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Emma McKervey’s impressive debut collection, The Rag Tree Speaks opens with ‘An Sciathán,’ which poses a question about the Irish language: why is there no word for hand or foot? McKervey explains this linguistic gap in a factual, almost clinical way, as if it is a line of academic enquiry. She then takes a shift towards the personal, as the poem’s speaker notes how strange her own limbs feel, imagining her arms as wings with feathers that ‘grow inwards.’ Through this turn, McKervey draws our attention to the restless, melancholic messiness of people, and how hard it is to capture this with language.
This poem introduces McKervey’s understated and alchemic style, which mixes detailed discourse on linguistics, history, art and myth with the warmth and pain of lived human experience.
Throughout this collection, McKervey uses mythology and folklore, sometimes Irish, sometimes Greek, and sometimes a melding of the two, as a framing device to explore difficult and complex emotions; loss, guilt, longing, entrapment. Take, for instance, the eponymous ‘The Rag Tree Speaks,’ a poem that transplants an Irish ‘rag tree’ – a tree onto which strips of cloth are tied as part of a ritualistic offering to saints and gods – onto the banks of the river Lethe.
Here, the rag tree narrates a tale of the ‘newly dead,’ who hang remnants of their past lives onto the tree in an effort not to forget. In this way, McKervey transforms well-worn mythical tropes into something alluring and tender, as we witness the inevitability of the tree’s rags falling away, ‘rotten with time.’
In the superb ‘Needles of Bone,’ the reader is once again introduced to a setting that bears familiar folk archetypes. In a damp field, a lone female farm worker toils, amid the ‘dark hunger’ of magpies. She finds a dead bird and knits its bones into a chain, an act which is neither practical nor productive but underscores her own powerlessness in the face of her confusing world.
The ending is ambiguous, the protagonist ‘intending to return home,’ but we are left unsure as to where she will end up. In this way, McKervey’s poetry trades in moments of uncertainty, in gaps, absences and things left unsaid. Poems such as ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Best Years’ deal with similar ambiguity, but do so within the context of modern womanhood, approaching topics of child bearing, sexuality and fraught relationships with nuance.
Furthermore, McKervey is adept at zeroing in on minute details of the natural world in poems such as ‘Scalph, or Maybe Love.’ Here, she triumphs in taking nature and turning it on its head, often combining plant imagery with body horror.
These poems make the natural world seem alien, and also deeply question our relationship to it.
Occasionally, McKervey relies too heavily on a sense of pastoral wonder as exemplified by ‘Ladybird.’ The poem describes the titular insect in beautiful, finely tuned details, but the overall effect is a little static and overwrought. In an efforts to give the insect an otherworldly air, McKervey writes that it is lifted by ‘what is secret,’ an image that seems at odds with the earlier, more homely details of a ‘flouncing polka dotted shell.’
However, at her best, McKervey poetry of the natural world is effervescent. She eloquently ties together the human and animal worlds, evoking the strangeness of encountering nature as a chaotic, unpredictable force.
Overall, The Rag Tree Speaks is a rewarding collection from a poet who is both in total command of her source material and not afraid to twist and subvert it. McKervey weaves together disparate threads into a collection that feels genuinely fresh and inquisitive. Altogether, an intriguing new voice in Northern Irish poetry.
The Rag Tree Speaks is available here
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