THERE IS a school of thought popular among middle-brow critics of both genders, who tend to prevail in journals such as Poetry Ireland Review, and in the literary pages of formerly important newspapers, that poetry should avoid two particular ailments.
It should know nothing whatsoever about politics – apart from the fact that it is occasionally tearful at the defeat of former Secretary of State Clinton by President Donald Duck – and be almost entirely devoid of wit, humour, or satire of the sharp-toothed variety. Paul Durcan and Rita Ann Higgins are allowed be exceptions to this rule because, well, they have both been around so long. And at this stage Durcan is mostly a poetic teddy bear for closet Conor Cruise O’Brien fans who once considered voting Green or converting to Anglicanism.
Cork-born poet Martina Evans breaks one of these commandments all the time – her poems are always full of wit, though never go looking for shallow laughs – and she also plays loose and fast with the anti-politics rule. The first poem in The Windows of Graceland: New & Selected Poems, published by Carcanet, is ‘Fine Gael Form a Coalition Government with Labour, March 1973’. The poem is actually about how the Fine Gael leaning adults that populated her childhood were so happy at the victory of “The party of professionals and well-heeled/farmers”, they temporarily left the children of the area to their own devices: “We weren’t called in after the eleven o’clock break/we ran wild for miles, for hours, for weeks…”
Eventually, incoming Minister for Justice Paddy Cooney will have been relieved to hear, law and order was restored, “someone/had to put a stop to us roaming like tinkers/when boys where seen riding the roof/of Paddy the Priest’s cottage like/it was a horse.” This is not really a political poem, but for some of the aforementioned middlebrows, for whom poetry is the literary equivalent of hillwalking, there is something grubby about even knowing the date of the election which brought Liam Cosgrave, to power. What next? Poems about urinary tract infections, or having a tooth pulled? Well, yes.
The opening stanza of ‘Can Dentists Be Trusted?’ is fantastic – despite being unadorned by metaphor or simile– “There are the ones/you only visit once,/like the fellow/in Phibsboro, Dublin/who roared Jesus F**king Christ/his leg up on the dentist’s chair/as he pulled out/my embarrassed tooth”.
Evans is a minimalist when it comes to use of poetic devices, such the aforementioned similes and metaphors, and also makes sparing use of adjectives. However her use of “embarrassed” to describe the tooth that dentist yanked from her mouth is perfect. Indeed, without that one word the entire stanza might collapse into prose. Many of her poems are dramatic monologues spoken by some version of herself. Another fine example is ‘All Alcoholics Are Charmers’, which ends with a tragi-comic sting characteristic of Evans’s poetry. An original poet whose reading will be a highlight of Cuirt 2017.
Martina Evans, with Vona Groarke and Mary O’Malley, reads at the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday April 26 at 8.30pm as part of the Cúirt international Festival of Literature. For tickets see www.tht.ie or call 091 - 569777.