Amy Key, Isn’t Forever (Bloodaxe, 2018, £9.95)
Ailbhe Darcy, Insistence (Bloodaxe, 2018, £9.95)
Reading Isn’t Forever calls to mind the films of Agnès Varda: the poems have the same lingering sensuality and capacity for emotional eruption. ‘If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches’: Varda’s line could be Key’s, who writes, ‘your head /was intended /for underwater /was intended /for sky gazing /for the partial sea within’. Other bodies of water ripple through the book, in lakes, bathrooms and salons, yet always the sea returns: it’s the shoreline with its distinct yet muddled parts of the whole that acts as the pivotal image, where Key’s women tenderly gesture towards their pain: ‘Shame escapes like the white of a wave /frilly and loud on the shore. /It returns.’ While there is a playfulness also reminiscent of Varda’s, these moments can collapse so quickly and with such little warning that they make for breathless reading—a simultaneous punch in the gut and whipped out rug. As in this cooking scene preparing a pineapple:
I chopped off its crown
and, for a moment, wore it as a hat.
How can I live my life when even a radish
transforms into a trinket of grief?
Key’s women are preoccupied with their loneliness; with mothers (and not being one); with plants and cats; pebbles and limpets; flannels: cool or hot as needed; bizarre contemporary rituals (i.e., on silent retreat). ‘Deceit is its own discipline’ here; Isn’t Forever is a masquerade where ‘the boundaries between self-sabotage /and self-nourish have never been murkier’. Throughout, a parade of voices feigns celebration of trivial achievements while despair simmers, as in ‘Announcement and next steps’:
I am delighted to declare
I found the back to the earring, also the
mildew is banished,
albeit temporarily. I want to share this news
a check against the inventory of living.
necklaces point to living. Customisable
anything suggests it’s all
These pretences grow into myriad exercises in (self-)deception. Three centos seem to epitomise the project: Key fashions the words of designers Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Coco Chanel into garments her poetic I slips on, twirling around in the dressing room mirrors. As famous for the undersides of their lives as their work, by donning their masks Key crafts a critique of the pressurised separation of public and private selves, which applies not only to celebrities, but chimes in with experiences of the looked-at woman:
It is not modern
to suffer – bliss is quite traumatic. Love is a
with a deadly meaning. Myself, my ego, we
what we’re striving for, my personal
These costumes are a ‘terrible joy, a heaven of tranquilisers’, but ‘my face is always slipping off my face’, and this feels like a sort of trick-confessional poetry that does in the end come back around to shine a light on one central character’s genuine feeling. The woman is alone, lonely, is ‘stalked by motherhood’, by regret: ‘I lay in the bath with the water gone blue /like twilight milk. One by one my days slunk /into categories I could not alter.’
Isn’t Forever is delightful and deceptive. Its speakers are teetering on edges: of the land, of social expectations and self-acceptance, beauty standards, happiness, even life. The trauma of living as a woman, in an objectified, judged body, pervades everything. But Key’s women are warriors, layering masks until they become armour, completely opaque and protecting: ‘I am interested in scenes where the sky & sea resemble one another /Tell me where the sea ends & the sky begins Ha! You cannot’.
Alibhe Darcy’s Insistence is wrought with irreconcilable detachment: like someone trying to speak through thick glass—the glass is cold; steamy breath quickly freezes. The book opens with twentieth century landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, as a baby in his pram: ‘newly arrived on this earth, the sky must seem a miracle’. The miracle of life, blessing or curse, announces itself as axis. ‘Your father and I have begun /a new generation, admitted we didn’t have the wits, the brawn’, Darcy writes. ‘an adult’s hand— stern as a wristwatch— holding /a child in time—’ keeps the child safe, but later, ‘It occurs to me you might have hurt him /holding on so tight— stilling a child /who meant only to be moving— ’ Similar turns mire lifeforms that would signify longevity: knotweed, cockroaches, mushrooms, jellyfish and their seas: all succumb to pollution, to deaths. ‘in our time, the weather has changed, and the meaning /of weather’: ecological doom shades any joy, and beckons further, towards the horror of the helplessness of the individual. In ‘Jellyfish’, children playing on the shore discover those creatures, dead and dried:
your child moves with a shovel
to sling them back into the
Once you saw a photograph
of a child—
on a beach—
so did everybody
The long poem that ends the book, ‘Alphabet’, is after Inger Christensen’s 1981 book of the same name—an abecedarium that follows the Fibonacci sequence, opening: ‘apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist’. Darcy’s version alters ‘exist’ to ‘insist’, diving into the overwhelming negatives of our world: ‘brand-names insist; and battlefields, battlefields; /bombs still insist; and blackface, and blackface’. Where Christensen examines the impossibility of love and beauty in the wake of Hiroshima and related atrocities, Darcy’s reflections on climate change swelling in tandem with ‘the jointed boy incubating in my belly’ are possibly even more chilling; everything is insidious, from ‘death squads’ to ‘daffodil hybrids’.
Though the book’s blurb proffers hope, it’s the sad futility of a young mother’s dreams that seems to carry the core feeling, so that ‘I reject the ice cap’s insistence’ and instead, in attempted protection of the child’s innocence but in self-aware denial:
on the ice in his eyes, the light in his irises;
Icarus-child spoiling like milk
in the glut of my insistence,
eat ice cream, pull the legs off insects,
strum instruments, ink intensely;
The poem is all beauty—its rhythms and assonances and alliterations are all beauty; in so many ways it is a joy to read. Sheer abundance proliferates: ‘every /possibility insists, each future history’ rolls one image into the next. But this is ‘flocking insistence, /shrieking insistence’, hurtling towards a dark irony: a future in which the child is grown, left alone, dying hot and hungry in a world lacking resources. A poignant wrangling with the impossibility of bringing new life into this world fearlessly, Insistence also celebrates the triumph of joy in the face of those fears. Any hope in the book is in the now, ‘taking in time and making a nest; okay, /taking in love’: in the monumental attempt to focus, and keep the overwhelming world at bay.