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This review is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Cover of Woman of Winter
Gwyneth LewisVona Groarke, Woman of Winter, illustrations by Isabel Nolan (Gallery Books) € 15; John Kinsella, The Pastoraclasm (Salt) £10.99
Begging Honey of the Sea

On the face of it, these two books could not be more different: Vona Groarke’s new version of the ninth-century poem The Lament of the Hag of Beare, a slim volume with its concise, seemingly straightforward quatrains and the sprawling eclogues and explicit ecological thinking of John Kinsella’s Pastoraclasm. Yet both books address our contemporary moment with satire and archaeologies of deep time. They overlap content-wise in both writers’ commitment to Ireland – see, for example, Kinsella’s ‘The Terrifying Prospect of Another Birdless Day, Indoors, Schull, West Cork’, a title which is a poem in itself – but could not be more different in approach or method.

Groarke and Kinsella are both drawing on the root stock of ancient literature. Groarke’s poem is a rendering of an anonymous poem spoken, as she says in her introduction, by a ‘dramatic, articulate, wounded and resistant female protagonist’. The brief introduction explains that the hag/nun/ancestress figure blurs, by the eleventh century, into a mythic figure and is said to pass into ‘seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass from her to death of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races’.

Time behaves strangely around such figures and Groarke deftly ties her protagonist to her view of translation as a ‘passing through’. She aims ‘to write a new poem in contemporary English that draws upon the heritage of a poem’ and she does so meticulously. This light touch has resulted in an exquisite, pitch-perfect rendition, giving us a poem ...

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