I had the pleasure of recently attending a book launch in Dublin in The Winding Stair, an independent bookshop where books were hung like wind chimes or dream-catchers in the window, exceptional for its picture-window view of one of the capital city’s most attractive landmarks, the Ha’penny Bridge. Garlanded with icicle-blue Christmas lights, the view stretched over the dark waters of the Liffey, reflecting the festive lights back at us on the double, while inside the store it was warm and companionable with red wine flowing freely; the air rose with the melodies of flute and harp in accompaniment to a poet’s reading. It was one of those evenings where people say, ‘You should have been there’. It was a brief reading but one that would leave you with a desire to read more. They say good wines don’t travel, that ambience is inseparable from the experience – but Michèle Vassal’s A Taste for Hemlock is one of those rare exceptions.
Vassal’s previous collection, Sandgames, was published in 2000. The long break of eleven years between the publication of Sandgames and A Taste for Hemlock has had the effect of laying a fine vintage down to rest and mature. A Taste for Hemlock is a significant and sizable collection, which makes it both a delight and maddeningly difficult to review – one is left a little like the proverbial child in a candy store, which way to turn next?
Reference is made to a ‘painterly sensuality’ in the blurb at the back of this book, and the author’s wide-ranging verbal and visual palette is indeed unavoidable. It is not just a choice of the right word, but the right word that makes for such a luscious use of language. For those who worry about language having a primacy in poetry over that of emotion, A Taste for Hemlock is a well-rounded, full-bodied and mature collection.
There’s a Baudelairean sensibility and aesthetic at work in A Taste for Hemlock, a delight in and of the senses, a savouring and appreciation of all that the wide world has to offer, and the bitter flavour attendant on wisdom. There’s also an understanding that the brightest moment of an object’s life, whether that be an animal, plant or fruit, or even a human, is just before the turning point of decay or a bruise; but that this is cyclical and to be anticipated is one of our consolations for loss.
A Taste for Hemlock is never garish or lurid in its use of colour, nor overbearing; there is a judicious application of colour to evoke a particular sensation. Vassal does not shy away from using charcoals, greyscale, white or black for she demonstrates an awareness that sometimes the best use of colour is in the vacuum of white, a negative space where imagination has room to play or terrify itself, as the case may be in two poems that sit side-by-side, Chopping wood at dusk and When fog painted the days, where the poet would:
gather a whispered presence
lacing interstices with silence
fleshing the ether
with particles of centuries
protons of primeval myths
etched spirits of frozen grass and ferns
amongst the forsaken
amongst the prowling shapes of stalking walls
Confident enough to plumb the depths of black in her daughter’s clothing, that ‘necromancer’s force’, to untangle its skeins of colour: viridian green, magenta moons, the malachite, mackerel, lead and gold skies, skies the colour of blood. This is exactly what Vassal has an uncanny ability to do, to draw from the darker side of things and illuminate her observations with a bright clarity that never seems to lose focus, contrast or sharpness, her photo-realism shot through with blasts of hyper-reality.
Love and the attentions it requires are dealt with in a most gentle manner, loss, whether it is for good or momentary, is circumscribed in lines as delicate as:
…I want to forget
that I will be alone
tracing the cusp of your absence
in our love scrawled bed
in the learned curvatures of sleep
in the outline of your hand
in the outline of your breath
Vassal is gloriously awake and alive to possibility and chance, even in the midst of adversity, as in Dog Days,
anything can happen
when you sit at the edge of stillborn
storms swollen and taut
veined with rivers
and the sky fails you
anything can happen
Of course, love is not a sepia-tinged series of photographs and it is to Vassal’s credit that with many of her poems writing of romantic love that she does not lapse into sentimentality or schmaltz, perhaps it is too keen an awareness that blood will always be drawn:
and on my lips
the rose pink blade
that slices out my heart
The author of A Taste for Hemlock is not just sensual but uninhibitedly sensuous, as anyone who has plucked les fleurs du mal must be – I like the stark poem set in Cork where:
we ate nothing
but each other’s shadow
but night’s black milk
and we fucked
frozen on a musty floor
while the City
riverstrapped to the marshes
straddled by seventeen bridges
to Beamish’s incense
of malt and bladder wrack
…pale pilgrims looking for perfect sins.
This is the greatness inherent within Michele Vassal’s poetry, the fact that she is human and brave enough to follow those enigmas and make them transparent with a pellucid light, so that, after our travails and a sojourn in the desert, we become painfully aware yet grateful of what was worth waiting for. Sharp, clever, funny, wonderfully evocative and with more hard-won wisdom than most, this is one of the 2011’s best collections of poetry.
Find ‘A Taste for Hemlock’ here – http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=238&a=171