New Art on Old Ground: Irish Women Poets

Split the Lark: Shara Lessley on Contemporary Poetry

Savage Tales, by Tara Bergin. Carcanet, 208 pp., $22.99.
In Her Jaws, by Rosamund Taylor. Banshee Press, 80 pp., €10.00.
Pit Lullabies, by Jessica Traynor. Bloodaxe Books, 96 pp., $14.95.
Raised Among Vultures, by Molly Twomey. The Gallery Press, 80 pp., €12.99.

In April of 2020, the sudden passing of Eavan Boland marked the loss of one of Ireland’s foremost voices, one who subverted received ideas of nationhood and of history, and who fearlessly interrogated lyric tradition by questioning—over the course of her six-decade career as a poet, critic, editor, and academic—precisely whom from the margins we must actively “restore to the poetic center.” Still a student at Trinity College in Dublin when she published her first pamphlet, 23 Poems, in 1962, Boland entered a literary culture that was notoriously male, one that most often rendered women as emblems or passive motifs. Although sometimes met with hostility (friend and scholar Jody Allen Randolph remembers one male writer dismissing Eavan as “a first-class mind in service to a second-rate ideology,” i.e., feminism), Boland pressed against the use of female tropes as decorative or one-dimensional, and began making poems “where language starts: in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life.” That life, for Boland, was decidedly suburban, her stanzas often singing of night feedings, kitchen tables and kettles, and of daughters sprawled beside their teen magazines and cans of Coke. Although her work continued to evolve in subject and scope to include the aftermath of colony and art-making, Boland’s early and ongoing commitment to domestic realism was a radical act—one that ultimately helped expand Irish poetry.

In thinking about Eavan Boland’s insistence that, rather than replicate traditions that hold some people at a distance from the art, we must write poems we can live “inside,” I turned with curiosity to recent collections by Irish writers Molly Twomey, Jessica Traynor, Rosamund Taylor, and Tara Bergin and was delighted to find the writing alive with formal negotiations and paradigm shifts. In work that is witty, subversive, socially conscious, and distinct, these poets navigate intimate subjects such as childbirth and the shock of motherhood, bereavement, rapture, environmental crisis, queer desire, art-making, and selfhood. While richly varied in structure and tone, what Raised Among Vultures, Pit Lullabies, In Her Jaws, and Savage Tales share is a clear sense of resilience and vision. Or, as Bergin contends in one poem, “When you step over the letter ‘I’ you enter into the black / woods of prophecy …”


Written predominately in tight couplets and tercets that house buried internal slant rhymes as well as end rhymes, Molly Twomey’s full-length debut, Raised Among Vultures, relies on stanzaic symmetry and metrical precision to chronicle the physical and emotional complications of eating disorders, healing, diet culture, and survival. Although the poems aren’t formal, per say, Twomey pares her orderly lines to their essence. A history of, and ongoing recovery from, anorexia is alluded to but not corroborated until the collection’s third entry, “Heirlooms,” whose title nods not only to plants that survive generationally due to interventive efforts, but also to the poem’s concerns with female fertility and genetic inheritance. “My dietician says if I don’t eat / my estrogen won’t restore,” Twomey opens, “My body will always be a door // locked on its hinges, safe-guarding its room / of dust and secrets.” Reproductive consequences of self-starvation made clear, the poem soon directs its attention to the speaker who, despite the seriousness of the medical advice she’s just received, silently muses on the dietician’s toddler, “Is he heavy enough that she could use him // as a kettlebell for Russian twists? / A dumbbell for deadlifts?” Disrupting the poem’s otherwise descriptive syntax with a series of questions, Twomey effectively shifts from scene to psychological insight, further emphasizing the disorder’s hold on the speaker. As the child is ironically reimagined as fitness equipment lifted to both strengthen the body and put it in caloric deficit, readers witness one of Twomey’s gifts; that is, meeting the ethical challenge of writing through the intersection of illness and metaphor without lyricizing, overly simplifying, or exploiting suffering for purely dramatic effect.

“Heirlooms” concludes as the speaker inquires whether “eating disorders are genetic, / if I will pass on this loss / of bone mass and conscience,” a thematic thread that’s later pulled through in “Zipping Up My Mother’s Dress.” As in “Heirlooms,” the poem interrupts its dramatic occasion—a mother-daughter shopping trip—with questions that reveal the pair’s complicated and ongoing issues with food. As the parent celebrates sizing down after “eating raw carrots, counting her steps” the daughter-speaker tries to let go of any resentment she’s accumulated after years of watching her mom wade “through carb blockers and keto shakes.” “[H]ow can almost losing me not be enough to kill / her desire to be small?” she wonders, small and kill entwined via slant rhyme for rhetorical emphasis. Yet, the mother’s own dysmorphia is all-consuming as she pinches her belly and asks in the final tercet whether she can “get away with this” (i.e., wearing the form-fitting garment) to which the speaker hurriedly answers “Yes, I’m buying, and tear[s] off the tag / so she never knows the price.”

While the implied cost in “Zipping Up My Mother’s Dress” is the consequence of disordered eating as modeled generationally and passed mother to child, the poem is also a larger portrait of intimacy, power, and the self-compromise necessary to maintain relationships with complex emotional histories. The narrative further gestures to the prevalence of the illness across place and time, a psychological record that has been likewise noted in verse by Louise Glück, Cynthia Cruz, Michelle Chan Brown, and Eavan Boland. Based on the case study of a woman who eventually committed suicide by ingesting poison, Frank Bidart’s fifteen-page “Ellen West” was the first poem I encountered about body dysmorphia and anorexia. Whereas Bidart’s dramatic monologue is sweeping and richly theatrical—the poem was even staged as an opera in 2020—Twomey’s lines are driven by the vernacular and reference Tumblr, Touch ID, GPS, video games, reality stars, anime, and online group therapy. Rather than Bidart’s documentary composite, in other words, the primary persona of Raised Among Vultures feels more like a contemporary confidante who’s candid about her lived history and vulnerability. “I gripped the trophy of my ribs,” she states matter-of-factly in “Babysitter,” “refused each sugar drink.” And, of the side effects of malnutrition, she confesses elsewhere in Raised Among Vultures: “my body grows fur like a red squirrel, / in the claws of autumn / collecting acorns” (“Acorns”).

Most compelling isn’t necessarily Twomey’s narration of the affliction itself, however, though its symptoms are figured with surprising turns of image and phrasing, but how the poet renders the emotional toll the disorder takes on herself and others. “[B]ecause when I was eating a cracker / you joked I was storing for winter,” she writes in an anaphora-driven catalogue, “… bones became language” (“I did not eat for three weeks”). If the latter is true and the body serves as language’s living tissue, in its articulation of female embodiment, perhaps what Raised Among Vultures offers readers isn’t poetry of self-denial, but assertion; a place where, as Twomey contends in “Famine Walls,” “a repetitive act makes a person feel in control” (emphasis mine). Because “feeling” isn’t fact, however, Raised Among Vultures resists easy resolution, opting instead to highlight instances of compensation and recuperation as the poems work to examine the inner conflict that risks not only physical wellness, but a happier future in which the speaker might wake “to the kittiwake’s song, a stroll from a port / … greet by name the fishmonger, // dog walkers and rose scented florist…” (“Kinsale”).

While it’s true that Twomey’s titular birds are scavengers, known omens of death, vultures are also symbols of virgin birth and renewal. This sense of possibility and rejuvenation is certainly felt via the collection’s final entry, “Kinsale,” a forward-looking poem in which the speaker imagines a series of scenarios in which she cohabitates with her beloved in a single-story house, seaside bungalow, or unaffordable apartment, respectively. Landing somewhere between pastoral fantasy and domestic realism, “Kinsale” is an anti-aubade, a poem in which lovers aren’t parted but unitedly “give out” and “bark on” for years about “the concrete garden” of “marigolds, foxgloves and asters //…[that] shelter honeybees,” or “stacks of Tupperware leaning on cabinet doors.” Unlike its predecessors in the book, however, the poem’s image of empty food containers suggests optimism; its stanzas’ references to wild garlic, caramelized onions, and “honey-glazed fresh beets” serve not as sources of anxiety, but of nourishment and pleasure. As is the case throughout Raised Among Vultures, the final poem turns on a question: “How can anything flourish or live / if we don’t allow space for one another to grow?” “My God,” Twomey concludes, recognizing the value of abundance as well as her own power, “I’d create an Eden on our front lawn.”


Unlike the utopic garden that punctuatesTwomey’s Raised Among Vultures, the poetry in Jessica Traynor’s third collection mines the pits and grit of twenty-first century living in which “we’ve all / been touched     soiled… // …touched ourselves / our screens / each other on screens // till bacteria trails / we’ve traced / grow verdant…” (“On Plastics”). While environmental crisis mounts in the background and modern life pulses forward, Pit Lullabies traces the arc from birth to infancy and toddlerdom as a much-wanted child ages on a planet that teeters toward catastrophe. Confronting the difficult realities of birth and its aftermath, the tension between the newly born and Earth’s dead end builds slowly as Pit Lullabies tries to reconcile the gift of mothering with the fact of having “brought you / to this world of always evening, always leaving,” (“The Signs”). For Traynor, however, that which unsettles proves generative as a subversive chorus of voices resurface via the book’s titular thread, singing from darkness a series of “pit lullabies” that haunt, guide, whisper, observe, forewarn, advise, and remind us to “remember when you wield / your paper heart in a gale, / you’re lucky to have / something beautiful // to love // in the storm” (“Pit Lullaby VI”).

 Although Traynor’s poetry isn’t the first in which birth brings mortality into startling relief, part of Pit Lullabies’ pleasure is that its wisdom isn’t sourced to either side of the collection’s dichotomies: insight isn’t discovered in the pram or in the graveyard, in other words, but the pram in the graveyard, so that the psychic energy Traynor taps throughout the book is at once ambiguous, ever-present, and irresolvable. Perhaps this visceral sense stems from the fact that, from its beginning, Pit Lullabies collapses time, reminding readers that nature and the human body are tethered to the evolution of civilization. In “Megalodon,” one of the collection’s most arresting entries, history and the future are rendered inseparable as a newborn is fed into the world through “the hypnotic interplay / of hinge” [slash] “hole.” Likening the speaker’s birth canal to the monstrous jaws of a shark dating back twenty-three million years, Traynor’s lines marvel at the power of “the sharpened frill / around the brink …” Remarkably, in just three stanzas of short, jagged lines, Traynor integrates the world’s past with one that’s just beginning, i.e., the infant’s arrival. Juxtaposing the Jurassic Era and Miocene Epoch with the current century, “Megalodon” culls the oceanic and earthly, massive and minute, predatory and protector, hunger and satiation, death and sex, as the shark’s mandibles are transformed into a crowning moment of imagistic synthesis and self-actualization at which the poem concludes:

the dish of my pelvis
I’ve served to lovers
opened for my child—
these pre-historic jaws
this entry/exit
& all that thrashes
in its teeth.

The precarious tension between “this entry/exit” (i.e., life and death) recurs throughout Pit Lullabies as the parent-speaker confronts the task of raising her child on a planet in peril. In one poem, wallpaper featuring beloved characters from Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece fails to evoke the speaker’s nostalgia for a fantastical Wonderland and instead fills her with visions of a terrain where “… the sun rises and ice melts / and for want of the freeze a walrus / pushes further up a cliff-face” (“Walrus”). Elsewhere, worry of irreversible oceanic damage keeps the speaker up at night: “And when sleep / comes to flirt,” recollects Traynor, “I walk on water, / count grains of plastic / in a plankton’s gut / the whale’s baleen, / the seas’ glass bottles / with their messages of love, / all the songs in a sea-shell” (“Song of the Insomniac”). Throughout Pit Lullabies, singing is central: the insomniac speaker is paradoxically lulled toward and away from sleep as she restlessly meditates on the sea’s natural beauty, as well as its ongoing corruption. While a deep investment in place, landscape, and nature has long been a staple in the Irish imagination, it’s worth noting that Traynor’s approach resists both the Romantic pastoral and idealized notions of parenthood. Instead, the cadences of Pit Lullabies display a violence of conflicted emotions reflecting a world that both wounds and is wounded. Or, as the mother-speaker concludes in “What It Takes,” a poem dedicated to those who have suffered birth injuries, “our only measurable success          [is] not dying / until we do.”

Pit Lullabies’ formal variety—particularly its indented lines, willful caesurae, and hard enjambment—visually enact this sense of unpredictability. Distributed throughout the collection, the ten-part title sequence likewise inverts expectation, as the sounds of Traynor’s cradle songs continue to soothe even as their lyrics cry out in collective testimony to the lived experiences of fear, danger, and motherly isolation. However bleak their emotional weather, it’s in their recognition of things that haunt us that Traynor’s “lullabies” provide their strangest consolation. “Dark is here in the dark / and it is an absence …” observes the poet, “… so how do / we hold it? Shape it like clay?” Throughout Pit Lullabies, darkness, like a swaddled infant or even poetry itself, is a thing that’s created and cared for. Ironically, it’s by articulating its rhythms that the poet presses against oblivion, as evidenced by Traynor’s echoing in “Onion Poem” of Plath’s infamous declaration, “I am I am I am.” “Try to be the shape that holds the dark,” she later contends in “Pit Lullaby IX.” And this, it seems, is where Traynor’s lyric impulses lie: to sympathetically resist the idealized rhapsodizing of motherhood and narrate more honestly our tenuous nature of being alive.

As committed as it is to excavation and descent, discomfort and decay, Pit Lullabies ends not in ditches nor bog holes, but with a more traditional “Lullaby” whose title excises Traynor’s long-established qualifier, “pit,” and thus distances itself from the book’s collective sequence. Set in the ocean and echoing the consonant blends and diagraphs present in “Megalodon,” the poem seems to put the monstrous birth behind it and turns to what’s both elemental and essential; that is, the intimacy between a parent and sleeping child. Rather than environmental despair, as per Pit Lullabies’ preceding poems, the speaker holds her baby’s hand as she performs her maternal vigil and then intones a vision of “Bull Island” whose seals wake and roll “… into the surf / where in blue-black / they’ll stretch the land-ache / from their muscles …” And while this more traditional lullaby is an outlier in the collection, a more optimistic counterpart, its lines likewise emphasize Traynor’s fusion of emotional and natural landscapes. Like a couplet that reverberates throughout the dozen lines of the sonnet above it, Pit Lullabies’ final poem finds its music in “moonlight” and a “Dazzle of bubbles.” Foregoing the individual “I” and adopting the collective point of view, as demonstrated in the declaration “we are waveform; we are sea,” Traynor emphasizes a rhythm of intimacy and livelihood that suggests, even as the human voice “rises and falls,” it goes on singing across generations.                      


“I met my other self / in Knocksink Wood,” opens Rosamund Taylor’s In Her Jaws, an attentive and curiously insightful debut whose renderings of the animal world help capture how human instincts, anxieties, braveries, turmoil, quirks, desires, restlessness, and determination govern not only individual cognition, but our more complex and nuanced selves. Whether transformed into “the squirrel // on the trellis, unpeeling / dove-grey sunflower seeds / to turn / into sweet milk,” (“The Drey”) or a week’s worth of rain; identifying with a typhoid-surviving astronomer or “a mushroom / growing in beech mast     in rhythm / with the grey-and-tan striped spiders,” Taylor finds the link between outsider and the outside as her poems on all things outdoors paradoxically reveal the interrelatedness between inner and natural landscapes. Rather wonderfully, In Her Jaws remains tonally cohesive even as the poet performs feats of lyric and metaphorical shapeshifting. Perhaps this is due to Taylor’s energetic articulation and the metric force displayed in her syntax, as evidenced in lines like “I am a molehill of wool, featureless, / chanting star charts to myself like a charm” (“We Become Witches”), “Waves forced me back to shore / then out once more; I struck cliffs, rocks. / I spoke the language of kittiwakes …” (“Since the Wound Occurred”), or “I put names of comets, of Jupiter’s moons, / and celestial distances, to familiar tunes. / My mind held the whole scope of the sky” (“I Mapped the Heavens”).  

Fertile, sensual, and sensory, In Her Jaws sets its subjects apart from the pastoral ideal as Taylor’s personas refuse taming or rigid categorization. This perspective, decidedly queer, not only emphasizes multi-dimensionality as the poet canvases various landscapes and creatures in order to convey instances of isolation and marginalization, but further dramatizes the collection’s more significant experiences of self-actualization, awareness, and acceptance. “Jack-in-the-Box,” for example, recounts living with “autism spectrum disorder, at age 20,” while “Portrait of My Anxiety as an Imp” casts its speaker as a caretaker of sorts, a steadfast and emotionally intelligent guardian. The poem, a sonnet, characterizes anxiety not only as the troublemaker Taylor’s title suggests, but also as a more complicated shadow-companion who likewise suffers from persistent worry. Clawing “free at the concert hall” and terrified of classrooms, busy streets, and pubs, Taylor’s imp is both childlike and feral, prone to nipping, howling, and “curl[ing] her silky tail” around the speaker’s neck. The nervous creature also “chews my nails / until they bleed …”, and when scared, “tugs my hair.” The poem’s sestet, however, considers the imp’s more complicated evolutionary history:

Long ago, she survived in woods and fenland,
she hid from falcons and relentless bears,
sleeping in pine needles, shivering downwind.
But now she’s safe indoors. Foxes are scared,
eagles poisoned: she still won’t believe she’s fine,
there are no jaws waiting to snap her spine.

Although it frames itself as an intimate depiction of interiority, Taylor’s “Portrait of My Anxiety as an Imp” reveals larger insights about the long-term physical and psychological impacts of hypervigilance. Selfhood, in this case, exists via a dual nature: human and animal, domestic and wild, fearful and self-knowing. The speaker’s emotional resilience, as well as her vulnerability, likewise reflect the connection between perceived threat and self-preservation. By Taylor’s final couplet, however, anxiety seems less disorderly than a hard-wired behavior, an evolutionary adaptation that ultimately aids survival. 

 While the early poems in In Her Jaws show promise, Taylor’s verve and inventiveness shine brightest in the collection’s later entries on queer love. Part epithalamium, part ode to the “strangers [who] already marched” to legalize same-sex marriage, “Pride 2017” takes place during the summer solstice where, observes Taylor,

Our new rings gleam.
This is as old as kissing—
two bodies of the same kind
loving one another. We are new
because promises we made bind us
in law as well as love.

Here, the modesty of Taylor’s diction is complicated by an internal cascade of sound that lends rhetorical weight. Used to modify both the wedding bands and couple themselves, the twice-repeated adjective, “new,” fastens itself by full and slant rhymes to the lovers’ “two” bodies, as well as to the “law” that sanctions their union. Since the constitutional amendment Ireland passed in 2015, the spouses are now part of a “new” generation of queer couples who find their relationships legally recognized. In contrast, “old,” which is used to characterize the act of “kissing,” joins with “kind” and “bind” via half rhyme. These pairings emphasize the long history of same-sex love, physical desire, as well as the “promises,” i.e. commitments, made within queer unions.    
“Pride 2017” isn’t moved by assertion alone, however. Part of the poem’s charm is its understated infusion of eros. The opening stanza finds the couple reclining “without covers, / in a room scented by buddleia.” The flower, of course, is one known to thrive in difficult environments, a symbol of new beginnings, endurance, and hope following struggle. After threading together political and private history for five tercets, Taylor ultimately returns to the newlyweds who “sleep safe / this shortest night, / and wake to a rainstorm, // frogs leaping in yarrow and lady’s bedstraw.” It’s a lovely moment, the wives stirring together from the safety of sleep to a landscape that feels both ordinary and celebratory: “frogs leaping” amidst flora to the tune of falling rain. Intended or not, “yarrow” and “bedstraw”—again married by slant rhyme—resonate with the poem’s early buddleia, the implied bridal bouquet now complete with sweet-scented blooms known for healing and sexual stimulation. And what better phrase with which to end “Pride 2017” than “lady’s bedstraw”? A nod, of course, to the couple’s honeymoon, as well as to romantic desire between women.

The marriage introduced in “Pride 2017” is further expanded in “When My Wife Is …”, a five-part sequence that contains the strongest and most exciting writing of the book. Here, Taylor imagines her spouse as a snail, witch, walrus, tree, and werewolf, respectively. Rather than the idealized, unattainable, or one-dimensional female figure too often found in romantic poetry, however, the woman upon whom Taylor meditates in “When My Wife Is …” is, among other things, flawed and endearing, passionate and protective; in other words, fully realized. In “A Hazel Tree,” the speaker characterizes her spouse as both vulnerable and sustaining: “Badgers burrow in her roots,” writes Taylor, “Her shoots escort me on cold night walks, / protect me from red-eye pigs / or ghosts straddling my shoulders. / I consume her by the handfuls, / easing open her shells …” In “A Walrus” the wife is playful (“she hauls herself up / to tenderly rub moustaches with me,”) as well as a source of erotic fascination (“… I     spotted her     in the brown shade / tentacles     tasting my sweat     on the breeze”). She is a cursed animal, one whose ability to devour the speaker paradoxically emboldens and makes her more expansive and desirable: “I am small / as a rabbit against her / yet I feel huge / as the forest she longs for,” (“A Werewolf”). Taken together, “When My Wife Is …” serves as a powerful testament to deep recognition and knowing. Laced with passion, admiration, inside jokes, frustrations, and myriad traits of personality, the sequence is a study in true intimacy. It also reflects well the central accomplishment of In Her Jaws; that is, a poetry that both interrogates and affirms our many parts of being.


Of the four collections considered here, Savage Tales most clearly stretches tradition and unsettles readerly expectations pertaining to lyric poetry. Rather than metrically driven stanzas or sprawling free verse, Tara Bergin’s fragmentation and snippets of dialogue stress what’s impressionistic and fleeting. Taken together, the collection’s ruptured text and naked minimalism paradoxically suggest both absence and presence, ruin and artful preservation. Here, poetry’s tendency to order is simultaneously upheld and disrupted as Savage Tales culls together bits of language across nine sections variously titled The Artist and His [Sic] Work, Campus Poems, The New Romantics, Strange News, The Sleep and Dream Notebooks, Wolf Fables, The Blackbird Diaries, Four Dances, and Constructions. At their best, Bergin’s snapshots of feeling and thought evoke fuller dramas; that is, the messy, complex, contradictory, disjointed, and irresolvable scenes played out across the billions of seconds that make up the minutes and hours that constitute a life. Or, as Bergin contends in a three-line poem from Savage Tales’ opening section:   

I experience ‘the fragment’ as if it were a dramatic moment
in a play (the ex-lover enters after eight years of absence and
everything shatters).

As it leaps from pronouncement to the parenthetical, rational thought to emotional distress, public expression to private resonance, the above example operates via a recognizable lyric structure: turn, counter-turn, stand. The second line’s enjambed “and” serves as a threshold, one that suspends time and enacts the mind’s rhythm as the speaker delays the inevitable pain conveyed in the final phrase. And while some readers may find this register flat or matter-of-fact, a subtle music underscores the lines’ central claim; that is, consonance and assonance seal fragment-dramatic-moment and lover-enters-years-shatters, further emphasizing the tercet’s central argument and underlying agony.  
I’ve purposefully withheld, until now, the above example’s title, “The Gasp,” to mimic Bergin’s strategy of subverting her poems’ dramatic occasions by reserving the name of each entry and placing it at the bottom rather than the top of the page. Whether acting as anchor or signboard—sometimes summarizing, sometimes complicating the scenarios that hang above—each title plays second fiddle to the given aphorism, non-sequitur, implied question, confession, action, or observation it frames. Occasionally, these markers lend metaphorical weight:

The dictionary of Christian lore and legend: ‘The Seven Joys
of Mary’ cf. ‘The Seven Sorrows of Mary’. 

Elsewhere, they affirm or credit source material, as in “Little Red Cap: Oh my God how frightened I feel today.” (“Fairy Tale”), or “While the ferry is docking do not hold your children in your arms.” (“Safety Warning, Staten Island”).  In The Blackbird Diaries, Bergin implicitly enters into dialogue with Wallace Stevens, although she offers sixteen rather than his “Thirteen Ways of Looking …” While some of her writing echoes Stevens’ modernist insistence on the indivisibility of death and life (“I used to listen to the news in the morning but now I listen / to the blackbird,” (“The Messages”), other poems in the section—particularly by way of their titles’ after-commentary—reflect Bergin’s signature wit. “Too wet this morning to translate the blackbird,” she concedes in “No Signal.” And, in a freestanding couplet of seeming reverence whose title pulls no punches as it describes both the poem’s musical instrument, as well as the name of Stevens’ 1923 debut: 

This could change my whole life I thought when I heard the
first few notes of the harmonium.

Although the kinds of utterances that make up the book vary wildly, the larger sections within Savage Tales thematically cohere. Campus Poems, for instance, considers the act of art-making and academia, while The Sleep and Dream Notebooks features nocturnal visions, visitations, and feedings, as well as a reimagining of the spindle-cursed Princess Aurora (“At some point in the middle of the night the rose that gave / honey to the bees fell apart and scattered its ashes beneath / my window. // I never even woke up.”     (“Night Rose”). Aesop-like origin stories and allegories populate Wolf Tales, though not all exhibit an obvious moral. Strange News meditates on the domestic, juxtaposing extreme states of feeling against the banal: morning pancakes, school bus rides, plumbing matters, and party prep. Throughout each of its nine sections, the populace of Savage Tales proves equally unpredictable. Rilke, Dostoevsky, pop and rock icon Prince, Freud, Kafka, and Chekov surface, as do Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Tsvetaeva, Willam and Dorothy Wordsworth, among others. There are bartenders, students, sadists, hairdressers, pessimists, witnesses, children, insomniacs, dancers. None of these, it seems, represents a fully realized or authoritative self—or, maybe, synecdochally, they all do?—yet each contributes to Bergin’s verbal ensemble, which seems to affirm what Claudia Rankine suggests in “The First Person in the Twenty-First Century”: “To abandon the fragmented text—this is the fantasy—is to encounter a world of homogeneity …”

In an age of screen grabs and character limits, Savage Tales cuts both ways. On one hand, the collection’s embodied brevity reflects well the lapsed concentration of modern life. Yet, Bergin resists inattentiveness as her disciplined ventriloquism exhibits the endurance and focus required of a skilled archivist. Whether describing “the white flesh of the hawthorns / torn and exposed” or adopting the persona of a poet’s pencil, each voice registered in Savage Tales is a microcosm: one that reminds us of the multitudes the self contains. Citing its investment in found speech and lack of metrical pattern-making, some critics will argue against Bergin’s third collection as poetry at all. But isn’t part of the form’s charge to veer between essence and nuance, and that which is restrictive and expansive?  “O to break free of the Master — / ”, entreats Bergin, echoing Dickinson,  “to strike through the first person — to reach at all costs the / second or third — ”  (“My Master’s Thesis”). And, elsewhere, in “The Fabulist”: “I can say E V E R Y T H I N G if it can be smuggled inside / something else.”

As the range of writing displayed in Raised Among Vultures, Pit Lullabies, In Her Jaws, and Savage Tales attests, contemporary Irish poets, delightfully, aren’t a unified group. Yet, while their dramatic occasions and aesthetics vary, Twomey, Traynor, Taylor, and Bergin each address the source of their own creative power and, in doing so, echo Eavan Boland’s call “to re-examine and disrupt and dispossess. Not because of feminism, not because of ideology, but because of poetry” (Object Lessons). Of course, one of Boland’s ongoing concerns was how we, individually and communally, are constructed by larger constructs: of history, nation, and of art. Perhaps this explains her suspicion of the kinds of imaginative constraints and technical conservatisms that feed each other, inadvertently validating reductive notions of self. As the cartography of Irish poetry evolves, however, we see in greater detail that which was previously inaccessible. Or, to borrow Boland’s phrase, the “map looks different” as it charts “new art on old ground.”  

Shara Lessley is the author of The Explosive Expert’s Wife, winner of the Sheila Margaret Motton prize, and Two-Headed Nightingale, and co-editor of The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice. She is Creative Nonfiction Editor and Editor-at-Large for this magazine.