Pit Lullabies by Jessica Traynor
(First published by New Hibernia Review)
Jessica Traynor’s new collection rings out like a sudden arrow striking its target: a lean, long shock of fibrous music, altering the air. Particulate and probing, the book nevertheless provides a panoramic picture of a tarnished world: from the “plastic ocean” to “the rusted key”, encompassing the whole chain of swarming life, in which human bodies, sooner or later, are “a feed of marrow / for hungry guests”.
Appropriately, the collection’s titular lullabies document the strangeness, pain, and mortal threat of childbirth, as well as the troubled vigils of parenthood that follow. One poem records how “the dish of my pelvis / I’ve served to lovers / opened for my child” in an interval of ruptured “entry/exit”. In “Lessons”, likewise, thinking of “all those long pre-anaesthetic ages” faced down by pregnant women in the past, the poet imagines “death” itself, “ready to take us both”: “what strange skeletons we would have made”.
Traynor is not the first Irish poet to be haunted by such dangers and degradations, but few have registered the total, rending intimacy of the ensuing dread with the fevered clarity we find here. During an “Anatomy Scan”, the eyes of the foetus are “Closed but watchful”, as the poem whispers its soft address: “Your tiny jaws grin. / Little lizard. You know something I’ve forgotten.” The same flinty, glistening unease recurs in a parent’s later apprehension:
The clever child will carry nothing but their breath,
because the answer to the riddle
of what is safe is nothing no one nowhere.
What unsettles and compels in all of this is not so much the largeness of the poet’s horrified projections (of a tainted, menacing society and existence), but the unshakeable hunch creeping in their wake: that the vision offered is visceral, yes, but also accurate and inextricable. Our lives are indeed marked (often irreversibly so) by the mortal and man-made hazards intuited on almost every page of this deep-delving book, which never shirks from charting the rivers of “skin / and faecal matter we eat and breathe”, or tracking the pulse of “organs marbled with benzene and fat”. For Traynor, ever-unflinching in her perceptions, “it seems right that this should hurt.”
As such quotations suggest, the foreboding, death-startled portraiture of this writing is (at the same time) naturally melodic, and to transfixing effect. The experience of reading becomes one of rapt, attentive leaning in (to poem after poem), with new understanding. Crucially, however, the hard wisdom of the verse is framed and counterbalanced by Traynor’s level-headed wit, celebrating “the odes we sing // to each dull morning”, as the earth continues on its dizzy spin.
There is also an ethical alertness and political vitality to Traynor’s attentions, enriching the consolidated distinctions of her style. Her voice contains multitudes, and judicious listeners will discover that many of these, mixed among the crowd, are of a militant bent, or at the very least are determined to redress the times. Even readers unfamiliar with Silvia Federici’s path-breaking histories of witchcraft, folk knowledge, and commoning will detect a (delightfully) subversive force, for instance, in Traynor’s reclamation of spells, enchantments, curses from the crooked corners of our world: an organising impulse in her collection, The Quick (2018), and evident here again. So in “Hawthorn”, the speaker breaks “ a clump of low hanging flowers”, then lays “them on our doorstep to wither overnight, / a May charm against changelings, or harm.”
Similarly, “Song of the Night Worker” rhymes (as it were) with Traynor’s earlier poem, “Matches for Rosa”, and proposes a commonality of experience between sleep-deprived new mothers, hidden behind doors in the small hours of the morning, and late-night workers returning home, largely invisible to their fellow citizens:
I’m tossing the dawn to you –
cup its flame in your palms
feed it your soft breath
fan it back to me across the miles
so I can look up, where I am,
at the sky we share.
For all the intensity of their introspections, Traynor’s poems remain rooted in an empathy at once radical, in its flourishing, and appalled by the state of the affairs with which it must contend. As is true of humanist writers in any genre, the angers to which Traynor’s poetry bears witness accuse, always, the worst and most corrosive aspects of our shared experiences and social structures. The insidious and often lethal misogynies of Irish life, past and present, loom in the background of this book, which finds that
in these dark times when our men
are driven by swallowed sorrows
to make a butcher’s block of the hearth
the best course of action
is to sanctify the sites
where these unfortunate women found their rest.
Among the wide and eclectic chorus of her immediate contemporaries, Traynor’s work, as here, harmonizes most intriguingly with that of Annemarie Ní Chuirreáin, who focuses a searching lamplight of her own on a similar terrain of trauma and remembrance, both poets striving to clear a space for the women (and children) erased from the history of the so-called Free State: “forgotten”, Traynor writes, “by everyone / but tidy ranks of weeping mothers.”
Propositions concerning contemporary literary context may raise, in turn, questions of ‘canonical’ influence and resemblance. The urge to assess recent poets in terms set by their assumed predecessors is of course both hopeless (prone to critical hubris or misprision) and necessary. Let us acknowledge, then, that Traynor’s work merits consideration in a wide international field – in relation, say, to that of Carolyn Forché, whom she quotes – while also recognising that this, in itself, need not mean a neglect of its local resonances. It’s a sign of her achievement as a poet that Traynor shares with the late Derek Mahon, for example, an incisive skill in dissecting the myths and complacencies of a violent, polluted, waste-generating society (call it what you like, capitalist or simply our own); with Paula Meehan, an instinctive capacity to evoke the grief-flecked, quiet atmospheres of urban and suburban Dublin, the bricks and cobbles forever riven by weeds; and with the late Eavan Boland, the unwavering clear-sightedness demanded by the expansive task she gives herself, of creating a more habitable history, both personal and collective. “The Island Sings II: The Parent’s Song”, indeed, sways alongside Boland’s “Night Feed” as an aching portrayal of maternal fatigue and care:
I take her hand,
wrap her fist in mine,
help her punch through
to a place petal-soft.
None of which is meant to detract from the originality of Traynor’s work. Fierce and profound, Pit Lullabies is one of the vital books of the new Irish poetry.