Vona Groarke was born in 1964 in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, a town already associated with the 19th-century novelist Maria Edgeworth and the 18th-century poet Oliver Goldsmith: typically Groarke has addressed both writers in her work. In fact, since her first collection, Shale, Groarke has written a poetry whose subjects defy pigeonholing, and whose formal elegance is as evident in its dreamy, songlike lyrics as in her long stanzaic meditations on history. ‘Islands’ ends:
Won’t you call for me at my house by the lake?
Cedar of Lebanon. Silver Birch.
Won’t you take me in your boat to the center of the lake?
Wych elm. Wych elm.
In ‘Patronage’, she writes of Edgeworth:
While her sisters stitched bright patterns
in a lace-work of pleasantries and chat,
she took a clutch of unstrung characters
and muddy syllables, and set them in a landscape
of her own
As this early poem indicates, Groarke writes well about the problems of establishing a tradition of women’s poetry, and the exuberant lyrics of her second collection, Other People’s Houses, struck a new note in Irish poetry: ‘Folderol’ begins:
I have been walking by the harbour
where I see it’s recently sprayed
that Fred loves Freda , and Freda cops Fred,
which reminds me of you and the twenty-four
words for ‘nonsense’ I wrote on your thighs and back
Thinking I had made a point of sorts, but not
so sure when I woke up to find my own flesh
covered with your smudged disgrace
while you, of course, had vanished without trace.
The over-simplistic narration of women’s writing traditions is a subject she returns to in the skeptical recent poem, ‘Archaeology’:
Call it proof, then, this thing that will survive
like an axehead or the map of a town
where no one ever lived. A story told
as if through frosted glass, all taken up with plot
and happenstance, with the singular moment
of when such-and-such occurred. As if.
Groarke’s Flight and Juniper Street both maintain the wit and rhythm of the early books but the poems are increasingly complex and discursive, self-consciously considering their own forms and stratagems, even as they dwell brilliantly on historical subjects, such as the 1916 Boland’s Mill battle in ‘Imperial Measure’:
Every blow was a flurry that thickened the air of Boland’s Mill, so breath
was ghosted by its own white consequence. The men’s clothes were talced with it
as though they were newborns, palmed and swathed, their foreheads kissed,
their grips unclenched, their fists and arms first blessed, and then, made much of.
Or the marginal or strange words and objects whose meanings seem more than functional, as in the self-portrait of ‘The Couch’ which begins:
A gap-minder on the Gortmore road
when the cattle are on the move,
I am flap and holler, borrowed bluff,
and none of it will last long enough
to see a ruck of them scatter,
the brown of them take any hold.
Or her new book’s title poem, ‘Juniper Street’, which enjoys the strange wonders of its American setting:
We go to sleep by artificial moonlight.
The floodlit stadium times itself out at midnight
and a thicker weave of darkness plies the room
before the morning separates her from this social context:
Then the laburnum school bus
swerves into view, and the children’s on-the-run
goodbyes settle on the porch with my unplanted kiss.
I am queen of the morning: nothing to do but to fiddle
words or quote the gilt-edge of our neighbour’s forsythia
gaining on our trim laurel shrub.
Groarke has lived in Dublin, Cork and Dundalk and has been writer-in-residence at universities in Galway and Maynooth. Since 2004 she has worked at American universities: she currently teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina but will join Manchester’s Centre for New Writing in Autumn 2007.
Shale, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1994
Other People’s Houses, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1999
Flight, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2002
Flight and Earlier Poems, Wake Forest Unversity Press, Winston-Salem, 2004
Juniper Street, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2006
Author’s page on Irish publisher’s website
Author’s page on American publisher’s website
Three more poems