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This Is Yarrow by Tara Bergin – review


An confident debut that dares to stray from the familiar

It takes a certain decidedness to set aside the furnishings of realism and its overweening stylisation of everyday life in order to hold out for something else. In her debut, This Is Yarrow, the Irish poet Tara Bergin does not so much steer away from the familiar as seem not to have encountered it except as a rumour. Randall Jarrell's "chairs and tables of the world" hardly figure on their own terms here. Among those who come to mind when reading Bergin's work are Stevie Smith, Penelope Shuttle and Medbh McGuckian – poets whose ways of seeing shape their material rather than vice versa.

There is also some kinship with Paul Durcan, a left-handedness of interpretation that needs to set its own terms and to speak neither entirely in propria persona nor dramatic monologue. The effect can be hilarious, as in "Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames at Low Tide Without Lucy Present", where we learn that "artists will insist on painting water, / despite its obvious difficulty / and, above all, its secrecy / (they say the marine world is notoriously 'close-knit'.)" The speaker, who affects to detest "the academic realism of the whole endeavour", adds: "That's not to say it's not worth something." Is this mad, ignorant, malign, joking or all of the above?

Bergin is by no means whimsical, though: much of the time she is writing about sex and violence. "Military School" speaks an Irish education, or a certain inherited climate of thought, as if it were happening elsewhere, faintly recalling the nightmarish Austro-Hungarian military boarding school in Robert Musil's Confusions of Young Törless. The schoolroom examples are sought in Yeats's poems of the 1916 rebellion, "Sixteen Dead Men" and "The Rose Tree": "It begins here, / the voice of beauty begins here, / lovely out the desk. / We mark our youth on the / photocopied maps with black crosses, / obediently we mark our youth." Yeats is neither taken whole nor discarded; in some sense he is put to work, for one of the voices or presiding tones of This Is Yarrow recalls the laconic and ungovernable female speaker in Yeats's "Michael Robartes and the Dancer". Although she has eight lines to Robartes's 40-plus, she seems to have the better of the conversation, and the last word: "They say such different things at school."

Perhaps someone will assemble an anthology of poems about stag and hen parties. Bergin's "Stag-Boy" will have to be included. While parts of it will be familiar – "banging his rough sides against the seats and / the women, who try to look away: Gallant!" – the remainder is less predictable. Bergin's note explains that when a stag party boarded a train at York, "their terrible, eager, desperate faces produced in me feelings of interest, pity and fear". The young man "tearing at the ceilings with his new branched horns" begins to seem like a tragic Actaeon hastening on his way to the dogs, which is a change from finding stag parties as a noisy, oppressive pain in the arse. The East Coast mainline will never look the same again. It makes you wonder what Bergin would make of a corresponding team of hens making their pink and screeching way to the fleshpots of Newcastle.

The mythic, folkloric element of the book is never simply convenient or comforting, but filled with foreboding. The blackbird in "Bridal Song" declares: "Hold out your palms, young Mary, / Hang your head, young bride-to-be, / Set your heart on sorrow for / You never listened to me." Aside from the beauty of its composition (you have to be able to accomplish this in order to hear and direct free verse as well as Begin often does elsewhere) the lines enact the prophetic power of verse itself to shadow forth what has always been true, contradictions notwithstanding.

This sense of doom is ingrained with Catholicism. The startling "At the Garage" seems to derive indirectly from the famous opening line of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station": "Oh, but it is dirty!" In Bergin's poem the speaker thinks she may have fallen in love with the mechanic, who is black with oil: "even the backs of the mechanic's hands, as well as the palms, are all inked black, / and everything they touch will be evidence of him – / the keys, the white receipt, my own hand / or cheek / were he to touch it." The speaker declares, with a sort of insinuating innocence, that it is "terribly awkward" (what a brilliant euphemism!) "to be in such close proximity / to the mechanic, and the dirty girl in the calendar / who is always there, just visible from the small window / where I go afterwards, to pay." Any reminder of the confessional seems intentional and wildly apt.

Of course, not all the poems in This Is Yarrow work as well. Some read as rehearsals for others, as attempts to find the way to the imaginative ground that makes the best work so odd and memorable. These are the normal conditions and limitations of a debut. But the good poems are numerous and original and make this one of the most interesting first collections I have come across for some time.

• Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems is published by Picador.

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