I read a lot of poetry last Autumn, mostly with the idea of writing this review on Irish poetry published in 2023. I began in the US, where I was experiencing the specific solitude of archival research. Plonked in a new city for a finite time period (too long for a holiday, too short to count as actually living somewhere), you can feel weirdly disconnected from your own life. I was there to research the Poet’s Theatre, an experimental theatre for verse drama, active in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1950s and 1960s. Every day inside the library I read letters, memos, stage directions, and meeting minutes, written by unknown hands in another historical universe. Outside, my attention was far away: in Dublin, a person I loved was dying. Further away still, many, many more people were, and still are, being murdered in Gaza while I watched from my phone. All these bodies that were not with me, but, in horrifically disparate ways, felt close. Of the poetry books I read during that time, and on my return to Dublin and then Glasgow, the following are my favourite. They are very different, but they speak to me, and to each other, about the relationship between words and the bodies that speak and write them; and about the distances that language succeeds and fails to close or cross.

vanishing point., Kimberly Reyes

Omnidawn Publishing | April 2023

In the poem ‘Ascension’, published in the first section of Kimberly Reyes’ second collection vanishing point., a patient receiving cancer treatment is required to fill out ‘exacting’ boxes in a medical form:

Really, now?
| Latino (not Black)|
|Black (not Hispanic)|

The speaker dissociates—‘You memorize stucco / on the ceiling, keep from blinking’—during the ensuing procedure, which is painful and invasive in ways that are intimately personal and also exemplify the wider systemic and structural curtailment of Black life. The encounter epitomises one of the collection’s central and most gracefully explored subjects: the intrusion of centuries of anti-Black violence onto the Black body in the present. Reyes, a Black Nuyorican writer, came to Cork in 2019 on a Fulbright scholarship, during which she wrote many of the poems in this collection. It is sectioned into three parts that span ‘The Coasts’ (set mostly in California and New York), ‘The Atlantic’, and ‘Ireland’. A hybrid, multifaceted text that includes images, footnotes, and QR codes linking to film poems, it interrogates the shifting relationships between these locations and identity markers and the people who live them. ‘There is no escaping’, ‘Ascension’ concludes


Many of the bodies in vanishing point. emerge as ciphers or 2D stand-ins for this colonial history. Take, for example, the pitch-black silhouette of the servant Jupiter in Harry Clarke’s illustration of ‘The Gold Bug’ by Edgar Allan Poe (reproduced in the collection), or the crows, ravens, magpies, and blackbirds that flutter around the poems in the ‘Ireland’ section, which opens with a caution from Jamaica Kincaid: ‘Don’t throw stones at blackbirds, / because it might not be a blackbird at all’. Reyes regularly uses contrasting shades of ink so that some words appear far fainter than others as if casting less of a shadow on the page. Two of the poems are written ‘after Kara Walker’, and the figures in these poems speak to Walker’s brilliant tableaus, cut from black paper in the style of 19th-century silhouettes, and enacting surreal, gruesome, and often harrowing scenes from African and African American history. These bodies become both more and less than individual subjects: flat, contourless, and yet overdetermined. They are placeholders for a history of violence, and for the murderous, insidious structural racism that is its present-day aftermath; they stand in, too, for loss, and the erasure of ancestral heritage that is central to African-American experience; and they nod to the West’s racist association of darkness with evil and light with virtue (a logic recently espoused by Benjamin Netanyahu’s characterization of Israel’s genocidal campaign on Gaza as ‘a struggle between the children of the light and the children of darkness’).

As well as Walker’s cut-outs, Reyes’ shadows remind me of the figures in Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry, especially ‘Day after Day of the Dead’ (perhaps simply because it is so often in my head). In this poem, a troupe of people emerge, blinking, from a carnivalesque event ‘Happy to have sun at our / backs, way led by shadow, / happy to have bodies, block / light…’ I read Reyes’ shadows as a kind of negative image of the troupe in Mackey’s poem. Mackey’s figures are in the aftermath of the same catastrophic history as those in Walker’s silhouettes, but the focus here is less on the events themselves and more on a disbelieving relief of having survived at all—of still being able to exist and take pleasure in the world in spite of everything. There are moments like this in vanishing point. too, such as in ‘Last & Original of Her Species’ when the speaker notes: ‘I am surprised / at how buoyant my body can be.’ The collection swings between these two poles: despair at the devastation of history, and hope for the possibility of something else in the future.

It’s hard to say which of these poles the book is closest to by the end, but then vanishing point. is an assured experiment in disorientation­­. It’s not a matter of getting lost, exactly, but about losing your bearings, straying from a linear route between two points into something more shadowy, even unmappable. The collection is an exercise in trying to locate oneself, as an individual, in relation to a history of violence that connects multiple points on the globe. For one thing, it’s hard to say who the intended audience of the book is—what direction it’s facing. Published by a California-based press, one could imagine it was intended for a US audience, and sometimes the level of descriptive information might seem unnecessary to an Irish reader, even feeling as if the book is specifically speaking to a North American version of Ireland. Take, for example, the explanation that ‘Cobh, County Cork was Ireland’s largest port of departure for emigration to America (and to penal colonies in Australia, as U2’s “Van Diemen’s Land” memorializes).’ The aptly named ‘upon the realization that I don’t have a natural habitat’ glosses ‘Irish’ as ‘[Gaeilge in Standard Irish], sometimes known as Irish Gaelic’; which is obvious, unnecessary, if the reader is coming from an Irish standpoint. Later in the poem, though, this orientation becomes more complicated, when the word ‘Latinx’, which is widely used in the States, is also explained, and in other poems, Irish words appear without translation.

The complex positioning runs deeper. The book moves eastwards, in one sense: its three parts map onto the US, the Atlantic, and Cork. The semblance of linear progression is undermined, though, by the histories of colonialism, slavery, and migration that link these places to each other, and to West Africa, in intractable ways. The speaker of these poems, like Reyes, has Irish heritage, but it’s not the kind of ancestral history promoted by Bord Fáilte: her mother’s maiden name is from Connacht, indicating her descendance from Irish American slaveholders. How, then, should she orient herself in Cork, a city that grew rich selling provisions to colonies in the Caribbean?

Before ‘Part 1’ there is a ‘Preamble’ that includes a quotation from Frederick Douglass describing with enthusiasm his first visit to Ireland—a trip that is, as Reyes later notes, still widely celebrated in Ireland as a sign of our historical support of the African American cause. Reyes’ carefully positioned line breaks draw out the ambivalence in Douglass’s words. In this country, he writes, he stands ‘on equal terms with people / as white as any / I ever saw in the United States’. He hails a cab and is ‘seated / beside white people / […] I dine at the same table—and no one is offended. No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence.’ The bar is very, very low, this poem suggests, if we are congratulating ourselves on the fact that someone could walk into a crowd of white people without them literally turning up their noses. Besides, Douglass’s welcome does not erase the nation’s ties to other enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans—such as the hotel in Cobh that, as described in a footnote in the following poem, was rumoured to be haunted by the ghosts of those drowned at sea, including that of ‘a “blue” child said to be heard screaming on its upper floors.’ Nor, for that matter, does Douglass’s welcome cancel out that of the descendants of enslaved people. After Douglass’s letter, the speaker describes her own first visit to Ireland as a teenager:

When the ferry docked we walked past locals, some Travelers, eager for strangers, fresh squeak & coin. A blonde child, face covered in soot (just the way Frank McCourt described!), eyes wide & eager-blue screamed with her heart & pointer finger: “Blackie!” My classmates cowered, I laughed, exhausted by what we didn’t yet know of land, ladders, & scales.

I have read this sequence over and over, and it reads differently each time. A young American encounters Irish people who remind her of the poverty-stricken, oppressed Ireland she has read about, only to be racially abused by them. Once I read the racial slur at the end of the passage, the soot on the child’s face (an image familiar to the speaker from Angela’s Ashes) stops working as a marker of oppression and poverty, and becomes a kind of blackface. That this child is one of a group of Travellers makes this encounter all the more fraught, and touches on the complexities and limits of solidarity in a (post)colonial context: the description of the group as ‘eager for strangers, fresh squeak & coin’ pushes close to damaging stereotypes about Travellers as untrustworthy grifters. It is as if everyone in the encounter can only see each other through the shadows of centuries of colonial oppression, and the ‘boxes’ that this history puts them in.

‘An é Éireannach ata ionat?’ addresses these shared legacies of colonialism directly and perhaps more elegantly. Positioned near the end of the book, it brings together the distinct but interrelated histories of chattel slavery, structural racism, famine, and institutional abuse, and nods to Ireland’s recent rebranding as a socially progressive country in the light of its momentous gay marriage and abortion referendums: ‘aren’t we / beyond pride’, the poem asks, ‘forcibly wrung out // under chains & / labor laundries’. ‘of course, I’ve / the hunger in me’, it continues, succinctly sifting out common ground between these contexts: ‘generations of premature / goodbyes, calamity.’ The poems don’t plot a clear route through the shared histories, but they do map specific points of contact between them, felt in the body, in the present.

Woman of Winter by Vona Groarke

The Gallery Press | September 2023

There have been several translations of The Lament of the Hag of Beare, an Old Irish poem that dates from about the ninth century, although the translations work from written manuscripts transcribed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This magnificent, melancholy poem, author unknown, casts the mythical Cailleach, goddess of Winter, as a woman at the ebb tide of her life. As well as lamenting her physical decline, the woman reminisces about the decadent, sexy life she led when she was young and beautiful—drinking, horse-riding, fucking kings, princes, and noblemen—and anticipates a final resting place with Jesus. As Vona Groarke explains in the introduction, Woman of Winter is not a straightforward translation (if such a thing could exist). Written while Groarke was on a residency at St John’s College, Cambridge, this is, rather, ‘a new poem in contemporary English’, a ‘free version’.

Some of the most arresting parts are when the writing seems to free itself, coming unstuck from the blueprint of the original. The first time I notice this is on the third page, where two quatrains from the original become three. In Gerard Murphy’s quite literal academic translation, the lines read:

The Stone of the Kings in Feimen,
Rónán’s Dwelling in Bregun,
it is long since storms (first) reached their cheeks;
but they are not old and withered

The wave of the great sea is noisy;
winter has begun to raise it:
neither nobleman nor slave’s son
do I expect on a visit to-day

Groarke’s version in Woman of Winter includes a run-on sentence that breaks from the self-contained stanzas before it; each of the previous stanzas offered its own discrete idea or observation and ended in a full stop.

Mind you, Rónán’s fort in Bregon
is not looking good lately. The wind
with its mallet and pike has been in
and no good came of the visit.

But still I’d say it holds its own,
keeps the nub of a fort tight within it.
Which is more than I can say for myself
with my womanhood wrung out of me

the way winter wrings from the sea
high waves it will raise up and let fall
and let fall again, so hard and fast no boat,
big or small, could come safely in.

The unexpected lack of punctuation, between the second and third stanzas quoted here, brings a sense of loosening, or overflow. There is something here that—unlike the tightly defended fort—spills into disorder as the speaker turns attention to ‘myself’. The poem strays much more dramatically from the original in other parts, but this is a good example of its intermittent momentum; in the third stanza, repetition and internal rhyming build pace, which then subsides again, according to the movement of the speaker’s thoughts.

I would describe the poem’s general conceptual, or emotional, loosening as the shedding of constraint, or the slow disintegration of a structure that once held fast. This is a large part of why the poem does indeed feel ‘contemporary’. Woman of Winter is, among other things, a meditation on secularity, and the possibility of finding meaning in the vacuum left by the departure of religious belief. Though the speaker recognises her longing for reassurance about life after death (‘what wouldn’t I give / to be safe and sound / to be rowed in a silver boat / across to a golden shore?’), she dismisses this as a ‘veil’ that shrouds the physical world. Even language itself seems to get in the way of communion with her physical experience: she rebuffs the ‘bragging and clamour, airy as plains / we’d ride over once, wind in our mouths, / no big talk stoppering us’.

Though the woman feels ‘no glimmer of the only love I’m told I ought to be eyeing, at my age’, this absence of faith does not necessarily mean despair. Rather than presenting the poem as an outright lament, Groarke has teased out the ambivalence in her situation. ‘Do I mind?’, the woman asks, and ‘what of it?’; she sounds unsure as to whether she really misses her old life or not. There is loss and loneliness here, but there is also newfound clarity, and a certain sensual pleasure in becoming closer and more in sync with her physical surroundings in a way that seems possible only now that her lovers have gone, and with them their ‘big talk’:

Have I love in me, if there were call?
Who would dare to ask? But what else
do I carry out to the headland
to fling into a wind

that won’t refuse me
but will turn my silt and dust
every which way, so a fleck of sun
can still make much of me.

As well as its Old Irish source text, Woman of Winter also seems to reinterpret the early work of Wallace Stevens, a poet of secularity, ambivalence, and sensuous pleasure in the natural world if ever there was one. Perhaps most significantly, it riffs on Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, which Groarke has already explored in a poem of the same name. In ‘Sunday Morning’, a woman rejects religion in favour of the ‘comforts of the sun’ or ‘any balm or beauty of the earth’. I hear in the woman of Beare’s rhetorical questions an echo of this earlier speaker’s introspection: ‘When the birds are gone’, asks the woman in ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’ If Groarke’s Woman of Winter brings a secular ambivalence to her main source text, The Lament of the Hag of Beare, it brings an interest in other people to Stevens’ empty landscapes. Many, including myself, find it difficult to find traces of the social in the work of Stevens, a poet whom Terrence Hayes described (in wonderful riposte to his well-documented racism) as ‘snowed-in’, with ‘pipes of winter / lining his cognition’. Whereas the speaker in ‘Sunday Morning’ misses feeling assured of an afterlife (‘But in contentment I still feel some longing for imperishable bliss’) in contrast, the old woman of Beare misses other people, other bodies: ‘sometimes, low hours, still I feel my mother’s kiss on my forehead, my father’s hand on my hand’. The clear-eyed secularity of Woman of Winter is more collectively-minded, and it hints, perhaps, at the social and historical conditions that have made the shedding of institutional religion such an important phenomenon in contemporary Ireland.

And all my children who never lived
call for me when the wind is up
to sing them softly back to sleep
from which there is no calling.


Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel by Ellen Dillon

HVTN Press | May 2023

Like Woman of Winter, Ellen Dillon’s Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel describes a body that is slowly giving up. Taking its name from a Townes Van Zandt song, the book is a kind of concept album, starring a woman in a hospital bed, the ventilator keeping her alive, her memories of life before she was ill, and the songs of Van Zandt and snippets of poetry from Fanny Howe, Sinead O’Connor, and Jack Spicer that float into her head. This constellation constitutes a lyric speaker in the process of dissolving into plurality—no longer an ‘I’ but a ‘we’. ‘It’s hard’, we are told,

                                                  to break
many lifetimes habit of thinking in the
singular. Our prayer begins in machinic
pulses. The body piece of us is acted on
by the machine piece, and gases are set
in motion. Oxygen is moved through
passive alveoli. Thoughts bubble up,
shaping themselves into word clusters
part of us that no voice can speak. Inside
our body, they clump and disperse. We
both follow and are their motion.

Here, the distinction between animacy and inanimacy has broken down into something more granular that encompasses an agile, bedbound mind as well as the physical circumstances that make this mind possible. There are several parts of this carousel that ‘no voice can speak’.

It’s a pleasure to sink into the world of this strange, vibrant, and often very funny ‘we’. It’s harder to write about it without making the work sound highly abstract or gimmicky—or like the ‘bullshit propagated by the / debate club boys’ with whom the speaker remembers arguing about metaphor, truth, and the mind-body problem. In fact, the book is far from conceptually overburdened; it wears its ideas lightly. Dillon, based in Limerick, is a secondary school teacher: like the best teachers, these poems are both lively and generous with their intellectual richness; they lead the reader along by way of a series of formal choices that present conceptual problems as simple or self-evident. Part ii, ‘Analemma’, includes a series of small diagrammatic poems that, we are told, appear unbidden in this mind’s eye, growing from the petri dish of the speaker’s bedridden confinement. They each make up two conjoined oval shapes, with words from the upper loop repeated in reverse in the lower. Interspersed between them are blockier prose poems that provide a probing commentary on the figures. The first poem in the section gives a specific material context for the shape. Spoken from the perspective of the ventilator (‘LEGENDAIR XL2’ to call it by its name), it describes the merging of woman and machine as air flows back and forth between the two:

                                                 the ragged
knot of your own breathing melts/ my
rhythms meld with yours/ we become/
not one/ not two/ but the infinite loop of
the sideways figure of eight

In this context, the gentle reversal of the words, going back the way they came even as they float further down the page, has the steady, continuous rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. The link between consciousness (or experience? awareness? None of these words feels quite right.) and the material and biological conditions it relies on becomes somehow more immediate.

Here is the first figure of eight:



          nothing                                         as

linkings                                                      explain

           matter                                       mean



            mean                                    matter

explain                                                   linkings

              as                                          nothing



‘Is this an instruction?’, the speaker asks, just after the above poem. ‘Are these words / telling me to abstract nothing, to take / nothing out of the context it depends on for life?’ It’s a simple technique, and I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like it. In a very singular way, it makes me feel as though I am privy to the workings of another mind that is trying to decipher the poems alongside my own. It presents a portrait of thinking itself, getting at the strange feeling of having words, memories, or sensations come into one’s awareness, apparently from elsewhere. (Scholar and poet Fred Moten, who makes an appearance in the carousel, might call this ‘the supplement of description that allows description’.) A few pages later, the voice declares:

If I have become an audience
for these words, and they are meaning in
me, I have or am a mind. That is some-
thing. That definitely is something.

It feels as though, by reading the poems, I am also ‘an audience / for these words’ and for this lyric subject as it ponders its own existence. Stranger still, it has the effect of making me feel as though I am reading this lyric subject into being.

Being an audience to experience (one’s own or someone else’s) is central to the politics of this book. The poems make a monumental effort to bear witness to the singleness of experience, knowing full well that this specificity is exactly what can’t be communicated in language; it must be at least slightly abstract if anyone else is to understand it—that’s what language is. What the poems do communicate is the ‘linkings’ that connect these particulars, which could be called ‘we’ or ‘consciousness’, or a movement ‘between particles’, to quote the book’s final section. These poems are grounded in a singularity of time and place: the nurse chatting about the hurling; the sleep that the woman can’t rub from the corners of her eyelids; the memories of following ‘Townes’ up the stairs of a hotel in Tipperary, of seeing him play in Whelan’s, of looking out at a graveyard from the eaves of an institutional home in Cork, of walking along the Shannon

where we were so riled up by a story
we’d read on the front page, a chain of
abuse so heinous readers were warned to
brace themselves.

‘An / inquiry was being set up’, the speaker remembers later about the same walk along the Shannon having read, one gathers, about revelations of the deaths of hundreds of children at the site of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, or about the ensuing Commission that was established.

‘Words’, these poems suggest, are insinuated in the distribution of blame for this ‘chain / of abuse’. They can absolve the powerful, ‘weasel them out of their / responsibilities.’ ‘Mistakes will have been made’, the speaker thinks

                              We will all have been to
blame, all of us who walked the grass
breathed the air at that time, while small
ones were brutalised, and backs were

‘Who turned those backs?’ she asks, as her own back is literally turned for her, twice a day in her hospital bed, to prevent pressure sores. ‘People write and speak / words that sever subject from action.’ Just as it did for the speaker in Reyes’ ‘Ascension’, language has had a specific role to play in the ways that these repeated historical acts of misogyny, classism, and institutional violence have left what Sara Ahmed would call ‘an impression’ on the way this consciousness, this body coded female in twentieth-century Ireland, experiences the present. The process of co-mingling, breakdown, and interplay between a ‘self’ and its material surroundings has counterparts in Flann O’Brien’s atomic theory and Daisy Lafarge’s microbiology. It also reminds me of Ahmed’s concept of ‘sticky’ emotions that rub off on objects over time, leaving a lasting mark on the bodies that feel them—are often made to feel them by power structures that constrain them. Take, for example, the emotions generated by an unplanned pregnancy: ‘the fear that settled in our, my, this chest when the bleeding stopped for good has never shifted. It is one of us now, though its source has left us, and we’re fully emptied out.

In the final section, we are told that ‘Particles’ was a townland in County Limerick. Although it has largely disappeared now, ‘little bits of cottages still line the roads’. In this carousel, particles of thoughts, sensations, memories float together and coagulate, like the fluid in an eyeball that clumps together to cast a shadow on the retina and alter the vision. The book is an audience to the ‘little bits’ that make up a life lived in spite of, though undeniably shaped by, the pressures of an oppressively patriarchal Catholic state. That definitely is something.

It Reeks of Radio, Christodoulos Makris

BLR Editions | September 2023

The fact that Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel made such an impression on me was partly because in the days prior to reading it I’d been sitting with a loved one in an Irish hospice run by a religious order (and occasionally playing her country music). The coincidence of similar circumstance aside, though, sometimes poems just do that: it feels as if something in them knows something in us—as if they were reading us, rather than the other way around. What is this intimacy? By whom, or what, are we suddenly interpolated? What’s so weird and brilliant about it is that it didn’t feel like Ellen Dillon herself was speaking to me; rather, the words she had chosen combined with the ways that I’d read those words before to create a moment of recognition. I think it’s close to what Peter Riley has called the tension, in lyric poetry, between ‘what the author determines and what “arrives” out of the historical substance of poetry’. I often think of a friend’s description of the elation of being taken by surprise when a song you love and had forgotten about comes on the radio; poetry can be a bit like that. In a passage that appears in Dillon’s Carousel, Jack Spicer describes the poet as a radio, receiving and relaying signals from ‘Outside’. A poem, by this measure, comes from somewhere else; it is nothing personal—or, at least, nothing private.

Dublin-based documentary poet Christodoulos Makris has been refuting the idea that poetry comes from a place of private interiority for several collections now. In this is no longer entertainment (2019) and Contemporaneous Brand Strategy Document (2023) he appropriated the language of social media, online comments sections, and other online found text to form a very twenty-first-century critique of the late-capitalist culture of individuality. It Reeks of Radio, instead, is made entirely from written correspondence related to pre-1980s RTÉ broadcasts, the station’s archive providing ample material for a comparable exploration of authorship, voice, presence, personhood, and the weird always-already-shared quality of language.

The notion that poetry should, or could, provide insight into a private interiority is exemplified in John Stuart Mill’s famous definition of poetry as ‘utterance overheard’. In certain traditions, this is understood as the measure of whether a poem is good, or successful—whether a poem ‘works’. Of course, it takes careful craft to create an impression of spontaneous ‘overheard’ authenticity. This is what eighteenth-century Irish poet Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin was getting at in ‘A Shéamais, déan dom’, for example, when he asked his blacksmith friend to make him an instrument ‘tarraingthe gan rian buille ar bith’ (translated by Séamus Heaney as ‘No trace of the hammer to show on the sheen of the blade’). It Reeks of Radio very knowingly rejects this sleek stylising. The text (which I’ve read as one long poem) has a loose, fragmentary style that doesn’t come together to create the illusion of an individual subject behind or beneath it, ‘talking’ (as one rather patronizing passage advises scriptwriters) ‘as / if one were present in a house, among friends.’ It includes many arch reflections on its method of composition. ‘what do you mean’, begins a page towards the beginning of the collection, ‘by asking whether the / extract is any good it’s grand’.

What is lost, It Reeks of Radio asks, when we tune out the interference, the strangeness of words, the formal experimentation that makes poetry so strange and compelling? What assumptions are we making about the relationship between language and those that speak it when we value a poem for its capacity to create the impression of being spoken to by a specific, individual ‘someone’? Of course, a lot of lyric poetry self-consciously experiments with the strange push-and-pull between the illusion of interiority and language’s impersonal ‘Outside’ quality. Makris, instead, refuses the work of creating a lyric subject at all.

Reading these stylistic choices as anti-work feels appropriate for a book that has been pieced together from text written by workers. It is made up of extracts from notes and letters from programmers, producers, and scriptwriters, written mostly in the oddly featureless tone of professional correspondence. Writing poetry, on the other hand, rarely fits into the parameters of what is valued as ‘work’. One of the very first passages features a writer who needs to remind their interlocutor that:

in case there might have been any
I am dependent for my livelihood on my

There is little by way of section breaks, titles, or other signposts here, and the cumulative effect of the continuous barrage of these workplace memos is an anaesthetic, almost mechanical reading experience. If there is a kind of presence in these poems, it is a bland, impersonal, even imperious force. Often it is expressed in the first person plural—‘we / doubt listeners would understand the complicated / story’—but it is nothing like the ‘we’ at the centre of Dillon’s Carousel. Rather, this one is detached, bureaucratic. When used, it allows its writer to abdicate responsibility to the larger, impersonal body that they are working for. It is, in other words, the ‘we’ of the institution, and it starts to feel a bit sinister, creepily suggestive of conservatism, censorship, and control. It is thus more comparable to the passive voice that Dillon’s speaker criticised in relation to the State’s narrative about Mother and Baby Homes, the words that ‘weasel them out of their / responsibilities’.

There are comments on gender politics and misogyny in mid-century Ireland in this book, too. Some are amusing, some depressing, all are very self-aware. ‘hardworking women’, writes one correspondent,

are about the
very last people who put pen to paper
and make a complaint
on their behalf
and on behalf of my female relatives
friends and neighbours I wish to make a

More compelling, in my opinion, are the ways that this ‘we’ is seen to police the individual radio workers, controlling their freedom of expression in the interest of maintaining so-called neutrality:

we had a little trouble about a
broadcast on Spain seems to have offended some
Spaniards it was a bit anti-Franco you I am sure
will redress the balance

Makris, an experimental documentarian, presents disturbing implications for documentary work that seeks to remain detached from the events it is relaying. In this setting, world events are oddly irrelevant, or understood solely in terms of their broadcasting value—‘disasters / in themselves / do not make for programmes’—and efforts to say anything that strays from the illusion of bland, bipartisan neutrality are curtailed:

the interpolation you
have made might be better left out

This a wry, funny book. It’s also, despite the workplace chatter, one that feels remarkably lonely. Amid the dross of professional speak, communication is limited. Even with all these words, we have very little insight into the people who wrote them—not just ‘how people looked dressed talked ate drank / made love and carried on the business’, as one letter, advising a scriptwriter, puts it, but a sense of these letter-authors as beings that exist in a social world beyond the words they wrote. There is a sense throughout of missed connections, alienation, meanings lost in transmission. ‘something very worrying has happened’, we are told on one page,

which cannot be
absolutely proved (even if true)

            not only legally
            but in other ways

Occasional passages hit a desperate, pleading tone, hinting at some other message trying to get through the faceless institutional language. It’s almost alarming to read lines like

I need you badly, very badly.

Please, please do

My reading of It Reeks of Radio has no doubt been influenced by where and when I read it, but I hear in the book’s sly, knowing tone a deeper dissatisfaction with the impossibility, and the urgency, of using language to speak to someone directly, in such a way that they will understand what it’s like to be you, to be alive in your particular body and at your particular moment in history; and to escape the trap of the private into something shared. Words never go the whole way to this impossible shared space. As Makris demonstrates, they often don’t get through at all. Sometimes though, they take us somewhere Outside.

The four Irish books I have chosen from last year reminded me, in different ways, that what we say is always tied to where and when we say it. In some ways, an Irish woman sitting at a desk in Glasgow in April 2024 typing ‘Free Palestine’ is nothing more than that: the words don’t cross the expanse I want them to cross. And yet that isn’t enough of a reason to stop saying them. Terrance Hayes, in the poem I mentioned earlier that rebukes Wallace Stevens, wrote that ‘I too, having lost my faith / in language have placed my faith in language’. These books all show signs of questioning that faith, too. At the same time, in the same breath, they testify to a need to keep sending out the messages.