Earth Music by Eithne Lannon

Reviewed ByDavid Butler

David Butler’s second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in 2017 by Doire Press. His 11 poem cycle ‘Blackrock Sequence’, a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission illustrated by his b rother Jim, won the World Illustrators Award 2018 (books, professional section). Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection, Fugitive & Other Stories, in 2019. Literary prizes the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly, Baileborough, Phizfest and Poetry Ireland/Trócaire awards for poetry.

Earth Music

Earth Music by Eithne Lannon (Turas Press, 2019)

Poetry might be thought of as an endeavour to explore the congruence between two sensitivities: a contemplation of experience – Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recalled in tranquillity’ -; but equally an openness to the possibilities inherent in language, both semantic and auditory. If either of these sensitivities is lacking, or lazy, the resulting verse will tend to be bland and hackneyed. One of the strengths of Eithne Lannon’s impressive debut collection, Earth Music, is the obvious relish with which she explores both the sensory imagination and the linguistic means by which to render the sensuous palpable.

The collection abounds in inventive verbs: ‘slow plishes drippling’; ‘city lights / skimmering’; ‘wind-touches / riffled into wet light’; ‘She sits quietly unspooling / in the sterile room’; ‘the savage grey wolf slingeing at the door.’ Nouns, too, are made fresh in her coining of hyphenated compounds which recall both Joyce and the kennings of early English poetry: ‘soil-song’; ‘womb-cave’; ‘wind-cradle’; ‘water-light’; ‘hush-breeze’; ‘mind-corridors’; ‘wrist-leaf’; ‘mud-lust’; ‘bubble-scruff.’ These coinages are animated not merely by bringing together two nouns not generally coupled, but by a fine attention to sound – to stress, to assonance and alliteration. 

This relish of the acoustic is apparent in many of the poems. Thus ‘Bach’s Cello’ has: ‘If your hands could speak / they’d be tongues of sound, // your fingers ask to be water, to flow / like a dark string of starlings from a stave.’ In the opening poem, ‘Enough’: ‘currents below // carry on their secret life, ruffling / wavelets to a sandy paste, // lifting bubble-scruff to a frothy spin / of airborne river breath’. Contrast the fricative ‘vs and fs’ and bubbling ‘u’ vowel here with the thinner ‘i’ vowel and plosive ‘ps and ks’ in ‘I think of Rain’, in the course of which we are given: ‘slow plishes drippling, mizzle and ink / stroking air. Finches shrill-singing, // swallows wing-flitting’. Or consider the stark monosyllables of ‘Wordsearch’, a portrait of a mute (post-stroke?) woman in which: ‘Broad vowels sit fat / on her tongue, / move like slugs’.

If the collection has a manifesto, it is perhaps articulated in the opening of ‘So much depends’: ‘upon paying attention – // all day, light pours / over the trees, // all night, a soft moon-bud / opens the sky.’ Paying attention is something at which Eithne Lannon excels. If the title poem, ‘Earth Music’, talks of: ‘the gravity of sound settling on mossed stone. // I hear its tongue-lick in ivy the way a bat hears / the silhouette of trees, or a whale the shape of its home, / touching the skin like sound braille,’ the sensuously rich ‘I think of Rain’ reimagines precipitation in terms of scent, sight and thirst in addition to sound. Rain is thought of, for instance, as ‘fragrance falling; wood-spice / and balm, pine-sucked resin /syphoned out of tree knots // and ridges, mud-lust and swamp odour…’. In the delicately crafted ‘Crossover’: ‘Our footsteps unsettle dust, disturb / a woodloused threshold. Damp walls /curdle, the mirror leaks absence – // a house making strange…’

While the collection is dominated by the poet’s responses to nature, other points of departure are the tactile memory of a lover’s hands, the death of a young sister, and a 1929 boating accident on Loughshinny Bay. All in all, Earth Music is a remarkably assured debut collection from a poet equally alive to the sensory world and to the possibilities of language.