Calder Wood Press
A curious thing happens when you read the poetry of someone who has lived in exile from their birth country for a while. You are forced to face the issues that you might have dodged in your own work; issues of religion or politics, as well as people and places that evoke strong connections to your own way of thinking.
Anne Connolly’s accomplished chapbook, Downside Up, faces these issues implacably; affording us a good hard stare at life as it has been lived in Ulster as well as in Ireland too. Poems such as ‘The Price of Petrol,’ take us back to the 70s, to a time of petrol shortages and sectarian preferential treatment. But this poem cannily reflects the present as well: ‘ “How’re ye Wullie?” / “Disappointed.” ’ It’s how little words like ‘Disappointed’ can wholly capture the resigned feeling of that time. All one could do was to quietly endure, when you were refused petrol at the station in favour of someone like ‘John Citizen,’ who
holds a banner in his hand
and on bonfire night
his boys laugh
as they burn
a well-stuffed pope.
Connolly leaves it as it is: the actions of the small (minded) community speak for themselves.
But her poems go far outside the hold of the near-polemic as well. There’s a strong lyrical touch about her work that reminds me of John Hewitt, in the use of townland names in a poem like ‘Sky Road;’ ‘Derrygimlagh bog,’ ‘the tail of Clifden bay. Connolly easily straddles the border in Ireland, drawing out the essentials of all myths and legends, whether it is a recent tale, such as the landing of a Vickers Bomber in a western Irish bog, in ‘Sky Road,’ or ‘the ancient tumulus of Newgrange…her belly pregnant with the dead,’ in ‘Solstice.’ In this latter poem, Connolly imagines ‘Kings lie at Newgrange waiting… long[ing] for luminescence, / the solar triumph.’ She catches completely the significant essence of Newgrange, without resorting to over worn clichés, bringing it shining into the modern era.
I admit that poems like ‘Aran’ lie close to my own interests and interpretations. In this poem Connolly uses the interwoven lines to underscore the intricacy of the stitches described, as well as their ascribed meanings. I remember my mother explaining the meaning of the stitches that go into making up an Aran pattern; each islander family had its own specific set of stitches used, and these explanations are deftly ‘knitted’ together in this poem.
I think one of the reasons why I’ve responded to Anne Connolly’s work so deeply, is because I find strong echoes of my own themes and meanings. In Anne’s ‘Reflections,’ I see Heaney’s ‘Peeling Potatoes,’ one of the Glanmore Sonnets he wrote in memory of his mother; which in turn sparked off my own ‘Roosters.’ In Anne’s ‘Reflection,’ her mother ‘peel[s] potatoes / elbows leaning on the sink edge.’ In that sparse economy we have a woman getting on with the everyday chores that must be done; her ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph’ the refrain of many a woman in pain. The life before is succinctly captured as, ‘Her dancing days lay / at the bottom of the drawer,’ inverting the old-fashioned trousseau drawer as something that holds memories of a former life, rather than a future.
Connolly’s work is deservedly garnering attention in Scotland, where she resides now, but I would hope for a wider audience for her pamphlet, Downside Up, in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the hazy border into the Republic. I hope to see more of her work soon. Visit Calder Wood Press for this and many more reasonably priced poetry pamphlets