A Taste for Hemlock by Michèle Vassal – a review


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


and again

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

your tongue

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

drank nothing

but night’s black milk

and tequila

and we fucked

frozen on a musty floor

while the City

riverstrapped to the marshes

straddled by seventeen bridges

succumbed nightly

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.

Alan Garvey

Find ‘A Taste for Hemlock’ here – http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=238&a=171

Published by alangarvey


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