Review: Stephanie Conn – Copeland’s Daughter

Copeland’s Daughter is a series of poems inspired by Conn’s family connections to the Copeland Islands, a group of three islands in the Irish Sea, north of Donaghadee, County Down. A winner in the 2015/16 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins, this is Conn’s second publication after the well-received The Woman on the Other Side, published by Doire Press.

There are few romantic notions about the landscape here: Conn is concerned about the hardship of her ancestors, about grafting a living from windswept land and dealing with the business of shipwrecks. The tone is mostly accepting, methodical, full of tasks to be completed and actions undertaken. One busy stanza lists ‘baked’, ‘churned’, ‘cured’, ‘trapped’, ‘plucked’, ‘pickled’ and stacked’. Largely, we are presented with an image of stoicism, where names are signed in ink and names carved “in the sea’s abandoned rock” to show persistence. Only glimpses of how such a life might erode a person’s endurance are shown, the starker for their rarity.

+++In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,
+++but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men
+++washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces
+++and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab
+++emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.

Despite the theme of the pamphlet being rooted to the idea of place, the stories Conn reveal within are essentially of human reaction and interaction. The islands are explored through how the inhabitants deal with challenges – building a stone wall to protect a garden against the salty winds, walking half a mile to fill a bucket of water, learning to gut pollock with “massive mouths, protruding jaws | the staring eyes”. Tenderness is also found within these methodical routines, such as a mother and daughter churning butter together, singing “a churning song | to pass the time”.

As the pamphlet progresses through its twenty-three poems, the voice moves gradually to the ‘I’, the author visiting the islands, experiencing the landscape for herself, attempting to pick up memories through osmosis through “this sponge-sprung” land, waiting for “the whisperers to return”. The voice in Molly and the Islanders could be Conn positioning herself alongside her family line, imagining the work to be done, “dykes to re-build, | twenty acres of brambles to clear”.

+++True, I had no claim to the land
+++and a rough sea made me nervous.
+++Still, I thought I could live like them.

The language is tight, full of action and movement, showing a world that rarely sleeps, the lard lie of lighthouse keepers and seaman. Even an uprooted tree, which might be consider to finally be at rest, is shown to be just surviving still:

+++… A thin
+++fraction of the tree clings on, ignores

+++the crumbling bark, the strange incline –
+++draws water from a narrow stream, sends
+++it to the upper leaves, along the radiating
+++veins to the ragged edge; keeps them green.

It is the perfect summary of how Conn’s ancestors clung on, giving testament to these island dwellers, these outpost colonists. It is telling that Conn starts one of the poem with “The boatman will return at two”, left alone to explore, rooted but we sense grateful to be able to leave. Overall, this is more than a stopgap while we wait a second full collection – this collection is accomplished, finely crafted, and rewarding for nature lovers and sociologists alike, a study in rural life and familial encampment.

Copeland’s Daughter is available to purchase from The Poetry Business, 30 pp, ISBN 978-1-910367-64-3, £5.00

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