her poems it does not come from her tigers but from ‘storm faced policemen’ who ‘push through the crowd, ferret eyes darting’ in Tunisia where women are protesting, ‘where slogans speak on painted chests’ and fatefully the poet says, ‘Soon their names will be carved too in the prison book.’ We are where we should be here, championing the downtrodden. The poet is true to her calling here in the poem ‘Whores! You Shame Our Country.’
Apart from the deep immersion she gives us in the natural world of her native Malaysia, and the depth of her relationship with it, if Amy Abdullah Barry was to write only on this theme that is dear to my heart my belief is that she would still make her mark with her readers. She has a feeling for it and an ability to convert this into meaningful and intriguing poems like this one outlining and extolling the work of Deirdre Hannon, ‘A Mini Forest of Hazel’.
Her work is noteworthy because of the brilliant biodiversity aspect of her ambitious mini-afforestation where, ‘She travels to every county, creating a mini forest of the same triple-spiralled template, urging it to grow.’ ‘Thirty-three hazels for peace, a single birch for new beginnings, bluebells and anemones, ringed with stones rescued from the sea.’
Elsewhere by the River Suck, Amy writes of how, ‘Reeds sway with orchestral harmony’, and on Lough Ree, she remarks that ‘swans arch their wings, windsurfing across the waters, the air purrs with butterflies and bees.’ So softly beautiful. Now you can be the judge. For me, opening this first full collection of her poems has been like opening the lid of a box of sparkling jewels. It’s all yours, ‘Flirting with Tigers’ published by Dedalus Press. Amy Abdullah Barry’s tigers have arrived safely.