The Heart Uncut
by Marian Kilcoyne | Wordsonthestreet | pb €12 | 68pp | 978190701551.
Review by Fred Johnston
No bad thing when a poet who has published widely in journals and relevant magazines produces his or her first collection. The reader can be assured that an apprenticeship has been served and that the work has received sufficient recognition from a variety of sources. This is important, at a time when the haste to publish one’s first collection seems to predominate over everything else. Wordsonthestreet(sic) are a Galway-based publisher who produce the respected journal of prose and poetry Crannόg and, among other things, the play Eclipsed, by Patricia Burke Brogan—the unique play that kick-started a tsunami of books and films on the subject of the Magdalen laundries. Groundbreaking work. Kilcoyne’s collection, printed in Milton Keynes, has an attractive velvety feel to the covers, clear print, and a layout that does justice to the poems.
Marian Kilcoyne was short-listed for the Dermot Healy International Poetry Award in 2017. A native of the west of Ireland, she has also reviewed non-fiction and fiction for The Sunday Business Post and was long-listed for the Fish Poetry Prize. She lists among her favourite books the poems of Pasternak and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Her own work has appeared widely in journals in the US, the UK and Ireland. A jacket-blurb by poet Hugh O’Donnell speaks of the poems’ ‘raw, visceral energy seeking release’. There is an energy here that, however visceral, is tempered, too, by a gentler compassion and an emotional accuracy:
break with ugsome haste
or sensate sloth.
Things break. I told you.
It’s refreshing to read poetry that tries for new language or rejuvenates the unusual or the old. ‘Ugsome’, meaning dreadful or offensive, is a dialect word found in Scotland and some parts of Northern England. Kilcoyne is not afraid to employ it here. Similarly, in the title-poem, ‘The Heart Uncut’, there is a marvellous description of remove, of distance, which is handled deftly and carefully:
Strange how the prairie of your face
Stranger still, the way time holds you
and carries you alive through owlish
afternoons, your breath a lattice flung
upon a thousand vistas. Strange how a
fearful ego can remain intact, the
The pure technique of bouncing word-sounds such as ‘stranger’ and ‘strange’ off each other as the stanza progresses creates a lulling rhythm that is in accord with the contemplative act of the poem. This is almost a mantra, almost something sacred chorused amid private speculation. There is music here, as there should be in a poem, and it is inconceivable that so many of our younger poets fail somehow to comprehend the necessity of the presence of a rhythmic music in poetry. This is good poetry by any measure. The cover illustration of a rather fearsome Frida Kahlo-style skeletal mermaid holding aloft an anemone (in Greek mythology the red anemone flower is a symbol of death or love abandoned) should not be taken as an announcement of gloomy poems within. In ‘Memento’ Kilcoyne sets about trying to stick together the shattered pieces of a china cup:
I hunker down forensic hat
askew and imagine the glue that
would bring back my soft side; the
same clumsy fingers that felled it
would bring back my soft side
In ‘Calliope Rises’ (the Muse’s name in Greek means ‘beautiful of voice’) the poet rehearses the effect that ordinary human interaction can bring about, and how the resulting poetry can be resisted:
Down deep down
south of my soul
you impressed me
The final line, however, is: ‘Down deep down west of my soul/you impressed me.’ Confusing at first? This reviewer went scrambling around in the symbology of cardinal points for a feasible explanation, but perhaps in this case the reader is best placed to attempt the deciphering. All that said, there is a light brushing of the work (or at least the outlook) of the late Kathleen Raine on some of these poems, like a fine icing. There is a Raine-esque sense in some of these poems of presences just outside the immediacy of the poem and its obvious language; Raine chose to describe it as a vital awareness of ‘the mountain behind the mountain’. For it is not difficult, reading these poems, to feel the essence of the work murmuring behind the work itself, of a poem’s deceptive simplicity. The language in nearly all of the poems, after all, is lucid and comprehensible. And not everything can be rendered as a poetic mystery. In ‘Per Se, Per Se’, a raw and, indeed, visceral two-stanza piece, the language leaves little room for doubt or imaginative deviation:
He made the incision under her
left breast, a rip and rend that she
dare not tack for fear of the
of perfect healing.
Anarchic artistry was his shovel as
he quarried the heart justly.
In ‘Clouds’ we are treated to a meditation, as it were, that struggles, alas, with a Heaney-esque conjunction of the ordinary and the poetic. But this poem arguably tries a tad too hard to bring the ephemeral and the rooted together. Metaphors are tricky things and at some level their use must make sense:
Why would I, writing, feel
Like I am digging into peat bog, to excavate restless
Even as Kilcoyne explains that with the clouds ‘Every single one is a word’, not even a poet magicking language will uncover clouds beneath a peat bog. Running the two images together is unworkable. At the start of the poem, she sees the clouds as ‘infants’, which further confuses. We know what the poet is trying to say, but it’s how the poet says it that—forgive me—clouds the issue.
Overall, it is an ability to blend the imaginative or illusoire with the very human and interrogating that creates an overall attractiveness about these poems, not one of which can be described as mawkish or emotionally flimsy, and some of which have an almost visual reverberation. All of which speaks to the ultimate success of this varied and intriguing début collection and congratulations are due to publishers Wordsonthestreet for producing a very handsome volume.
By Fred Johnston