Róisín Kelly: Mercy

There’s a mythical, dream-like quality to this collection, filled with motifs of stars and apples. It’s also rooted in place – there’s a sense of journey as we move with the speaker across Portugal, Greece and Ireland in a voyage of self-discovery as they look to move beyond failed relationships and find their own roots within themselves.

The opening poem ‘Mercy’ features stars and Artemis, a personal exploration of female empowerment through the physical self woven through the myths of ancient Greece. Female figures from Greek mythology appear frequently in the collection, particularly Penelope, who has traditionally been portrayed as merely an accompaniment to her husband Odysseus. This is a fitting choice as Kelly sets out on her own personal journey – but here the females take centre stage. In a number of poems, Penelope stands alone – in ‘Penelope’, we see a meshing between the poet and Penelope in a kind of idyllic Bacchanalia. There’s also the gorgeous ‘Ithaca’ later in the collection, which shows Penelope sick of waiting, seeking comfort instead in the intimate details of a shared life – the mythical is in the intimate :”Padding over tiles in our thick woollen socks” It’s this ability to explore the intimate that means that although Penelope is a familiar face, Kelly makes us feel like we’re meeting her for the first time.

The second poem ‘Leave’ is about the loss of a lover. Many of the poems in the collection explore a sense of yearning and regret and its most keenly felt in the earlier poems. Kelly uses the natural world to gently probe at the relationship and the symbol of the apple (again another motif from ancient Greek myth) is commonly used: “In our hands we cup apples like memories.” She also uses roses, the cliched flower of lovers, in a few of the middle poems, but in unexpected ways – ripped and destroyed, petals strewn everywhere.

Lost love haunts the collection, always doused in stars “was never written in the stars we share” ‘At A Photography Exhibition in New York Public Library’ and the sense that the relationship will haunt them. The final line is again gentle and empty of malice “ Wherever you are, go

with a bride-thought haunting your shoulder as lovely as snow.” Stars are omnipresent, from the opening poem right through to the last, where they have become “familiar”. Kelly has come to terms with herself since the early poem ‘Mars in Retrograde’ where the speaker expresses a strong desire to join the stars “I am adrift in a sea of stars…” “let me float to Orion”.

Not all the poems are introspective. As a Belfast-born poet, there are a few that tackle the Troubles, but these do not define the collection – which is refreshing. This is a collection that although rooted in the intimate, transcends the parochial – Kelly draws her inspiration from many different sources. That’s not to say there aren’t some political moments. ‘Mary Anne MacLeod’ is written for Trump’s mother who revisits the Hebrides of her birth. It’s a poem that contrasts questions like “what kind of son have I created” with observations like “light on sea like crumpled tin”. The focus on the beauty of nature brings a softness to the criticism here, which makes it more powerful. 

Many of the poems are rooted in place and in specific moments, such as the tea pouring in ‘Glenveagh’

“I thought love would always run

as red and hot as the tea

I burned my mouth on.”

Although there’s a yearning in these poems rooted in place, those set in Ireland are more about memories. In ‘Tropical Ravine House in Belfast Botanic Gardens’ the poem ends on 

“You’re the sun I’ve always needed, shining

within our glass home —

and I am home, I am home, I am home.”

This repetition of home suggests that the poet has found answers on her travels and is more stable back In Ireland. There’s a shift in the final third as the imagery and motifs change.

Apples are commonly used as an echo for lost love and sense of self. In ‘Eden’, a first person telling of a woman who feels a strong sense of regret at leaving a relationship of “kind arms” for “men whose faces shone so beautifully”, the poem ends with 

“…They cling

pink and tender to their branches

with skins holding close a sweetness

that will always be unknown to them” 

There’s a sense of comfort in apples which is why they are so frequently the motif for stability in this collection. A shift in perspective is signalled by a change of fruit with ‘Oranges’ where the speaker looks towards a future of their own choosing:

“I’ll choose for myself next time.” “A miniature sun/burning a hole in my pocket” is much less comforting and much more passionate than the sweetness of an orange and suggests the speaker has finally got to grips with their identity, wants and needs for the future.

After ‘Oranges’, the poems are less introspective, examining the relationship between the Irish and the Sioux in the beautiful ‘Miracle at Standing Rock’ and the tender ‘Poem for a Friend’s Unborn Baby.’ Many of the motifs and voices come together in ‘Amongst Women’, a five-part amalgamation of womanhood. The penultimate poem is a cucker punch – the haunting ‘Tuam’ that draws correlations between the Cambodian Killing Fields and the mass graves of Tuam. Fittingly, the last poem in the collection is an exploration of Irish ‘Pirate Queen’ Grainne Ni Mhaille and ends with the wonderful  “I know my way in the dark.” The journey complete, we come to the end of the collection, enlightened by stars and sweetened by apples. A wonderful debut filled with many lingering images.

Published by nicolaheaney

I'm a poet based in Bristol via Derry, St Andrews and Madrid. When I'm not writing or performing my own poetry, I'm reading or trotting about with my camera. There is sometimes drink taken.

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