Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Ivy Ireland
Puncher and Whitman
ISBN: 9781922186713, $25.00, Paperback, Jan 2015
Ivy Ireland’s Porch Light is an ambitious and expansive work, cross-functionally traversing a wide range of disciplines. Nothing is off-limit: psychology, biology, literary theory, physics, Buddhism – you name it, it’s probably in here, and yet the poetry remains light, coherent, and subtle. This is perhaps because each of the pieces is unified by the grounding central force of the poetic persona, which remains a constant through the book. In Ireland’s work, the persona has gravity, is familiar and domestic, even when the work becomes highly esoteric. The voice is as egalitarian and open as it is intellectual and sharp-witted. The overall feeling is one that mingles sophistication with childlike wonder in a way that is charming and powerful at the same time.
The book is divided into two sections – “Space Opera” and “Follies”. The title poem that opens the first part of the book is quite long, and is set up as a monologue spoken to a mysterious god of some description – a multi-eyed beast out of Monty Python, or maybe just the reader. The poem is lavish, rich with mythology, and dark at times – a supplication and insult, but it’s also funny:
Perhaps some planet put you up to it. You didn’t want so many eyes on your wings:
it’s embarrassing, it’s a job. Hard to refigure you without, yet once in the annals of this endless processing, perhaps you were writ down as feather-
skin, transitional form.
If only we had come down from the birds, we too could be haunted by
memory of flight. (11)
This poem is epic in its scope, and sets the scene for the rest of the book. It proceeds like a prayer, albeit one to an imperfect god: “Say what you mean, Watcher, is this all? Here? This everymorningdying? Last koalas grunting in blind continuing, whip birds and koels bouncing beckon or warning against the everywhere-everything hills” (15)
The poems in this section attempt to make sense out of the silence of the universe and explore the intersection between the human and non-human. Always Ireland is conscious of the sound of words against one another; the rhythm and click of poems that operate on simultaneous levels at one, but most immediately, the sonic. There is a euphonic quality to all of the work, heavily vowelled, alliterative and assonant, rhythm creating its own meaning:
Lone magpie cry against morning.
Sometimes you implode inside to experience it:
galaxy upon galaxy of no new Earth
all alone against the colossal empty. (“Waxing Moon in Virgo”)
“Waxing Moon in Virgo” speaks to many of the themes in the book – the nature of consciousness and the loneliness it confers, the beauty of the earth vs an impending, self-created dystopia, and the desire for meaning against a silent, nonexistent deity. The poems are peppered with connections, detailed observations, the markers of domestic life, and the interaction between nature and art:
In our process of equilibrium,
we extract art from primal matter,
ferment these mercurial waters
with the sulpher of self-sacrifice.
Love, the endpoint, is the only elixir:
as precious as the pause
between wing beats,
as seamless as the glint
that marries sky to sea. (“Equilibrium).
Many of the poems in the first section are a response to other art forms – ekphrastic pieces that reference the work of Kandinsky, Jon Cattapan’s painting “Body Chart”, and Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant’s beautiful dance “Push”. In all three of these pieces, Ireland explores the relationship between abstract expressionism and poetry – the refinement or condensation of the subject: “Green was first when the extant set out to condense itself down./Then cinnabar: capillaries of fire and endlessness,”.
In “Follies,” the second part of the book, the poems tend to be shorter, positing a second person persona who is different from the you in the earlier poems. These poems are no longer addressing the monstrously silent god that we met in “Porch Light”. Instead the ‘you’ is aligned with the “I” – a tentative voice in the head: “Even if you are the ball and the ball is not an extra atom, but is anti-atom, dark matter black hole – even this – still you must benefit from all this sucking it in, the great absorption of light” (“Contact Juggler”). The use of the second person also encourages the reader to take on the role of a sympathetic confidante; an accessory to the action such that “you” comes to mean “us”: “The soul must be wedded to the flesh. There is only this. You leapt.” (“Angel of the Neo-Burlesque”). The poems work the line between the natural and the human; the transitory and the permanent, and wonder versus impending collapse: “There’s no point postulating, time travel does something serious to your bones. It comes to be only about gathering your pre-spindle DNA fragments back together.” (“LAX”)
Though the collection is intense and often dark, with an impending apocalypse just around the corner, the poems maintain their sense of absurdity and are deeply funny in a way that is warm and self-deprecating: “you rise. too tardy for proper courtesy. introduce terms like teleological uncertainty to the morning. feel bad about it. continue on regardless.” (“design”) The poetry moves from inchoate sensation to experience to thought to nature, the world, the universe and back again into the moment. In the opening line, Ireland poses a question about the relationship between the individual and a theory of everything: “If you consulted your own cipher mind (if what presents as yours could be compressed in such a lazy line), would it encircle this whole ball of string/theory/or only what lies beneath?” In the world of Porch Light, the answer is yes. Porch Light is a beautiful, richly textured book of poetry to read and re-read, finding the universal in the particular and the particular in the universal, fractal like, in nearly every line.