THE WORK of some poets is great, or at least initially sounds great, when you hear it declaimed from a festival stage, but is rather less rewarding when read on the page, in the absence of the bells and whistles of performance.
Eva Bourke’s poetry is of the polar opposite variety and is best consumed – one poem at a time – in quiet moments: on the bus to Ballybane, the train to Dublin, or while waiting to see a hospital consultant, and in her new collection, Seeing Yellow (Dedalus Press ), there are some fabulous poems.
‘Heimat’ is particularly striking: “Small, non-descript streets – the houses crouched, fearful/as first graders in grey rows – named after forgotten poets/whose patriotic songs were hollow as organ pipes.//The streets had escaped the war. History had passed them over,/impatient for more momentous locations...”
Bourke’s poems have some witty titles: ‘The China Shop Prepares for the Visit of the Elephant’ and ‘Disintegrating Love Poem Found on a Coffee Table at the Berlin Poetry Festival’ are two such. The titles are baited fishing lines certain to catch the reader and compel her to read said poem. ‘Disintegrating Love Poem...’ starts out with a semblance of linguistic coherence but, under the pressure of the disintegrating love that is at its heart, the poem dissolves into a kind of gobbledygook. Some poets write gobbledygook by mistake, never a good thing. Bourke, on the other hand, uses this poem’s descent into near nonsense as a deliberate poetic strategy to bring us inside the tormented mind of the disintegrating lover.
Grief and illness are recurring themes in Seeing Yellow. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, Bourke manages to tread lightly. The beautiful title poem is about a hospital visit to the now late poet Pearse Hutchinson, who passed away in 2012. Despite there being a hospital rule that patients can’t keep flowers in their rooms, the visitors bring him sunflowers: “quietly reciting/a long-loved Catalan poem to himself and tapping its metre / on the arm of the chair with his fingers./Sunflowers, he said, gladness and disbelief/in his voice, then after a pause, I can see yellow.”
‘My brother writes to me’ will ring true notes for anyone who has known the reality of chemotherapy: “Since April he’s been counting swallows in the courtyard/from his own perch on the top floor. I know he is sleepless/with chemo, paces the rooms at night holding tete-a-tetes/eye-level with the moon”.
There is something refreshing about reading the work of a poet who clearly knows that poetry is not just about having feelings, and a poet like Eva Bourke is prepared to struggle with the language and to find the right words.