Published by Picador in 2020, The M Pages is Bryce’s fifth collection. It’s an incredibly moving collection of poems where the poet grapples with the unexpected death of a relative in a central sequence ‘The M Pages’, the nucleus around from which the other poems draw energy.
Death opens the collection in the oddly puckish ‘Death of an Actress’. Here Bryce interweaves cliches with Shakespeare with a playfulness that heightens the tragedy of a woman who has
“sloughed off her body like a costume coat
discarded on the carpet.”
Bryce’s skill in exploring tragedy through mixing fresh and unexpected images with more light-hearted observations is evident in many of these earlier poems as we build towards the central sequence.
There’s the surgical precision of
sinking into earth” in ‘A London Leaving’, a poem littered with Irish traditions and the softer, more lyrical observations of “Blossom in the hawthorn, tiny lights; / a halo of flies around both of their heads.”
Bryce is preparing us for what is to come, laying the groundwork in subtle images which loom larger as we move deeper into the poems. It’s clear where we’re going by the time we reach ‘Hire Car’, as we’re brought on a journey through the familiar landmarks of home, again focusing in on the detail and the everyday of going to ‘Doherty’s bakery’ for a “sugared cappuccino and a Derry bap’. The final lines of this poem give a clear sense of direction – we’re moving relentlessly to the trauma of the middle sequence and death “Are we right?/All set?/ I remember now/ what it was about that car: no reverse gear”
As the last poem before the ‘M Pages’ sequence, ‘Fungi’ pulls together the idea of death with beautiful imagery of nature and rot “a light lace crust/appears/and devours/ the fruit/”. There’s a sense of inevitability in the close observation of a pear rotting, almost a preparation of what is about to come in the last lines “yes you, /who don’t/ even realise/ you’re dead.”
The 14 poems in this central sequence are about struggle: the struggle to understand death, the struggle to come to terms with the loss of a loved one and the struggle to come to terms with grief. Bryce opens the sequence with a poem that uses the word “final” five times. A number of the poems in the sequence are an exploration of the notion of life, death and our place in the universe.
But these are not metaphysical poems. They are powerful recollections, filled with reminiscences from childhood and vivid memories. The physical death is the centre and there’s a sense that Bryce is clinging to the physical in an attempt to make sense of this terrible trauma. A number of poems describe the body being prepared for the wake and the funeral, poems made more powerful by the immediacy of the detail “The clay retains a mortar chill.”
The ninth poem in the sequence opens with the gut-wrenching:
“I hope you were drunk when you died, M,
if that meant you would have suffered less.”
Bryce intersperses the brutality of these honest, raw sentiments with playful language, using flippant cliches and Shakespearean phrases almost as a kind of shield – both to protect herself from the pain and to protect the reader from the rawness of the emotion in these poems.
The final few poems in the collection carry echoes of this grief. There are poems about family and memory and there are snatches of her sister in these poems, such as in ‘Slander’ which ends with– a line which defines this entire collection. The penultimate poem ‘A Short Commute’ has echoes of family as she watches two young girls and their mother on a bus and feels regret for not reaching out and speaking to them – echoes perhaps of her relationship with her own sister.
It’s an astonishing collection, best defined by Bryce’s own words in ‘Slander’ “fierce compassion / for everything I have lost.”