Quote of the Day
If it were not for Carcanet, my library would be unbearably impoverished.
Louis de Bernieres
Subscribe to our mailing list
Review of Hands - Adrian Frazier, The Irish Times, 18 February 2012
'A Book of Revelations'.To the 'Hands' page...
In the title poem of Moya Cannon’s new collection, the poet is in an aircraft between Brazil and Ireland when she suddenly realises that, strangely,
all of these lives are now being held
in the hands of the pilot,
and I think of other hands which can hold
the hands of the surgeon
whom I will meet again when I return home,
the hands of the intelligent, black-haired
who unwound the birth-cord from my neck,
the soft hands of my mother,
the hands of those others
who have loved me,
until it seems almost
as though this is what a human life is:
to be passed from hand to hand,
to be borne up, improbably, over an ocean.
The force and simplicity of these lines are those of a writer not just making poetry but also having an experience of sudden perception. The meaning of life unfolds itself, clause by tumbling clause, so that when we get to that colon before the final two lines we see the epiphany stand up bright before us.
Even those in the small community of Irish letters who do not already know that Moya Cannon has come through a harrowing encounter with skin cancer, and has now a fresh lease on life, and love, could readily trace that narrative in the poems that follow. Orchids upon orchids arrive in a cancer ward ('the ball / before a battle'). Listening to Vivaldi in a hospital bed, the poet sees a helicopter bring in a mother and son, airlifted from where their car went down a cliff into the Atlantic; what is it like just before death? ('Each of us alone, / with all our fears in our arms.') She meets an old magician in Leap Castle who, in a TB sanatorium as a boy, studied his craft and thereafter, from his chest, could produce billiard balls, handkerchiefs and 'how many white, fluttering doves'. These poems face illness with a candour uncommon in Irish culture, yet their focus is on life.
Cannon has three earlier collections. Always she has been a notably empathetic poet: she could make you feel what others, often neglected, must feel. That trait bears more fruit here. She compares boys confined in a medieval scriptorium, inking their “ludic tangle” in the margins of a manuscript, with Traveller lads she has faced in a schoolroom, desperate to be out of doors again but calmed either by being allowed to colour with bright pens or with tales of eagles and lions. By means of imaginative empathy, the poem illuminates and ennobles both the makers of the Book of Kells and the boys from modern east Galway.
Many poems from the earlier collections are quite prayer-like: incantatory reveries, musical, lifted upward, inducing a descent of peace. These new poems are instead like revelations, on the order of DH Lawrence’s Look! We Have Come Through! The descriptions are meticulously accurate, but the understanding is that the world is utterly astonishing. That everything comes from RNA (ribonucleic acid), even the blackbird and the subtle anatomical structures that produce its mating song, is amazing. So too is the fact that a fruit tree blooms again in the spring, its buds 'like the painted, upturned fingers / of temple dancers'.
These new poems have longer, more rhetorically elaborated sentences than the earlier work. They draw fully on the writer’s intellect and knowledge of history and nature. The poet owns up to her powers and is more in the poems than ever before. All that can be explained is explained in order to throw a shaft of light on the inexplicable remainder.
One of the more notable aspects of this new book is the candour of the love poems. Soundpost is an extraordinarily erotic extended metaphor, though the poem is sufficiently discreet never to spell out what it is a metaphor for:
a round peg of wood
positioned carefully inside the
almost under the bridge,
to hold apart the belly and the back,
to gather every vibration of the strings,
every lift and fall of the bower’s wrist.
Virginia Woolf wrote about how it is fatal for a woman as a writer to hold back from saying what she feels because of a sense of shame. (Woolf knew from experience.) Many women since have let go, not always aesthetically. Cannon does not hold back here, and in return she gets some great poems.
The peacefulness of a settled love with another can be intuited from several descriptive poems, a kind of cosy, mutual solitude. We see what they see, and feel what she feels, as pleasure in life renewed reaches 'outwards / and outwards'.
It is a pleasure to recognise that Cannon has come into her own, another of a mighty generation of four women poets from the west, all members of Aosdána. They strike very different notes: Rita Ann Higgins’s demotic formalism, alert intelligence and humane satire; Eva Bourke’s lyrical stretch from the familial to the world-political; Mary O’Malley’s deep image poetry tethered to the Atlantic seaboard; and Moya Cannon’s open-hearted spiritual search to realise through poems what it is to be alive.
Adrian Frazier is director of the MA in writing at NUI Galway. His Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood was published in 2011 by Lilliput
We thank the Arts Council England for their support and assistance in this interactive Project.
This website ©2000-2013 Carcanet Press Ltd