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Donall Dempsey’s collection, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy explores his childhood in Curragh, Ireland, growing up with the love of family and friends and the lessons they have taught him on his journey to becoming a man who can "smile my 60 year old smile/perfected by now." ('NOW WE IS 60!').
Dempsey’s poetry fights to keep the child inside alive and words are his weapon, honed by reading the greats from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson. 'MAKE WORDS BREAK FROM ME HERE ALL ALONE, DO YOU!' recounts how being able to recite Gerald Manley Hopkins' poem 'The Windhover' by heart enables him to crush bullies during his first year in Secondary school.
Many of the poems are preoccupied with what time steals away, but done with energy, charm and insight. Despite facing the tragedy of losing his sister, Dempsey's poems are life-affirming with a unique expression, and are sometimes surreal provoking laughter as well as pathos. His ear is tuned to idiosyncratic expression, which works especially well in poems about his daughter Tilly when she was young. "For my little skeowsha/language is lava" ("HITHERING AND TITHERING WATERS OF..') often giving rise to neologisms such as Thundersday when "The thunder scares her/on Thursday."
Several of the poems have dedications, and people in Dempsey’s life jump off the page, their characters and expressions resurrected. Language is used in a dual strategy of preservation and defence against the toll of time, "allowing this 60 year old child/to somehow survive." (‘STICKING ONE'S HEAD OUT OF THE UNIVERSE’).
Lisa Kelly - Poet, Torriano Host and Magma Chair and Creative Writer Tutor.
There is regret of course but the sonnet makes us see that although not all our passions last, they are at the time authentic and therefore a valuable experience. Several sonnets such as Now and Here, then deal with the mellower emotion found in later life where enjoying a walk and companionable conversation is of as much value as the heady passion of youth.
Some sonnets broaden out to deal with other passions in our lives. In the poet’s view these are just as valid as romantic affairs. So, we have love for children and emotional ties with landscapes. Whilst the poet employs fine imagery throughout she also laces her work with humour which is an excellent way of avoiding sentimentality. In one poem Thinking ahead from my Hospital bed, the narrator fancifully imagines a worst-case scenario and wonders how her possessions will be divvied up amongst her family after her death. The inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, hidden under the bed, suggests a secret passion for such shoes that are kept from her husband. Whilst the sonnet is quirky it does also have a more serious purpose. Family members are given thumb nail sketches that rather dams them as they appear variously avaricious and unreliable. In a similar way the eponymous poem Jam in Aisle 3 deals with a love hate relationship with food shopping that I am sure will resonate with most women. Here a combination of rampant materialism and chaotic parenting show a society losing its way in terms of genuine love. These are in a sense anti sonnets where love and passion are drowned out by the skewed values of modern life. The most arresting of these comes in the poem Keep it in the Family concerning the trend amongst young women to tick box their way through dating, marriage, mother hood at the expense of real passion.
Indeed, some sonnets are not afraid to deal with the darker side of emotion. This is a hinterland between love and hate. Saddleworth, focuses on the mother of a "Moors Murder" victim who never ceases to long for the child, which is the very opposite of the toxic Brady/Hindley relationship. Monday Morning presents a phone call from a young woman during a suicide attempt who has clearly fallen out of love with life itself. The poet then skilfully counterbalances this darker side of the emotional spectrum with a sonnet dealing with an elderly husband tenderly caring for his wife through dementia.
This collection refreshes the sonnet form by broadening its range of emotional engagement. It examines modern life in the prism of the form. Middle aged love is revealed as rich and rewarding. At the same time, it presents anti sonnets that flag up the hollowness of an emotional landscape in a society that races after materialism at the cost of a genuine emotional experience.
© Fiona Sinclair 2017
From the instinctive communicative energy of the passionate child who scribble(s) on each page, to the mature scrutiny of the vernacular through a kaleidoscope (that) will not alter / its ever-changing / view, Strafford's poems offer precise explorations of life in high definition. Ideas and phrases spark surprising – sometimes shocking – relays, probing the spaces around experience, their forms precisely tuned to their restless exploration.
I am, writes Strafford, perpetually waiting for a thought so passionate and alive / it has an architecture of its own. On the evidence of this mercurial collection, she rarely has to wait long. From a toad heard in the darkness, to the click of a high-heeled shoe, to the knees of grown-ups seen from beneath a card table, each image – pulsing with resonance and reflection – is palpably, viscerally alive. This is everyday language in flux, the place where words go / after they are spoken, and Strafford doesn’t let a single one escape.
Leeds Trinity University, 2017
Strafford’s ability with language is impressive. Her training in visual arts informs her lexical choices; she ‘sculpts’ (and re-sculpts) a kiss; her archetypal woman yearns for ‘a thought so passionate and alive/it has an architecture of its own.’ Limbs are ‘pretzled’. Her ‘rules gauging time/inch by inch’ recalls Joni Mitchell’s Come in from the Cold: ‘Back in 1957/we had to dance a foot apart/And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines/Holding their rulers without a heart.’ Indeed, in a similar way to her near contemporary, she captures certain periods of recent history with a light but firm touch. Strafford has a highly mature sense of how to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ which leaves spaces in her poetry for the reader to reflect and engage. She sees the sensual possibilities in the most mundane of events and objects, and this gives her writing great vigour. So in her work, men may be ‘empty overcoats’, a miscarried child a thread snapped short, and the swirls of wood grain on the gym floor remind her of female anatomy.
In her subject matter, she is fearless and frank, sharing a child’s voyeuristic view of a sometimes disturbing adult world, inviting you to collude with teenage experimentation, and portraying the perennial topics of love and loss with a fresh and quirky slant. Sometimes the world she shares is troubling and poses difficult questions, but she never lapses into cliché or sentimentality; she is witty and irreverent. She writes about her ‘sisters’ Patti McGhee, Dorette and Christina in a confiding but never saccharine way. Her man is ‘Mr Moon’, not some nimby with a sixpack, and he will see off the competition. There is sharp humour; you want to meet the woman who is waiting ‘for Red Riding Hood/to wink at the wolf.’
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