Where’s Katie? by Elaine Feeney
Reviewed by Alan Garvey
I’m not going to take the easy way out and liken Elaine Feeney to Rita Ann Higgins, they’re both from Galway with an affinity for those who don’t often make the front pages, and that’s almost it as far as likenesses go. I’m not going to trumpet one over the other, for that does an injustice to both. I’m not going to say that Feeney’s work has a cosmopolitanism that’s lacking in Higgins’s early work, just because Feeney went to Slovenia as a result of winning the National Slam Championships – that sort of opportunity wasn’t there for poets in the 80s. But what I will say is that there’s no room for self-congratulation in either poet’s work, regardless of their concerns . What really binds the two is that they are primarily interested in others.
‘Where’s Katie?’ is a substantive first collection, which gives a poet an excellent opportunity to ‘out’ all of their early work and leave a clean slate for their second and subsequent collections. It also gives a reader a lot of poetry to read and, being a simple creature, I like to see groupings of themes or subjects within a collection (not necessarily individual sections). ‘Where’s Katie?’ doesn’t have such clear parameters or narratives within a clearly defined over-arching meta-narrative that is clear yet to this reader – there may be one apparent to the poet. I have to admit to being not quite convinced by some of her shorter poems, a poem like ‘Marietta’ makes me feel like a bear of very little brain – I don’t have a clue what it’s about, aside from the words in front of me all I can think of are biscuits. Not to dismiss the lyric pieces, a number of which are extremely powerful like ‘Juxtaposition’, quite startling in its brevity and cleverness, or ‘Reflections in January’ which is a welcome slap in the face to our complacent lifestyles and inability to assuage or assist in the burdens that others face (similar to poems by Gerry Murphy and Billy Ramsell), specifically, the poet’s correspondence with a woman living in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide.
It’s in her long poems where I think Feeney does greatest justice to her talent, where she gives herself the space necessary to encompass the wide scope of relationships and complexities that she witnesses. And there are very few poets of whom I would say this. ‘War March’ is a fine example, where the poet is confronted by those to whom she “chat[s], but they’re still suspicious. / I’d never been to Dachau / or Palestine.” This is despite the efforts made “Earlier on our history timeline” where she shows the first-years she teaches “panic-fuelled / diamonds swallowed whole in unleavened bread”. This internal conflict is preceded in the first stanza by lines such as, “I’m not into hurtling rocks / I march in line with the others”, a painful consciousness for the poet as she undoubtedly knows that most people who are not into hurtling rocks but begin marching in line end up throwing rocks. Binary choices don’t seem to sit well with Feeney, greyscales are predominant in her palette as lines blur in space and time, “Children skip brightly through coloured anoraks, / trip to the pavement. / Watch the landmines. / Oh no wrong country. Skip away.” This willingness to project herself and those closest to her into harm’s way may well be one of Feeney’s strongest attributes, that of empathy. It’s here, where Feeney is more concerned with the ethical rather than the overtly political agit-prop of ‘Laying Hens’, that she displays a far more interesting facet of poetry.