Riding on the-middle-of-nowhere-sea

by
17 August 2010

Martyn Halsall finds courage in poetry

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Rainbows in My Eyes
J. K. Rowbory

reviewed with

Echoes of Memory
John O’Donohue

Transworld Publishers £12.99 (978-1-84827-073-2)
ChurchTimes Bookshop £11.70

and
Island: Collected poems
Kenneth Steven

Saint Andrew Press £14.99 (978-0-7152-0909-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

and

Evidence
Mary Oliver

Bloodaxe Books £8.95 (978-1-85224-847-5)
Church Times Bookshop £8.05

and

Evidence
Mary Oliver

J. K. ROWBORY is the bravest poet in these four collections, all of which negotiate with contemporary spir­ituality through individual experi­ence.

She lives lying down, as a victim since her first year at university in 2004 of the myalgic encephalo­myelitis (ME) that prevents her sitting up and keeps her in bed. Yet “illness was her seed of freedom,” she writes in “Release”, a poem that achieves resolution after also grap­pling with illness as “crime”, “sen­tence”, and “dungeon”.

Jenny Rowbory brings vibrant energy to her search for Christian meaning to her condition: “I ride on the peaks of freak waves in the-middle-of-nowhere-sea” (“My day”). In contrast, the overtly simple rhyming 12 lines of “Can’t you be a magician, God?” summarise the anguish and incomprehension of those who wait in faith for healing, and face apparent silence: “I want to force your hand, Lord to make my illness go away.”

Conflict hallmarks this cour­ageous collection, but it is in the tension of integrity that Rowbory surmounts temptation to sentimen­tality, or the crudeness of blind anger. Her understandable tirade against the stylisation of faith in churches: “I want to go in and get some chainsaw action going on the hard cold pews and flamethrow the hanging banners” ends with a pro­found summation of what church ought to be, “We are his home now”.

This is a vital, fluent, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking collection about the reality of suffering, by a poet whose energy and grace are always salted with wryness: “who loves God, but often slides away to escape reality and pain, but always comes back, just about.” Proceeds from Jenny’s col­lection will go towards her medical costs. Rainbows in My Eyes deserves to be a best-seller.

Parallels with the poet-pilgrim R. S. Thomas emerge in the work of John O’Donohue: a tendency to short lines that swerve into revela­tions with deceptive brevity and grace. Echoes of Memory was the first of two poetry collections, among seven books O’Donohue completed before his death at 54 in 2008. A former Roman Catholic priest, with a philosophy doctorate written in German, he lived latterly in the west of Ireland, and continues to attract new enthusiasts.

An illuminating example is the six-poem sequence “Chosen”, adop­ting a quote by Hegel, whose work O’Donohue interrogated for his Ph.D. These poems examine the life, faith, and relentless work of one “who has become a country woman”.

The sequence acknowledges the pain of rural hard labour, and in a functional marriage equally lacking tenderness. For this woman, the priest’s sermon is as detached as wine and wafers produced indus­trially by members of “closed orders”. Liturgy is as efficiently deficient as “special offers written on the windows of the local store”, where her aching emotions are mocked by “milk-skinned models” who “leer in coy surprise from covers of tabloids”.

Such pessimism, or realism, is seasoned with O’Donohue’s affec­tionate family portraits, Christian meditations, elegies, and poems marinated in love of the Irish land­scape that nourished him.

Kenneth Steven’s gift is for evo­cation, and also follows a Celtic track from the geographical in­timacies of his Scottish home, out to holy and celebratory islands. His 100 poems, spanning 20 years of writing, fanfare self-sufficiency from the metropolitan: “London’s out of touch, a blurred voice on the radio”.

He works most powerfully close-up, crossing to Iona, collecting eggs, relating small details that signal large losses like the Gaelic language, and coalfield communities. He brings new appreciations, as finding an otter “ninety percent water Ten percent God . . . Three feet of gym­nastics Taking on an ocean”.

Mary Oliver writes considerable quantities of flimsy, conveyor-belt poetry, and Evidence is full of meandering and facile observation. Swans’ wings are “as bright as snow”; their destination “wherever it is that swans go”. The fact that she is “one of America’s best-loved poets” seems somewhat alarming.

Martyn Halsall is communications adviser to the Blackburn diocese and poetry editor of Third Way magazine.

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