Sideways wit and the best kind of subversion

THE SPIN-DOCTORS of the poetry world so often reach for the term “long-awaited” when describing a new collection of poetry that its meaning has mostly been drained away.

However in relation to James Martyn’s debut collection, Shedding Skin (Arlen House ), the cliché that has graced a thousand press releases - many of which I’ve written myself - is actually true. Shedding Skin is a book into which a huge amount of quiet work has gone over a period of years.

The collection starts with a sad but characteristically playful poem about his late father, ‘My Father Grows Young’: “The week he died my father grew young again…He gripped the fiddle neck with returned ease,/the strings pinging close to his delicate ear…returned images tripping off his tongue:/a helicopter static above a cornfield,/the first big diesel to run the line.”

Martyn always has a story to tell when you meet him, so it’s no surprise that in ‘Teacher’, about the return journey from a class day trip to Limerick, he proves himself to be an expert practitioner of the narrative poem. As ever his sideways wit is there and the poem is perfectly formed.

In ‘Hungry Man’, ‘Warshow’, and ‘Election-Time, Salthill’, he ably takes on the role of poet as social commentator. Martyn is a poet who writes about stuff that happens in his wryly intelligent way. Shedding Skin is a book in which you’ll surely find much to enjoy.

Also from Arlen House is An Urgency of Stars, Geraldine Mills’ third collection of poetry. Mills is also an accomplished fiction writer, having published two collections of short-stories with Arlen. I absolutely love this collection and think it might be the one to make Mills as famous as she should be.

Most poets like to think of themselves and poetry in general as being in some sense subversive. Now, the truth is that those who talk longest about the revolutionary nature of their verses often end up producing work which is less of a threat to any status quo than the thoughts of Joan Burton.

In stark contrast, several poems in An Urgency of Stars are subversive in absolutely the best sense of that word. For example, ‘War of Attrition’ which demands to be quoted in full:

“Left with one more axe to grind,/and no whetstone,/she went to his room and the small glass/where his teeth were sleeping.//She used them now and filed real slow/until the axe, honed and stropped,/was all steel gleam,/the teeth a millimetre short.//Returning them to their rightful place,/she walked out the gate,/the taste of a wet summer in the apples,/and he all talk, but no bite.”

Another highlight is ‘Keeping The Head’ while ‘The Power of Poets’ is a great crowd pleaser in which Mills manages to raise some savage questions about the role of poetry in her wonderfully light hearted way.

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