RACHEL COVENTRY was born in Scotland to an Irish mother, spent her teenage years in Galway attending the Mercy secondary school, and lived for most of the 1990s in north London.
It is from her years hovering around the squats and dives of Stoke Newington that several of the key poems in her striking debut collection, Afternoon Drinking In The Jolly Butchers, published by Salmon, emerge.
‘The Lost’ is evidence of Coventry’s immersion in the semi-lumpen anarchist subculture, which predominated in places like Stoke Newington, before the hipsters invaded, was pretty total: “The first time I watched you shoot up/we were in the bedroom of the squat/you had on Powell Road”. The theme is taken to its tragic conclusion in 'I went to your funeral': “At first, he [your brother] was angry/with the only representative/of your stupidity.” Yet despite such subject matter, Coventry is not quite the Irvine Welsh of Irish poetry. She is an original, hugely well informed, thinker rather than any sort of populist or follower of literary fashions.
It has been said that literary bohemia no longer exists. There are no more Brendan Behans or Anaïs Nins. Nowadays every second scribbler has attached Dr. to his/her name to indicate s/he managed to complete a Phd in something or other, while spending much time scrambling together a few hours teaching at the local university.
Coventry is an interesting case in that her poems show she is, at heart, a genuine bohemian of the Baudelaire or Mary Shelley variety. She also, unlike your average sagging inhabitant of those pubs where people with literary ambitions pretend to be interesting, clearly a serious intellectual, engaged with philosophy, science, and politics. From the title poem on, it’s clear Coventry is something special: “They tell me now/each decision/opens a rift between/this world and/a possible one./Even trivial stuff/a tea or a latte/splits us endlessly/so now you and me/as we turned out/are galaxies apart/from the last time we agreed/the last time you asked me/shall we have another one?” Many Irish poets have written about the art of drinking alcohol, but none have ever managed to be so succinct and philosophical about it.
In ‘She Can’t Find Her Shoes’ she takes the same cerebral approach to caring for someone with dementia that she did to afternoon drinking earlier. In ‘Choice Theory’ her chilly unsentimentality is maintained: “The lunatic heart skips at the sight/of someone it has no business with/while outside, an anarchy of light/traces the chaos of naked branches.”
Afternoon Drinking In The Jolly Butchers signals the arrival on the Irish poetry scene of a true original. If there is any justice in the world, which generally speaking there is not, Coventry’s debut collection of poems will win every prize going.
Rachel Coventry, Liz Quirke, and Annemarie Ní Churreáin, will read at Spotlight on New Voices, part of the Cuirt festival, at the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday April 28 at 11am. Tickets are €10/8 via the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).