“a sense of incompleteness”

This is Yarrow by Tara Bergin (Carcanet, £9.95)
reviewed by Russell Jones

Bergin, This is Yarrow
Tara Bergin’s debut collection, This is Yarrow, promises “sensuous, supple lyricism” and “unsettling familiarity of folklore, fairytale and dream”. These are exciting qualities to me, and with this blurb excerpt playing on my mind I started the book enthusiastically. But, please believe me, I find this difficult to say: I didn’t like this book.

My difficulty comes here: there’s a curved line to draw between objectively appreciating that the poems are well constructed and considered, and my own reaction as I close the covers. Bergin’s formal experiments are to be admired as they frequently, although not always, inform the poems’ contents. Her more musical pieces also arrest the ear. And yet I came away so often unaffected and – dare I say it – uninterested, that many of the poems were forgotten almost as soon as I’d read them. Take the poem, ‘Candidate’, for example; a series of 5 interview questions and proposed tips for answering:

1. Can you tell me about yourself?
Many candidates are tripped up by this. Here’s an example of what
to say: ‘I have 10 years of experience in the accounting profession.’

The poem continues in a similar vein, ending on a recommendation:

6. Remember: displaying grace under pressure will highlight your
professionalism and help you to stand out as a prospective member
of the company.

Here, the formal layout and Bergin’s almost-mechanised matter-of-fact language suits the content, but the poem doesn’t make enough of a statement or lead us to any new insight. So many of the poems lead us down a path that never goes anywhere satisfactory. So many of them explore “almosts” and “not quites”, absences that left the collection and the reader feeling ethereal and distant, unchallenged and unaffected. Of course I could accept that this might be the point, and the fragmented narratives that form the collection do build a sense of incompleteness that rings true, but it’s far from thrilling and the parts never quite fit together to make a sense of a whole.

There are some outstanding poems. In particularly, the title poem, ‘This is Yarrow’ (the closing poem), blends the real with the surreal in a dream-like incantation whose reality permeates to create a splendid tension that I wish so many of the poems had also achieved:

[…] and in this dream I went up to the dirty bus station
and I saw the black side of the power station
as if the brown moth’s tapping at the window
made me say it I said, do you still love me?

Others that do stay with me include ‘White Crow’, ‘The Passion Flower’ and ‘St Patrick’s Day Address, 1920’, each resonating with a sense of loss and displacement in their relative worlds. But there simply wasn’t enough for me to cling on to from This is Yarrow: I wanted to sense, to feel, to understand but, with the exception of a few glittering lights among the darkness, I saw almost nothing.

Russell Jones

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