Reviews of 'The Island'

The Island begins with a haunting 1948 journal entry from a man jailed on Spike Island in Ireland: “Gazing on grey stones, my eyes will grow stony.” Nearly 150 years later, Rosemary Canavan, a poet and painter, teaches literacy at the prison on Spike Island. Throughout these poems, and especially in her long sequence “The Island”, Canavan explores with tenderness and pathos the plight of the incarcerated.

There is tension between the inner melody of Canavan’s work and the subjects she chooses – prisoners, paranoid housewives, old farmers. She has love poems too, and poems in praise of the natural beauty of her Irish home, but her over-riding theme is the effect of impoverishment on the spirit, which dies or turns brutal. Her work as a prison teacher inspires many of her poems; she expresses the sad reality of her students with her trademark lyricism. That lyric voice is strong and sure, almost lilting, certainly musical, and provides a metrical spine that can hold up any subject. This is both promising and fulfilling work.

Pat Monaghan, Booklist.

Another first collection is The Island by Rosemary Canavan. Rosemary is a poet, painter, mother, daughter and teacher of literacy at the prison on Spike Island. She is also a sensitive, unflinching observer of life.
This is a very large and varied collection of seventy one poems divided into five sections. There are personal poems of love, of grief, poems of defiance and some wonderful landscape poems full of colour and light.
The second section of this collection ‘The Island’ is a long poem of nine parts that explores with tenderness and compassion the lives of those imprisoned there. Canavan understands the power of the lyric; her poems overlap and fuse, creating an, at times, rough and richly patterned collection. Colour is everywhere, used as the painters brush to transform, to make real.
In Canavan’s landscape poetry we sense her intelligent eye watching all the small changes in light and atmosphere. The language is often tough, clipped to emphasise a harsh reality or tender and full of love.

Jo Slade, Poetry Ireland Review



Reviews of 'Trucker's Moll'

Southword, July 2009

     I am restless
     Until the place
     Gives up its secrets:

Rosemary Canavan’s poetry is a constant search on the move. Set in the valleys and hills of Cork and south Munster…it also meanders far beyond into a montage of vivid worlds where nature and industry ebb and flow to the oily moon of humanity’s work on Earth. The poet submerges her gaze into the lungs of the natural world, taking on Heritage and Tourism, Industry and Pollution, Religion and the Health System, holds them down beneath the surface with her, where oceans, forests and blades of grass are as resilient as ever, infinitely intelligent and conscious of us, their more selfish, alchemical co-habitants. She whispers her alliance to nature in 'The War', where she praises nature’s divine resilience.

     I will defect to your side,
     leave my garden to wilderness

In parallel to this, she submerges the (dis)continuity of urban to rural consciousness…through a variety of characters who appear in and out of Cork’s city, towns and clouded coastlines, mountains, hills and forests, to counties up-country and beyond through her misty Celtic pilgrimage around the four nations of the western isles, where she suspends the Elysian depths of our more nature-oriented traditional foundations among the indifferent, complicated weld and weave of the present day. Yet history is alive in every detail, alive and shining in the unnoticed peripheries.

There is a delectable variety of both subject and length to this most lyrical montage of verse, which offer readers’ imaginations a freedom of breath when moving from the voices of nature to the urgency of war, from those of the aged and the past, to the endless scars left by Industry’s relentless taming of our world. Canavan doesn’t drown in the environmental wars though, she swims past their poisoned shadows to dance with the endless beauty that is thriving around her, as if whispering, ‘Here, look here, we can still touch its magic’.

     a sweet chestnut, ringed with sprigs, with rent bark,
     and a great oak…

     my boots sprout leaves,
     a silvery belling from birds’ beaks
     in the soughing trees

We find haiku-like tercets sprinkled throughout the collection, slowing down the image-paced, longer narratives of journey and edging us into the length of days, while unneeded traditional syllables are left as leaves to the winds of pace and form.

     What is that
     Gold-flowered, slender-leaved plant?
     A gold leaf falls.


     Silage bags
     Glisten like
     Black slugs

Often the urban and suburban-imagined paces of thought and life fade to ridicule. Her journeys paint a vast and varied field of our Atlantic islands, yet Patrick’s Day fireworks become flashes in the Baghdad sky; at the zoo humans are closer to home. Often she finds the past surprising her, staring back through the present. In her encounter with a 6th-Century skull, she sees the (then) young woman’s life as an utterance into time.

     she was no stranger, but
     a lost figure journeying

In 'Men of the South', she enters Sean Keating’s painting of the last minutes before Michael Collins’ assassination, into …

     … their innocence, fresh-faced, dangerous.

… echoing the dramatic social changes of the last century. Canavan finds the patterns and journeys of life in the circumstance of small things.

She re-immerses herself successively into the worlds of nature and the global network of industrial civilisation, travelling between them to witness the shadows of their meeting.

      Pylons stalk the flat land, their
      atrophied arms held out,…


     … then to withered hills
     and a forest of steel that sprouts smoke.

The nine-part poem 'Infirmary' finds the poet admitted and bed-bound amid the pill-modern madness of a medical Hades, imagining her aged co-patients in their heydays and still questioning her own future’s place among their final months (or years we hope).

     I try to put flesh on those
     Old bones, imagine them
     Young and lovely:

Trucker’s Moll seemed to me like the pages of a poet’s diary, with its contemplative, almost philosophical voice which carefully changes pace and tone to either soften or punctuate the hard rumble of technology’s endless hurricane. After the poet enters and commits to the natural world for her understanding and inspiration, she soon returns from the arms of Gaia wiser than steel, more patient than rubble, with a Zen-deep acceptance of the world and the means to transcend its travesties. I would purchase this collection for its song alone, for it is a morning song and I have taken much delight in the slow reveal of its subconscious wisdom, its night-green narrative.

Paul Casey

The Midwest Book Review, October 2009

You don't need a lot of words to send a message. "Trucker's Moll" is the simple and honest work of Rosemary Canavan, an accomplished poet who can call both Scotland and Ireland her home. Her poetry reflects upon her heritage with simple stories and verse that speak louder and longer than they appear. "Trucker's Moll" is a choice pick for international poetry collections, recommended.

      The Blind Woman

      She was the still mentor
      of the house,
      the hearth goddess.

     At first you saw darkness,
     then a small figure by the range
     feeding the fire,

    her brother with sleeves rolled
    splitting wood for it.


The Irish Examiner, June 2009

Several of the 33 poems in Rosemary Canavan’s second collection look and read like incantations, the lines so short, the imagery so sparse. In The Fisherman the short lines help to convey suspense, angst, so that a sense of relief is rendered by the longer lines of the last stanza.
The title poem begins with the “moll” of the title observing the activities in a compound, somewhere south of the Rock of Cashel, where “steel leviathans” are preparing for a long-haul trip. The truck she travels in is loaded: “the stonegrinder for England is a dark hunched lump.” It departs from south of Fermoy, and heads for Scotland (the poet’s birthplace), to returns via Fishguard and Youghal, then “…we plunge into/ the final soft darkness towards Cork.”
Men of the South is based on, indeed a tribute to, Sean Keating’s masterpiece in Cork’s Crawford Gallery: “Come close enough/ you can almost smell/the wet wool of their cloth…” In Rostellan a walk in the “ghost-laden” woods becomes a kind of self-examination: “I am restless/until the place/gives up its secrets…”This observation reveals a current of emotional energy that runs through virtually all the poems.
Indeed, throughout this impressive collection the attentive reader will be rewarded by her capacities for sharp observation, low-keyed, economical wording, and carefully restrained ironies.

Jim McAuley



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