Review: Washing Windows? Irish Women Write Poetry

Washing Windows? Irish Women Write Poetry
Ed. Alan Hayes, Arlen House, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-85132-179-7, 144 pages, paperback

Arlen House is Ireland’s leading feminist press, specialising in books of literary and cultural importance. This latest anthology has been compiled in honour of pioneering poet Eavan Boland and Ireland’s first feminist publisher and found of Arlen House, Catherine RoseWashing Windows? describes itself as a “snapshot of the contemporary writing scene” among Irish/Northern Irish women poets. And although no anthology can be wholly extensive and complete, the collection boasts exactly 100 poets, from the established to the emerging, with some being published for the very first time.

As a snapshot, albeit a wide-ranging one, we are only treated to one poem each from those included, yet there is still plenty to digest and whet the appetite for further reading. Pauline Berwick‘s Scan, which opens the collection, captures you right away, with its invocations of medical ailments leading into a made-up song to fight against the fright of an MRI scan, the machine reimagines as a ‘spaceship throne’. It’s refreshing to see a poet behold her fear and fragility when facing death, rather than a masculine rage against dying lights.

The theme is echoed in Jane Clarke‘s Copper Soles (retelling an old Finnish story, and then an unexpected turn) and Moyra Donaldson‘s Iceland, a blood fissure from a stroke compared to continental rifts and the odd transience of glaciers. Lisa C. Taylor‘s poem Ferry Crossing at Inishmore opens with the line “Nothing remains rooted for long”, and whether in nature or in the span of human existence, you can’t help but agree.

Distance by Sarah Clancy expertly weaves pastoral imagery with a sinister undertone, searching for identity and self-recognition, which could equally serve as a lament and a battle-cry for the oppressed:

+++in the evening glowlight
+++childhoods wane
+++and on just this type
+++of seeplight summer night
+++pale adolescence tangles
+++in our breath and we
+++are neither here nor there

Given the context of the collection, certain lines are given extra resonance when we remember how women voices have been suppressed or forgotten in Ireland. For example, Clodagh Brennan Harvey‘s Shedding  “a frantic, | instinctual clawing out | towards new air”; Aoife Casby‘s  I Want:  “we have no history | but ourselves”; Annie Deppe‘s And When the Red Wine From Minervois: “I will try and find the right words to say | what has never been said.”; Mary O’Donnell‘s On Reading My Mother’s Sorrow Diary: “while even in grief she edited herself.”; Geraldine O’Kane‘s Then We Were Four: “Some day we will all be gods.”

Few of the poems collected here lack the first-person voice, the ‘I’ of the speaker, perhaps testament to an overall voice of reclamation and assertion. When Phyl Herbert writes “I want to dance to the tune of sex | have babies and catch up with myself”, it is an equipoise of embracing and defiance of womanhood. Similarly, Anne Le Marquand Hartigan‘s statement “Six times this womb has filled. | It is enough.” could be read as one full of familial contentment, but also one tired of familial expectation.

Elsewhere, themes such as old age, sex, daily work, nature, family, relationships, art, death and home are scattered throughout. There is little of the angry political polemic that the ignorant might accuse feminism to be concerned with. Instead, poetry is simple entrusted to get the message across, without slipping into soapbox diatribe.  Ruth Carr gives testimony to two female figures that have come before, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Ann McCracken, in her poem Birch and Haw Tree; Colette Ní Ghallchóir defies “disapproving eyes” and “backstabbing gossips”; Nessa O’Mahony highlighting the importance of the arts in “these post-factual days”; and Mamo McDonald revelling in the beauty and freedom of old age:

+++I have not done it yet.
+++But some night soon
+++I will hop into bed, like Marilyn,
+++wearing only Chanel No. 5,
+++and my panic button
+++– just in case.

Alan Hayes’s introduction perhaps focuses too much on the legacy of Boland, rather than the poets within, although it is worth remembered than the anthlogy was launched alongside Eavan Boland: Inside History, a critical and creative responses. At the Belfast launch, Hayes announced that three Northern Irish poets featured in the anthology – Ruth Carr, Maria McManus, and Maureen Boyle – will be having new collections with Arlen House in the autumn.

The book ends with four poems listed as ‘Reclaimed Voices’, serving as a preview to upcoming Collected Poems by past Irish women poets Mary Barber, Laetitia Pilkington, Constantia Grierson and Eva Gore-Booth. Any admirer of Irish literature must also admire Arlen House’s dedication to promote women voices from this island, and Washing Windows? is a fine testament to the dedication that they have shown over the years.

Washing Windows is available from the Book Depository, Kennys, Amazon and elsewhere.

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