The audio of this year’s Strong Shine reading has just been posted here. It features the four poets shortlisted for the Strong Shine Award, which goes to the best first collection published by an Irish poet. Also included are the remarks I delivered as the judge of this year’s prize. Given that my comments are now in the ‘public domain’ as it were I reckon it’d be okay if I posted them here too:
Our four short-listed poets must be as nervous –in their own way- as athletes preparing to take the field. And yet I must ask them to endure their tension a little while longer. Choosing a winner between them was exceptionally difficult. But with the agony of choice came the benefit of cohabitation, the pleasure of living with these volumes over a long and intermittently broiling summer.
The Shadow Owner’s Companion, by Eleanor Hooker, contains two very different and mutually antagonistic worlds: call them night and waking, call them surface and immersion
Yes its verses render an affable day-lit milieu; sun-lapped journeys by water (and a few hair-raising journeys too), a grandfather’s chest aglow with rubies, the succour of a loved one’s name manifesting on a phone-screen.
But this reality has its dark parallel, a zone of nightmares, of semi-waking revenants of three-eyed fish, bug-eyed horrors and a talking baby: ‘The ghost is back mum, / I can’t breathe when she is near / Make her go away’.
Lording it over this under-realm is the figure of the pike, which strikes me as the speaker’s dark and toothsome double, a recurring malignance no more electable than her own shadow or reflection. Such poems bring the clammy uncertainties of childhood re-seeping into the brain’s folds with a persistence I’ve not seen matched in recent years. This most bipolar of companions is a book that jerks us repeatedly between light and dark, between breath and immersion, with a violent and to my mind unforgettable suddenness.
If Hooker’s is a book of shadows then Mary Noonan’s is a book of flavours. For the Fado House she’s fashioned is a palace of scent and tactility; I find muself almost tasting or inhaling duck breast and raspberries flambéd in vodka, sleet on a lover’s jacket, the slowly-enveloping ‘filaments of winter’. And there are seen and sonic textures too: an owl’s yellow-flecked gaze, vibrato lifting from wood, or an ‘angry fandango on fallen arches and varicose veins’.
Perhaps, then, more than any other of the competition’s twenty-one entrants, Noonan appeals to the senses with a consistently cordon bleu standard of balance and precision. Yet the feast has its bitter dishes; regret and loss served up in a ‘sour puree’, an exquisitely pungent jealousy. I urge you to read this volume and experience its riches clinging to the mind like garlic to the fingers.
Seldom can the stock motifs of the Irish poetic debut been more thrillingly remixed than in Rebecca O’Connor’s We’ll Sing Blackbird. The standard tropes of poetic bildungsroman –from childhood to childbirth- all feature but are here presented with fresh energy, with an unforgettably quirky newness.
It’s as if O’Connor has lovingly renovated a derelict carnival, repairing dusty, rusty rides and attractions so they go round and round with all their old music and twinkling restored.O’Connor is conspicuous in that she is a genuinely funny poet: this is a book of Ferris Bueller lookalikes, of perfectly calibrated quips and squibs, of a uniquely sideways take on the Irish language. Again and again, however, the humour comes with something bleak and bitter and its core.
For this is a poet who exhibits not only a quizzical O’ Hara-esque joie de vivre, but also that great New Yorker’s unflinchingly hard-headed assessment of reality with all its losses and disappointments. In O’Connor’s fairground a ride on the ghost train is mandatory.
It is a place intricate and kinetic verbal machines, twisting and transforming before our very eyes so that we that we never quite grasp their form or function, so that quilts and blankets become a snow-covered Icelandic beach and nothing is but what is not.
If Eleanor Hooker’s collection oscillates thrillingly between light and dark The Blue End of Stars by Michelle O’Sullivan constructs a twilit colony of poems at the hazy interface between those two conditions.
At its centre is a sequence of poems to, from and perhaps even after Vincent Van Gogh that is startling in its ambition and achievement. Yet O’Sullivan will forgive me if I say that for me her work brought to mind the late, great dreamscapes of Jack B. Yeats. For The Blue End of Stars exhibits what seems an effortless mastery of landscape, giving us frieze after exquisite frieze: virtuosic miniatures like ‘The Clearing’ with its ‘leaf-shadowed’ and subtle glow or the still vista of ‘Medium Wave’ with its couple poised at the foot of the mountain, perhaps forever, ‘striving for transmission in the dark’ , ‘Cargo’ with its unsettling depth of field. I could go on. And this is a collection that very much leads us onwards, willing but uneasy, through ever bluer membranes of light into the gathering dusk.
I’ve already said how difficult it was to choose between the four poets you’ve just heard. And there were of course no spreadsheets, instruments, or accounting techniques to which I could turn. In the end, then, I chose seduction over objectivity. I wanted to be seduced and the book that beguiled me most was The Blue End of Stars by Michelle O’Sullivan. So it is my very great honour to name her as the winner of this year’s Strong / Shine Award.
This is a poet whose world I felt compelled to return to again and again, who raids the inarticulate with such subtlety and vigour that her chilling, thrilling visions exist at the trembling meniscus between saying and silence. And I would ask you now to please welcome her to the stage.