Saturday 21 January 2017

Review by Jayne Stanton of "Rough Translation" by Cathy Galvin

Reviewer’s disclosure: No prior knowledge of the poet or her work.  A biography on the pamphlet’s back cover, however, lists her credentials as a journalist and a promoter of short fiction (Galvin is founder and director of the Word Factory) as well as a poet.  There’s also praise for a first pamphlet, Black and Blue, a ‘masterclass in poetic risk-taking.’ 

First impressions: Beneath the title on the front cover is a poem – or what appears to be a poem.  From the opening lines, ‘We stake a claim, lay foundations / build and watch it fall’ to the final ‘Our homes are built to go’ there’s a return of wilderness once ‘tamed, contained’ and a leaving of the land by its inhabitants.  Most intriguing of all is:

‘Take away it all
and what is left is who we are.’

What a novel way of grabbing the reader’s attention and inviting further reading between the black end papers of this slim volume.  The Contents page places the title poem midway through the pamphlet but, on exploring further, the reader is re-introduced to the cover-featured lines: they form section 3 of the third poem, ‘Walls.’ 

Rough Translation is the poet’s attempt, over time (these poems were written over a three-year period) to capture, in words, the essence of her people – the Connollys of Mason Island, Connemara – their way of life, and the familial and cultural roots that continue to draw the poet back.  

Throughout these poems, there are strong links between the land and the sea.  In ‘Kate Connolly,’ limpets are fuel for the fire and shells are ‘treasure to be broken,’ the harshness of island life necessitating the gathering of sea bounty.  In ‘On the Tide’, those born on the land leave by the sea.  The poem has a strong, wave-like rhythm; there is tension between land, sea and air, between waiting to go and parting.  And in ‘Cork’, there’s a raft to ‘carry/ his dead weight / across an ocean…or / burn bright / one the one for / the whale-road.’ 

Kate Connelly, the poet’s namesake, has gnarled black hands and a parting kiss of ‘sea, iron…’ yet it is ‘all we don’t understand,’ and ‘all we thought we would never be’ that engenders ‘the eighth sin – / fear.’  She ‘Smell[s] of earth, warm milk from the cow’ too, and, in ‘Naming’, there’s vulnerability as she ‘Stepped in to/ the ocean.   Shed shawl, / shape.  Fed on fish’ while her menfolk bury at sea ‘the cold babies,’ the ‘infants / never named.’  She, and they, are seals that ‘slick the under-swell/ of deep beneath the light,’ reminiscent of the opening poem where child and mother are seals ‘Beneath and above / the swell of birth.’  

In this pronoun-rich collection, Kate Connelly is the only named individual – and the lynch pin, it seems.  In reading back and forth between poems, it seems that all lead back to hers.  Is the subject of the title poem, living in a Midlands tower block where ‘Lifts bring us back / to you’ one of ‘her children,’ ‘freed…to stray beyond’ her ‘folds of wool wrapped round’ or the mother herself?  Is it Kate who is laid to rest ‘in red Coventry clay’ in the poem ‘Coventry Kids’?  The phrase ‘her Connemara moorings’ is telling; it underlines the precarious futures of those who live on islands such as this, taking the reader back to those walls without a roof, those ‘homes…built to go’ (in Walls) and, in Starlings, ‘cottages impossible / to sell; others let to the wealthy.’  

Galvin’s roots run deeper than laid foundations, though, and their pull is evident in many of the poems.  One of the most poignant is Borrowing Soil: the peat top-soil that ‘doesn’t belong,’ is ‘borrowed’ – another impermanence – ‘This earth/ so far from home.’  Home, for the poet, is found in a ‘going back to sources,’ of spoken language:

‘These are the sources that I seek.  Have yer tidied pots?
Have yer sidey’t table? Yes Mummy.  Yes Daddy.  Their voices
deeper than any soil.’

These poems are mysterious and sensual; truth is hard-won – ‘rough’ or inexact rather than invented – and therein lies a magic, of sorts.  Rough Translation is a distillation of lives and their legacy, Galvin’s poems giving voice to those ‘tongues stilled.’  Words are hooks and pins as the reader searches for a way in.  The poems invite and richly reward re-reading.

About the reviewer
Jayne Stanton is a teacher, tutor and folk musician living in Leicestershire.  Her poems have appeared in numerous print and online magazines and anthologies.  She has written commissions for Harborough museum, University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing, and has recently completed a poem sequence about life in Leicester as part of a city residency.  Her pamphlet, Beyond the Tune, is published by Soundswrite Press (2014).  
Jayne blogs at and tweets @stantonjayne

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