The Rag Tree Speaks: Emma Mckervey – a review by Samantha Maw

    The Rag Tree Speaks: Emma Mckervey – a review by Samantha Maw


    Samantha Maw is studying a Creative Writing MA at Lincoln University in the U.K. and is a member of Lincoln Creative Writers and Outspoken Poets. A qualified teacher who has worked in primary and secondary schools in the UK and in Africa; she has now gained the confidence to impose her poems and blogging skills ( on the general public. She lives in Lincoln with a scruffy golden lurcher and two ridiculously cuddly cats. In her spare time she likes to tread the boards at her local amateur dramatic society, and leads story time at the local village library.




    The Rag Tree Speaks: Emma Mckervey

    Doire Press

    ISBN number: 978-1-907682-55-1

    The Rag Tree Speaks is Emma Mckervey’s debut anthology, published in the Autumn of 2017. Mckervey is from Holywood, County Down. She is the winner of the NI Translink Poetry Competition and in 2016 she was shortlisted for the FSNI National Poetry Competition, and the Bord Gais Irish Book Award’s Poem of the Year Award. She has been published in a variety of literary journals and her poems have appeared in anthologies published by Seren and the Emma Press. McKervey is a featured poet on the recent Intersection Tour of the Island of Ireland, sponsored by the Arts Council of the North & South. In 2017 two of her poems were highly commended in the Seamus Heaney Award for new writing[1].


    McKervey started writing poetry as a young child. She studied Contemporary Music as an undergraduate and this contributed hugely to her understanding of the composition, rhythm, and pace of words on a page or spoken aloud. She is a professional musician and has played the Cello and Saxophone in several orchestras. She has also helped to develop sonic art performance pieces in collaboration with other composers and artists. She is a member of Women Aloud, an organisation that celebrates women writers across Northern Ireland.

    Doire Press describes the The Rag Tree Speaks as an anthology that tries to, `cut through easy clichés to explore what lies beneath. Informed by history and mythology, a sense of magic is brought to the close observations of the immediate natural world`. Carolyn Jess-Cooke (author of BOOM! Seren Press) comments that McKervey’s poetry resists easy answers to quandaries posed by twenty first century womanhood, and describes it as, `perceptual alchemy`. The anthology is full of, `strident narratives and emotive scenes, ` and is `luminous with intelligence and a restless tender wit`.

    I really enjoyed reading the poems in this anthology. Sometimes a poem reads better on the page, and at other times it is more suitable for performance. However, McKervey’s collection could happily sit in both camps. She uses a variety of forms and frequent enjambment and there is a very clear sense that her poems are also musical compositions. The way McKervey can zoom in on the minutiae of life is clever and compelling. Her poem Ladybird describes the insect’s wings as, `filigree-netted underthings beneath the flouncing polka-dotted shell`. In the poem Earwig she talks of refusing to feel guilty for the death of an earwig as she irons some linen trousers;

    As the first leg is spread and misted

    an anomaly in the translucent Perspex

    of the iron’s body catches the eye.

    An earwig, panicked, struggling within.


    In Bullfinch she watches the bird in question from the window; it’s plumage `a small sunset midst early buds of plum tree by the wall`. Mckervey’s rich description reminds me very much of modern day Keats. Poetry that fills your senses with lush images and sounds.


    Not only does the anthology represent life at microscopic detail, it also offers some reflections on ordinary day-to-day life. The titles are intriguing: Ernest Wilson Goes to China, Ex Lovers at a Car Boot Sale, Chopping Wood, Advice to a Young Climber. McKervey clearly has a great wealth of cultural and historical knowledge, and this is woven into her poems to present us with various philosophical conundrums. Poems such as Aquatic Ape Theory, Epistemological Inadequacies and Celestial Mechanics don’t attempt to answer the conundrums; they just put them out there for us to chew over. I really like the way McKervey zooms into minute details and then pans out to present us with life on a cosmic level. She satisfies us with intense moments of pleasure and pain from both viewpoints and infuses her reflections with a gritty realism and witty conjecture.


    I am about to leave you with the title poem as an example of her `perceptual alchemy`. Before I do let me make a few comments on the cultural significance of a Rag Tree in Ireland. A Rag Tree is a tree or bush (usually a Hawthorne) near a Holy Well. People still uphold an ancient custom when visiting these wells of dipping a piece of cloth that belongs to someone in need in the water, before tying it on the branch of the tree. A prayer is said to the spirit of the well, and when the rag rots away then it is believed that the problem the person has will also disappear. Sometimes the rags represent a wish or aspiration, realised when it decays. McKervey mixes ancient Celtic customs with Greek mythology in this poem with her introduction of Cerberus, the `Hound of Hades`, who is guarding the underworld and prevents the dead from leaving. A chilling but beautiful poem exploring the ideas of hope, loss and the finality of death.


    The Rag Tree Speaks


    Cerebus uses me to urinate against:

    he releases his stinking stream of piss, one head

    watching its trickling through the crackles of my bark,

    the other intent on whether the chrome yellow trail

    can reach the river’s edge where the ferryman waits.

    He sniffs my sides, lingering to the North where the lichen

    and moss grow thickest to assert none other has used me

    as their staging post, then, satisfied, bounds back to the shore.

    It is a slight revenge in this Underworld,

    as they cannot dig out my roots,

    I’m embedded and protected by too many charms,

    my reflection bonded too strongly in the sunlit side

    where my passing would be noticed-

    the entrance would be dug out from sodden trough,

    the dry heave of stump overturned-

    then where would they be, exposed to the light?

    They have ways around it though;

    My brother was felled in Clonenagh

    They reckoned he’d died (or that was implied)

    from all the coins hammered into his boughs

    down here avoiding the ferryman’s fee.

    The newly dead had laughed before,

    merry in his shade, camped on the banks

    with the toll untaken, and here across the Styx

    my dead were glad too, beneath their streamed hopes-

    until one day he was gone and Charon

    stood counting the glistening heaps of gold,

    his mutt snapping and nosing them onto the boat.

    On my shore they cling to the flash and flicker

    of all they`ve tied fast to help them recall.

    I hold their rags as long as I can;

    When the rags fall, rotten with time,

    they need to forget, as what`s left becomes unbearable-

    they turn from me, wander to the distant shore

    and drink deep from the mercury sludge

    of the Lethe River’s flow.



    [1] ‘Aleph to Taf’, and ‘Laundry’.







    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here