Afternoon Drinking in the Jolly Butchers, by Rachel Coventry- Reviewed

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Afternoon drinking in The Jolly Butchers feels like being invited to join in a casual conversation with a group you found yourself sitting near to in a pub or café because the conversation sounded interesting and the participants noticed your curiosity. That’s not to say that the conversation doesn’t tackle darker or intricate topics but the starting point is one of welcome and engagement. The title poem shows how each decision has an alternative option that would have led to a different conclusion,

so now you and me
as we turned out
are galaxies apart
from the last time we agreed
the last time you asked me
shall we have another one?

The poem had a colloquial tone but ends on a note of regret of separated friendship. The third and fourth quoted lines, are galaxies apart/ from the last time we agreed stops this becoming a nostalgic poem about that lost friendship but keeps the focus on the separation.  Nostalgia is kept away from Poppies, a prose poem, which examines a memory of taking opium with a now dead friend,

I cannot say how long we stayed but one night the moon was more full and more beautiful than it has ever been since. It lit you silver, you in your Pony Express leather and your

army boots. It lit me too, shining right though the bullshit to the single pearl at the centre of all existence.

 The next day it rained. We woke to the grey. The cicada now singing under my skin. I could not bear to talk, could not bear your English drawl. We got on the bike and you found the road north.

It too explores how decisions can separate people who were once friends. The detail of the memory of the silvered moon has lasted longer than the memory of exactly where they were or how they ended up taking the drug. It contrasts with the dismal weather the following day and the reluctance to converse. The pondering over decisions made and their aftermath continues in The Lilac Falls where a storm has felled a tree,

Standing before every choice I made
now unfurled paper snowdrops
cut on the fold

 all beginning with you, mother
cycling home from the market
a baby tree in your basket

 every eventuality happened,
near infinite versions of myself
all doing something else

The poem moves from the concrete image of a mother planning to plant a sapling to the abstract of multiple parallel universes where every decision the poem’s narrator made sent clones of her on multiple life journeys. But the reader doesn’t know if any of the alternatives were preferable or if the narrator is pleased with the choices this version of her made. It lacks the engagement of the earlier poems.

To an absent parent looks to the dumb O of an open mouth and the struggle to grieve when the parent passes away. The poem ends,

I’m a fraud at the graves
of other people’s parents.
I wear black like Amy Winehouse
in a music video

The poem’s narrator did her grieving when the parent left her so struggles to grieve when the estranged parent dies. I’m not sure how much the reader is to invest in the Amy Winehouse reference. The singer/songwriter didn’t wear black much of the time so it seems to be a reference to the Back to Black video which was a song about infidelity where the singer watches her lover return to his partner/spouse while she, the mistress, is discarded. It could be a suggestion of how a child feels being picked up by an absent parent when they feel like playing at being a parent for a short time while the child knows they will be discarded again. Or it could be the reviewer reading too much into an image. A reader unfamiliar with Amy Winehouse’s songs would respond differently.

A later poem comes across Two swans on the pond at UCD who are

dipping and lifting,
imperfectly mirroring
articulating some silent thing

 and I too dip and lift
in the mirror of myself
drift again, some impossible
question of you I guess

 when I come back
they too are drifting apart
on the water’s flickering
imperfect glass.

The narrator avoids questioning herself too deeply, sticking to safer surfaces. The poem brings the reader back to the collection’s theme of separations and what could have been if a different route were taken. Reading it feels like having an afternoon drink with a friend where you keep the conversation light, ask questions but skim over tricky answers until you find yourself at home, thinking about what wasn’t said but shared nonetheless.

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