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A Book of Discomfort

Enda Wyley

The Quick, by Jessica Traynor. Dedalus Press, 73 pp. €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251454

Death and the dead are a restless, persistent force in Jessica Traynor’s poetry. In her début collection, The Liffey Swim, the opening poem “eBay Auction”, has the poet sifting through “treasures of the dead”. So too, the opening poem, “The Life”, in The Quick, exposes a momentary, imaginative death: “Halfway across the Hogarth Road / the life flew out of me, pitched itself into the dusk.” When her life returns, a “cool wanderer” the poet shrewdly concludes, “I had been lessened, / that I was somehow more alone / than when I had been divisible.” What follows this opening poem is a collection which tackles the horrors of life and death and is rife with hauntings, visitations and angry curses.

In a sequence called “Witches” vicious magic is directed at men in the poem “The Witch’s Love Song to her Ex”: “And though your warehouse is bare, we are out here waiting, / we fixer-of-men, to greet each arsehole with a toothy kiss.” But worse than the toothy kisses and tea “that scald your balls”, the witches are thrilled to the point of self-righteousness by their brutal plan to wrap a “hundred scarves around your neck / and wind and wind until you find you’re choking - / and isn’t it only what’s best for you. And doesn’t it serve you right.” In the fifth poem in this sequence, “The Witches Demonstrate How Best to Catch a Rabbit”, the final violent advice is to “grab a poacher by his cock and bring the knife / up beneath it, threaten to hack it, root and branch, / so that he’ll bleed out in the darkness, with no ear / to catch his frantic prayers.”

Less theatrical and quieter as a poem is the horror of “Scrying”, fourth in the “Witches” sequence. Here, a tall mirror balances in the old bathroom of the poet’s childhood, until one day it falls, the poem reaching a memorable end.

until my father heard
    and came to save me

from the danger
    of my own small face.’

In parts, The Quick is overtly political, particularly in those poems which conjure a host of departed characters, such as the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. In a poem named after him, Traynor chooses a chilling fate for her subject.

I’ll shove him through the hungry turf,
dance him right down to the devil,
where he can gossip in the sod
to his raddled heart’s content.

“The Coffin-Maker’s Children” resurrects another controversial figure, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

While my grandfather waits for his beating,
Archbishop McQuaid arranges
his enemies’ coffin nails on his desk.

Later, we witness Traynor imagining her mother as a child “dragged / by her auburn plait / along a school corridor - / the longer her hair grows, / the angrier the nun becomes.”

In contrast to these willed political poems are the gentle forces of a poem such as “Perseids”, where a mother and her young son stand together on Camden Quay, Cork. There is a convincing naturalness to this scene that deftly finishes with the image of the little boy’s face turned upwards, “his star caught / in the dark of his pupil.”

“Matches for Rosa”, accompanied by a quote from John Berger that Rosa Luxemburg loved “birds and flames”, also succeeds, not because it tells us anything especially about the revolutionary’s life, but because of the simplicity of its execution, its lyrical, emotive yearning. In return for the gift of a matchbox to Rosa, the poet hopes that “this woman so in love with fire and flight / will send her blazing birds to my pyre”.

In the poem ‘”Tender Butchery”, one of a series commissioned to respond to Jonathan’s Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a controlled delicacy is at play, as the poet considers mementos. “The finest gloves ever made / were stitched from chicken skin / so thin they could fold into / a walnut shell …” There is a cerebral quality to this poem as it reaches its defiant conclusion. “The world has no business / wearing my skin.”

The British poet Alice Oswald has said: “people often tell me they turn to poetry for comfort, but I turn to it for discomfort.” Jessica Traynor’s new and second collection is not a book that we would readily turn to for comfort. But perhaps this is exactly what makes The Quick an intriguing read.

1/12/2018

Enda Wyley is an award-winning poet, teacher and children’s author. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently, Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems. A sixth collection of poetry is forthcoming. She is a member of Aosdána.

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