Books: Independent choice Celtic poets

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In her book Stealing the Language, Alicia Ostriker discussed women poets' use of what she termed revisionist metaphor. "Water, moon, earth and living things, the natural as opposed to the artificial, provide the common sources of imagery ... just as they have always been for men describing women, but the images are turned to new directions." She was describing American poets, but, either coincidentally, or because feminist criticism has been such a rich source for writers, the work of three Celtic poets, Gillian Clarke, Alison Fell and Medbh McGuckian (one Welsh, one Scottish, the other Irish), bears her out. All are attracted by these images. The luxuriant strength of the verbs in these quotations is particularly suggestive: "Watching sea-roads I feel/ the tightening white currents,/ am waterlogged, my time set/ to the sea's town clock./ My cramps and drowning, energies,/ desires draw the loaded net/ of the tide over the stones." ("Letter from a Far Country" from Collected Poems by Gillian Clarke, Carcanet, pounds 9.95).

"When you crushed me to you/ I was inviolable:/ I was the sail you rigged./ the hand of the moon/ set square on the prow,/ the night that wore your name/ as death has worn it." ("Thalassa" from Dreams like heretics: new and selected poems by Alison Fell, Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99).

"The moon there, fuller than any other,/ slips through my fingers into every fold/ of the sky in turn, stirring up satin/ like a mother roughing a boy's hair." ("Lines for Thanksgiving" from Selected Poems by Medbh McGuckian, The Gallery Press, pounds 7.95).

McGuckian seems to be standing the farthest back from her material, her energies playing on the words themselves rather than trying to plunge us into the experience. For this poet, language seems to earth a force that is made up of all the shades and colours of possible meaning. Delicately, she sets up a counter-territory in male-dominated Northern Irish poetry: children and the life of the body, books, rooms, lovingly-detailed garments, the North Antrim coast.

History flickers increasingly in the mirrors of the later poems: "Tonight, when the treaty moves all tongues,/ I want to take the night out of you,/ the sweet Irish tongue in which death spoke and happiness wrote." ("The War Degree"). This slim selection has been beautifully arranged to give us a narrative of the poet's development and would be an ideal introduction to her work.

Fell is the most dramatic writer of the trio. Her music is terse, sometimes spikily staccato. Her metaphors can be stunningly original: "A hare's ear tip roared/ up the furrows like take-off." ("Andante"). Thoroughly urban and well-travelled, she is an honest explorer of psychological states and re-worker of myths, as in "The Minotaur's Complaint", which harshly de-sentimentalises Ariadne. This broad selection begins with a sequence about a lover's illness and death: the work is uneven, but gives a searingly physical quality to rage and sorrow.

If Clarke could be wordy in her early work, she can also be precise and sensuous. She does not evade the harsher side of rural life, but her tone is benevolent. Benevolent, too, is the footnoting that allows non-Welsh speakers to enjoy her excursions into that dimension. At her best, she reminds us that simply expressed facts can sometimes shine more memorably than literary fireworks.

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