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Book Reviews & Features


Blue Sandbar Moon by Chris Agee Poetry Ireland Review – review 4th September 2019

Chris Agee’s founding of the journal, Irish Pages, in 2002, marked a significant threshold in Irish writing; the publication continues to occupy an important, not to say central, role in poetry North and South, in Irish – poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh is Irish Language Editor – as well as in English, and provides a well-appointed platform for literary and wider intellectual discussion. The soul-wrenching tragedy of the death of his four-year-old daughter Miriam Aoife in 2001 was framed in Agee’s Next to Nothing (Salt Publishing, 2009), a collection composed in 2003 and upon which he elucidates: ‘In addition to individual poems and several sequences, Next to Nothing includes a section entitled “Heartscapes”, which consists of 59 “micro-poems”, as I call them.’ Blue Sandbar Moon is also sub-headed as ‘A micro-epic’, and comprises, save for a few poems by way of lead-in, short bursts of poems that are haiku-sharp, their held emotional energy compressed like some sort of poetical nuclear fusion, and which range over a number of years:

low over
the Gasworks
in a gap
in the skyline
one carriage
glides in
slides out

The poems appear to have been set out with a little extra spacing between the lines, almost an injunction to the reader to take one’s time – even if this is accidental, and I don’t think it is, the effect is the same. There is no rush, absorb the poem. Let it sink in. The mainly minimalist poems are dated and placed, this one is underwritten as ‘Belfast Central Station / 23 May 2010’. Knowledge of the where and when of a poem obviously locates the poet at the point of composition; further, given Agee’s own direction that this collection of 174 poems ‘explores … the emotional and spiritual landscape of a life sustained in the “aftermath of aftermath” ’, one suspects that they also constitute a mapping of the progress of grief in terms of time and geography, as much as anything else. And one feels that the time-and-location detail is also an intrinsic part of the poem. (He cites in his book-jacketed notes WG Sebald’s ‘use of photographs in his prose’, and his own use of ‘a time-signature or imaginative context’).

The greater portion of the book comprises a lengthy compendium, ‘A micro-epic 2008-2017’, where each poem, rather than having a title, has an opening line in a larger type size. Confusingly, a relevant section of the jacket notes which pertain to the present book are in quote marks, which might conceivably convey the impression that they are taken from a review of the book, or a different book altogether. In the Contents – and only there – this long ‘sequence’ is titled ‘Openings’, which adds another pinch of confusion. But these are quibbles. The first section, ‘Proem’, comprises seven pieces of stand-alone poems and some prose. But it’s the larger sequence that carries the weight here.

The simplicity of language and bare-bones style of the poems indicate a rawness, a woundedness healing:

The strange thing
is that
is always
the same thing
it happens.
8-9 August 2012

There is nothing small, nothing ‘micro’ about the very human rigours being explicated here, where everything – even a Belfast gas-works – is in¬fused with a sort of stifled cry. Agee’s creative victory here is to strip each poem to its nature and, in doing so, invite his readers, whether ‘dipping in’ to the poems or reading them from cover to cover, to share in the dishevelment of grief and a gradual awakening to the world as it is. Each poem, in that sense, is a meditation or prayer, a key slipped into a lock. One may be reminded of Czesław Miłosz’s lines, ‘I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth and fire, and of water / And the unknown unveiled its face.’ Chris Agee has produced a fine and delicately-carved ensemble of important small poems which, taken in their entirety, create a moving and inspiring act of navigation between the seen and unseen, remembrance and experience, sorrow and wonder.

By Fred Johnston