Literature Live: Colette Bryce and Tara Bergin, Martin Harris Centre, 16 October 2017.

Monday 16th October, 2017, Manchester saw a red sun and dust blown from Africa, not to mention gale force winds and a few overturned wheelie bins. But somewhere, somewhere deep in the midst of all this chaos a separate storm was brewing. In a dark (and purple) backroom of the Martin Harris Centre two poetic forces were on course to collide: two intensely different poets writing from intensely different places. And what an evening it was!

Tara Bergin began proceedings. Reading from her second book of poetry, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, a book threaded front to back with characters and colours and returning motifs; a flower, for example, woven as an echo, popping up when you least expect it. Tragic Death was recently shortlisted for this year’s Forward Price for Poetry, and Bergin, rather fittingly, opened with its first two poems, ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx’, and ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’. They were the perfect way in to a topic Tara explained had become somewhat of an ‘obsession’ in the past few years. She read them as if they were a single poem, an opening statement if you will.

(A quick side note: later in the discussion, Tara talked of writing process, citing her PhD in translation as a major influence on both her poetic voice and her new book, ‘I was particularly interested in the effect translation has on the translator…it felt like I was writing a defence of forgery’. In fact, it was while researching for her PHD in Russia that Bergin discovered the story of Eleanor Marx. So, the poet’s scholarly research and poetry writing, are in many ways joined at the hip, born from the same time period and experience. For this reason it might be particularly interesting to look at The Tragic Death as a thesis of sorts, but not one of chapters and footnotes, a thesis crafted instead as a character, a voice, a living Eleanor Marx breathing in Tara Bergin’s words, and brought absolutely to flesh and bone on stage at The Martin Harris Centre on a windy October night.)

‘I’m not going to tell you anything…I will not stand up to him…There are ten parts to this story.’

If the first poem posed an argument, then the second poem visualised this argument like a map on the page. Tara speaks this map like a spell, not once breaking eye contact with the audience, a humming metronome to her words as she counts up, ticks the clock – ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, On Tuesday: Fire’ – a slight dip of the shoulder – ‘God of suicide’ – hands clasped – ‘7’ – a pause – ‘And of the women who knew’ – she blinks, takes a breath – ‘And of the chunk of poisoned apple’ – another pause – ‘8, 9’ – up we go until… ‘Her tears are dew and she crushes nothing’ – Bergin closes her eyes, smiling – ‘10: nearly all of this is true.’

And with this, the poet’s metamorphosis was complete, her destination reached; Bergin had transformed.

Be it ‘Talking to Anne Marie’ or ‘Making Robert Learn Like Susan’. Be it the dance of voices in ‘If I Love One I Can’t Love Two’; each change of tone, each subtle dampening or a coy look the other way propelling the poems into total performance: ‘When I’m with x I have no thought of y…But then y takes and takes’. Be it the list of flowers in ‘Strange Courtship’, the timbre, pure spell, Bergin’s tone wavering, slowing as she adds ingredient after ingredient, constantly playing with the possibility of sound, ‘Mint, maybe, or laburnum.’ Bergin never looked down at her pages. She didn’t need to. These poems are a part of her now, and she recalled them like memory:

Silence – ‘These are the rules’ – the audience waits. Somewhere near the front row a man coughs and instantly regrets it – ‘White lilac means’ – Bergin purses her lips, sinks one way – ‘I am falling in love-’ – then the other – ‘-with you’.

Colette Bryce read mostly from her new (and outstanding) Selected Poems that came out in March of this year. The book is a truly remarkable set of poems. Any lover of poetry will be hard-pressed to find a more complete poetry book, full to the brim despite its slim spine. A book one can just fall into. Sleep in for a while. Forget the world.

Bryce opened with a joke about her age: ‘We all know what a selected poems means…it means you’re getting on a bit.’ And this joke epitomised the difference between the two poets, Bryce a lot more conversational in her approach, giving insight and explanation where Bergin launched off, more concerned, as John McAuliffe noted, with the threat and doom of the immediate thing.

Colette’s first poem was ‘Derry’, or the first section of it; a journey through a childhood littered with ‘the sounds of crowds and smashing glass’, of ‘suicide and rip tides’ and ‘a teacher’s daughter…afloat in the looking-glass.’ Already the air in the room had changed. The nostalgic tracking of memory and rendering of shapes so familiar, ‘the way the grey cathedral cast its shadow…, cool, as sunlight crept from east to west.’ And, as she finished reading the poem she promised ‘to come back to later’, we were somewhere else entirely. No longer with Eleanor Marx but in Ireland, maybe a salt breeze coming off the Lough; Derry, Bogside; the banks of the River Foyle.

Next up was ‘The Republicans’. A surreal poem that ends with a meal scene: ‘Mince. Potatoes. Peas or beans. They light their fags and inhale, deeply.’ After finishing Colette looked up at the audience and chuckled to herself: ‘It’s a weird ending isn’t it? I’ve always thought it’s a weird ending.’ Cue laughter from everyone in the room.

Again Bryce’s conversational charm maintained as she spoke this time of a more serious topic, asking the audience, ‘What is autobiographical poetry?’ This question would go on to frame much of the debate when the floor was opened up to questions. She linked the suggestion to ‘The Analyst’s Couch’, a poem from Rain-Doomed Universe with two voices. This was Bryce’s turn to dramatise, and the poet directed the italicised lines, largely questions, to John Mcauliffe in the front row, ‘Who took his weight…?’ The poem flowed with a lovely rocking motion as Colette swung between each voice, back and forth, her words building to a resonance when the final question hit, ‘Am I making this up?’ And her initial challenge of the autobiographical became clear, ‘You think you’re writing about something and then you realise you might be making it up.’ Clever stuff.

Colette then treated us to two new poems featured in the most recent edition of Poetry Review, ‘Perfect Smile’, and the hilarious ‘Needles to Say’, the latter a pun on needless that the poet was more than keen to point out.

Then came an older poem, a favourite of mine: ‘A Spider’, from Self-Portrait in the Dark, a ‘border poem’ according to Bryce, ‘All you need to do is look up at the great migrations going on at the moment’. This poem, full to bursting with guilt and claustrophobia resounded around the four walls, dying in the wake of its silence, ‘I trapped a spider…I meant to let him go but still he taps against the glass…a circumstance I know.’

Colette’s penultimate poem of the evening ‘Asylum’ is the final poem in her Selected Poems.

Should a gust blow in from the north of Ireland,
buffeted by the wind,

should the shadow of a cross, afloat on the water,
mirror the flight of a pilgrim

pitching an effortful course through the buffeting gusts.’

This is Bryce’s poetics at its best; transformative, transnational, deeply moving: the heron arriving like a cross on the water, bringing with it the scent of home, its shadow passing between countries, borders, over great divides. And in a second the dark room in Manchester was a beach on Iona; blue ocean for miles and a flat horizon where the shape of Ireland might loom on a clear day,

‘ruling a line straight south to Malin Head
and home, the sweet district of Ireland.’

The Manchester Literature Festival continues until October 22 in venues across Manchester. This piece also appears at Chapter & Verse, the Manchester Literature Festival blog.

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