Jenny Farrell reviews Bernie Crawford's new collection, Living Water, Chaffinch Press 2021.
Bernie Crawford’s debut collection is a profound pleasure to read. It is informed and heightened by a life that has been lived very consciously and focused, choosing what matters.
The poet was a teacher of mathematics and biology in Ireland and Lesotho. She worked in Zambia and Tanzania on the Irish Bilateral Aid programme, returned with two daughters, adopted in Zambia, and with horizons that extend far beyond Western First World complacence and myopia.
Unsurprisingly, the years in Africa and the love for her children feature a great deal. Some of the poems are intensely personal, in a way that makes them universal to parental love, including poems giving insight into the experience of being an adoptive mother.
Other poems about Africa reveal an understanding of a common humanity, rarely seen in European writing. For example “My Earthenware Pots from Lesotho”:
here in my kitchen I listen again to your stories.
The women showed me how to sit a clay pot in a tray of water
and make a safe for my butter, milk and cheese.
And I remember how they soothed you
with aloes soaked in water
after you were sun-dried under a blazing sky,
wood-fired in an open kiln.
And I remember how in summer my mother
replaced the fire in the kitchen hearth
with a clay pot bursting with lilac blossom.
This poem is also about how knowledge and memory reside in hands, as well as in hearts and minds. This is an experience which is shared across the world.
The poet’s profound humanity and understanding of the suffering of many is highlighted in several poems, for example one about “a young Bedouin girl” in the title poem “Living Water”, who is prevented access to live-giving water, as “Soldiers stand beside two army jeeps/ and shout out in a tongue she doesn’t know”. Another example is “The Storyteller of El Far’a Camp, West Bank” whose story is shaped by:
the curved well of olive oil
Anointing the bowl of hummus
The bulldozers who come at night
And uproot him from his dreams
The lost homes in Jaffa and Haifa
The daily resistance of rising
And cooking, eating and praying
Planting tomatoes with the hope
He can harvest the future
The author’s deep humanity, which allows her to identify with the oppressed and poor, extends to the victims of First World inhumanity to the same extent. The name and needless death of Savita Halapanavar is deeply engrained in the psyche of the Irish as a particularly shameful symbol of the failure of Irish society to facilitate abortion at the calculated cost of a woman’s life (“A Catholic Country”).
Crawford writes this homage in the style of William Carlos Williams. It is one of several poems in this collection that show her connection with other poets and artists. Tributes to Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney, both of whom she greatly admires, are among them.
Responding to a different art form, a sculpture of a grieving mother with her dead son, at the Berlin Memorial to the victims of war (“Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà at the New Guardhouse, Berlin”):
A mother clasps the carcass of the son
Her arms, splayed legs, her whole body
as if to suck him back inside,
undo his birth,
dis conceive him
The poet’s training and scientific observation of nature emerges in a number of poems. Her writing about daffodils (“Not a Metaphor”) is a far cry from Wordsworth’s:
I want to see each daffodil
know the hollow snap of stem,
the tang of scent,
the sticky alkaloid oozing from the base
of long, tapering leaves,
the downward curve of stamens,
the placement of carpel
And how the dry papery membrane,
enclosing the bud,
splits along a rib
to allow the flower
This awareness of the natural world includes knowledge of its fragility, the decline of the bee population in Ireland liked to the Famine (“The Flight of the Bees”):
We watch them vanish
over the brow of the Earth, a dark buzzing cloud.
Afternoons no longer swollen by bees.
The choir of the famished sing in lamentation,
an orchestra moves down the famine road,
as if some strings are bowing out.
It is clear from the poems that Bernie Crawford has lived life to the full, and readers benefit enormously from this experience. It runs deep, it is all-encompassing, compassionate, angry, loving. We hear reflective tones that reach beyond the age of thirty – an older voice which is perhaps not heard often enough in contemporary mainstream poetry.
The poet writes about this with humour and acceptance, with an understanding that while older people might be observed by the young as possibly past it, they themselves live with a heightened awareness of the pleasures of life and the need to seize the day. In “Optimism in the Local Pharmacy”, we meet a woman, “her head of flaming silver, her lived-in face” whose energy and enthusiasm has an uplifting effect on waiting customers, as she vocally consults the young assistant about buying condoms:
she cut a swathe through
the internal dialogue at the pharmacy that morning,
showed us how to glide on ice sheets, warm snow,
deep dive with penguins,
befriend our smoking volcanoes.
In “Panic Buy in the Simon Shop” the need to seize the day, even at times of pandemic lockdown, is also central as the speaker sees a pair of exquisite shoes, likened to “scarlet tanagers” that exhilarate her:
A social-distanced head-scarfed woman
fitting on winter coats, smiles:
‘Buy them, wear them,
Even if you’re home alone,
Walk tall, be daring, carpe diem, are the messages in these poems. And of course, there is thinking about death:
Buoyant, you push back the clouds
and blaze the sky with your sinking sun.
Even in a poem about the presence of death and its part in life there is a conviction that there is much beauty in life that we need to own. Bernie Crawford’s poetry heightens this awareness of, in Keats’s words, “A thing of beauty” that ties us to life.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.