Among Amanda Bell’s concerns in her latest collection is the environment. However, the poet doesn’t preach, preferring instead to celebrate nature and the elements as well as referencing an iconic artwork that is corralled to convey fear and anguish.
In ‘Sea, My Love’, the power of the ocean and the joy it brought to the narrator is recalled from childhood days at the seaside. “The rollers that we surfed!/The way my father stood/with arms outstretched, to hold you back /tide foaming in his wake.”
While the memory is sweet, the poem manages to both depict the father as protective, while acknowledging the power of the sea when the poet writes about the day it almost claimed her.
However, switching to the present, what really irks is the state of the sea, which has been spoilt by waste. Continuing to address the sea directly, the narrator is “shamed by your tangled freight,/adrift,/adrift,/adrift.”
Bell sometimes writes about real events, drawing on the essence of stories that made the news in a concise and memorable way. ‘Bedtime Story’ is about the two West of Ireland paddleboarding cousins rescued after 15 hours at sea in August 2020. Although there was a happy ending, it could have gone the other way, with the dark turning thick and the swell of the sea ever-threatening.
‘The Scream’ references Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting, which has been described as a howl expressing the human condition. It could also be about ecological disaster. In Bell’s poem, there is a sense of a person in motion in a hostile world: “There will be no sunset/yet you trudge past grey-shaped sculptures/through packed snow.”
In ‘The New Scream’, Bell refers to the murder of 77 students at a summer camp on a Norwegian island in 2017. It suggests a horror that Munch’s dark vision may only have imagined.
Another visual artist with a bleak outlook is referred to in David Butler’s collection. In ‘Adam and Eve’s’, Butler writes: “Goya would know them — the gap-toothed,/mouths rotted by methadone and a hunger/sharper than birth-pangs.”
This downbeat, depressing, but well-described poem about addiction is part of Butler’s city. The poet is clearly not stymied by a romantic vision of Dublin to which some poets fall prey. In ‘New Year’s Eve’, Butler writes about a city that has no time for the old.
“Fire up the engines of commerce,/throw out the throttle full!/Slowly the old ways are choking/Ring out the old!”
But what has replaced the old? From the perspective of the poetic voice, there is nothing to celebrate. “The city’s an open asylum,/islands clogged with tents./The open doors are closing/Ring out the old!”
Certainly, on reading ‘Dockers, 1930’, getting rid of the old is justified. Using sharp flinty language, Butler writes of the donkey-jacket-clad men from the tenements who turn up in the early morning to see if there is any work available.
This is a strongly visual poem. The labourers, with their “calloused hands”, have hacking coughs causing “black-flecked phlegm”. As the day progresses, they are “begrimed in pantomime blackface”. Drink beckons. “They emerge to carry their thirst like a wage and pay out/the bitter tithe — the match-boxed shilling/that buys the wink and nod./It’s that or starve.”
Butler’s concerns include social exclusion, dispossession, and homelessness. In ‘Maritime History,’ he writes of coffin-ships “in whose wake/the throats of our harbours closed.”
These two collections are confidently executed, with Bell’s geographical reach the broader. But geography doesn’t matter when the themes are universal and the language precise.
- Riptide by Amanda Bell: Doire Press, €12
- Liffey Sequence by David Butler: Doire Press, €13