It’s not Katrina Naomi’s fault that I bristled at being told how to celebrate my birthday by her poem “How to Celebrate a Birthday.” When I read this poem, it was my birthday. But I couldn’t follow the poem’s instructions to turn off the computer, be with my friends, bother the neighbours, or swim in the sea. Thanks to the you-know-what, many of the once ordinary pleasures celebrated in Naomi’s third collection, Wild Persistence, were unavailable to me as I read. How I envied her London and Cornwall, solitude, airplane food, “a campsite, beers, talk in English and French,” or “a tourist drinking cappuccino / without a thought in her head”! Some of the ordinary luxuries celebrated in Wild Persistence, on the other hand, were all too available to me: brandy, cheese, bed, sidelong snarks about Tories.
“How to Celebrate a Birthday,” which arrives early on in Wild Persistence, has the same belligerent insistence on joy as the memes shared on certain social media sites – and we all know what a health risk they are in a pandemic. “It’s important to feel a little bit special, / even before the cava. And there has to be cava.” Smile, the poem directs us, make love, look at the stars and dance.
Fortunately for those of us reading it in lockdown, “How to Celebrate a Birthday” is not characteristic of Wild Persistence. Indeed, I would venture so far as to say that no single poem in Wild Persistence is characteristic of Wild Persistence, which revels in contradicting itself in subtle and interesting ways. Every poem in the collection has, somewhere in the collection, another poem which is its opposite. If “How to Celebrate a Birthday” is as oblivious of its reader’s complicated, ambivalent life as one of those “humorous” alcoholic greetings cards which exhort us to “Be-GIN the celebrations!”, another poem, “Talisman,” somehow knows all about it. In “Talisman,” the poet dithers in a card shop, unable to “find it in herself to buy, / let alone send, A SISTER IS WORTH A THOUSAND FRIENDS.” In this other, darker, poem, Naomi is clear-eyed about the degree to which being told to feel special will not suffice to make us feel special:
Cards as commands,
white and black shouts on a carousel,
IT’S CHOCOLATE O’CLOCK!
The shopkeeper can’t even find it in herself
to say good morning…
She still doesn’t know what to send,
what to say, as if sweet-sweet words on an angel,
LOVE on a butterfly or a pale heart from China
could keep her sister from harm.
Formally, Naomi’s poems in Wild Persistence are plain and driven by narrative, for the most part – loosely, but deftly, arranged. Apart from some gentle playfulness with space within poems that are otherwise conventionally shaped, they largely eschew virtuoso formalism. This raises another interesting contradiction, because one poem, “The University,” is framed around a rejection of plainness and straight-lined efficiency. “I tried to admire the form and function / the ergonomics of it,” writes Naomi of the modern university building in this poem; “But it lacked flamboyance / any superfluous design.” It reads like an ars poetica, this declaration that “I like beauty – / have I said that before? I want more of it, / fewer straight lines, fewer courtyards with shale / or pebbles, and sensible dark green plants / with no flowers.” And yet Naomi’s poems themselves demonstrate that the plain can be beautiful, that straight lines functionally arranged, with clarity of purpose, can make a fine space to settle and think.
Violence is a persistent and complicating presence in a collection which ends with a gun not fired and an admission that: “I know not everything is in my control.” At the heart of this otherwise light-hearted collection are a set of relationships with archetypal men – the lover, the father, the rapist – which are explored with great care and seriousness, the men never allowed the comfort of becoming stereotypes, and the rape, recounted in “If I Were a Different Person I Might Be Able to Forgive,” allowed to be both devastating and survivable. I thought for a long time about this poem’s final lines:
I’d like to forgive but can never forget
how I focused on his gelled hair,
not his eyes, his clothes, his hands,
his body – not on what he was doing –
but then I had to come alive.
In another brilliant poem, “The Blade,” the poet sees her own features reflected in a moving blade, one that will split a frog in two:
scythed on the soft rush and purple moor grass, the frog’s
topside looking back at me – the leg and head
convulsing, then settling, the lower organs rearranged
unmendably and below that half-life, the whiff of something
butcher-fresh would stay with me. And my features
in the blade’s trajectory, almost innocent.
Here, I thought inevitably of Seamus Heaney, that master of splitting the self into innocent and self-accuser.
But a far more constant presence, as I read this collection, was the late, great Matthew Sweeney. The stories Naomi tells are nothing like Sweeney’s. There are no nuns on motorbikes here, no drinks with Neil Armstrong, no poets swimming down the Lee – though there is, admittedly, a collection of cleats of mud pressed from the boots of men. Still, there’s something about Naomi’s deadpan tone that reminds me of Sweeney’s tone. It’s a wonderful tone, a tone that allows us to stay safely, gloriously uncertain. It makes possible a poetic world in which cava can receive all the appreciation it deserves, in which things can be at once true and not-true, and in which the true and the not-true contain multitudes.
— Ailbhe Darcy
AILBHE DARCY is an Irish poet living in Wales. With S.J. Fowler, she is the co-author of Subcritical Tests (2017). Her first collection of poetry was Imaginary Menagerie (2011) and her second is Insistence (2018).