Grasping and Dissolving

As easy as drawing breathsnow negatives book cover

Poetry review - Angela Gardner

Snow Negatives

Enda Coyle-Greene

Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2007.
Paperback, 80 pages,
isbn 9781904556855

Enda Coyle-Greene is interested in the act of seeing and the act of catching and recording what is seen. Snow Negatives was developed from the manuscript that won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006. As the judges’ citation notes she ‘looks at the world with a cool, clear eye’. This cool clear eye is evident in the opening poem, ‘Road Sign’, in which she records the split second moment of mistaken identity and of representation before the image she describes coalesces into its wild reality – a baby fox crossing a road. Yet the following poem, in which the action of the poem takes place during a car journey, affords a complex discussion of the emotional quality of the day when the twin towers were attacked in New York.

   On the road
there’s nothing else behind me
or before me:

am I the only one alive?
                                    [‘Rage’]

The next moment a driver in a hurry ‘breathes on my back’ and she is able to quite naturally introduce the dangers of the road and move from the personal space of a car’s interior to the imperative to be home safe. It is a beautifully constructed poem recording the emotions of that day, personal yet universal in its understanding of what unites us.  It ends with a question and an echo:

            Will the world fold, crashing, burning,
screaming to its end

if you and I are late tonight?
                                    [‘Rage’]

The title poem of the collection is a sequence of fragments caught like a set of photographs. Although each is named for a particular time and place, from morning until night, they are framed around a catastrophic event that only becomes apparent gradually, as the likeness to an old man’s face is seen in a morning glimpse of a hare:

Come and see the hare.
In air,
another child answers.
                        [‘Snow Negatives Rahilly Castle: Morning’]

Gradually, as it moves through the day, the poem builds a series of glimpses of an old man, at one point with the face of the poet’s father, until the trajectory of the poem is realised and the loneliness of a man murdered in his house and left unfound, develops in the same way an image becomes clear in photographic developer:

an apron of snow
for a garden,
and no footprints
coming in
or going out
                        [‘Snow Negatives The Oranmore Road: Night’]

The collection moves through a self portrait seen in a mirror, mannequins seen in clothes shops at night, the eye and camera obscura, and the feel of rooms in which to write, but it is the contemplation, in six sections of the poem ‘After the Achter Huis’, that again achieves the arresting intensity of the September 11 poem earlier in the collection.  It is clearly constructed, subtle and cerebral. It is also less lyrical than that sometimes easy standard mode of Irish poets and its jangliness and experimentation is a huge strength. It is immensely ambitious in its subject matter while including the mundane. It explores a visit with the poet’s daughter to Anne Frank’s House (the Achter Huis of the title) yet includes the lighter experience of staying in a hotel in Amsterdam. The poet doesn’t lose sight of the new Europe but is a thought-filled tourist and an intangible sense of the past is felt throughout the poem:

            I feel as if I’ve lost

            a layer of skin,
a present tense.
                        [‘After the Achter Huis’, i.]

So although the poet buys the usual tourist offerings, a ‘bag full of bangles/and a scarf’, she still asks:

            What will I take back?
The constant rain?
A view from the train
on the way to Rotterdam?
                                    [‘After the Achter Huis’ iv.]

This sequence closes in an exploration of the reality of a holocaust survivor, a truth strange as science fiction, which could not have been achieved as powerfully without the realities of map reading, MTV in hotel rooms or speaking Irish in foreign countries.

Another poem late in the collection, ‘Through the skin of your letter, Ann’, asks what a glamorous life is and through the mechanism of letter-writing, the metaphor of keeping in touch, the poet answers with moments of revelation that pierce the ordinariness of existence. Glamour is, after all, magic thrown in our eyes that changes how we see reality.

Towards the end of the book there are a very few poems that, although technically assured, appear to have arisen from exercises in poetic form and their rather obvious technique distanced me. But in the last poems, ‘Roadkill’, ‘Your Hands’ and ‘You’ve been this way before’, the poet returns powerfully to the central motif of the collection: the road journey. ‘Roadkill’, in particular, echoes both the opening poem ‘Road Sign’ and ‘Rage’ although the encounter with the wild, in this case another fox, is worked into an entirely different scenario.

                                                the fields are blunt
            wet velvet stretched upon the windscreen.
                                    [‘Roadkill’]

Another of these ‘road’ poems, ‘Your Hands’, appears to be about mood but is also a beautiful description of the change in the air and sky from the last of the afternoon, through twilight through into the night. This fusing of landscape and mood happens through a number of different poems and is handled deftly and unselfconsciously. The collection closes with ‘You’ve been this way before’ a poem that uses the experience of driving tired to explore home-coming and the relief in safe arrivals.

            As you take the final bend in one drawn breath, an echo
in a tunnel, then the roundabout, the slowing, going home.
                                    [‘You’ve been this way before’]

Snow Negatives is a wonderful introduction to the possibilities of poetry, I highly recommend it and eagerly await Enda Coyle-Greene’s second collection.