About halfway through Órfhlaith Foyle’s first full poetry collection, Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma (Arlen House, 2009), there is a poem entitled ‘And Where Else?’ which reads like a biographical inventory, a listing of the poet’s places of residence from birth up to the present. It ends with:
our parents are Irish
we’re from somewhere else.
Órfhlaith Foyle’s poems are “from somewhere else”. And they spring from several elsewheres. There are poems here remembering time in Africa (‘After Sunday Mass in Malawi’, ‘Italian Nuns’) and Russia (‘Later in Leningrad’), as well as ones celebrating place (‘Romance with Paris’, ‘Missed Opportunity’, ‘I was Banned from my Great Aunt’s House in New York’). In each of these poems the sense of place, fragmented as it is in its portrayal through an immature lens – particular stages in personal development – remains ultimately elusive. Taken as a whole, however, they reflect the contemporary condition of the migrant who crosses borders and infiltrates cultures unknown to her – to grasp them fleetingly and assimilate them incompletely before she moves on again. They read like a rediscovery of humanity’s wandering instincts.
What facilitates this search is a self-empowered voice of a woman speaking through her experiences from girlhood through to adulthood. She confronts notions of love and its multiple failures, and records events mostly through the eyes and ears of an innocent. There is, indeed, a strain of naïveté running through this collection with its sometimes awkward line endings and forced rhymes – hinting perhaps at an attempt towards a process of re-birth. There are several visceral poems kicking out against a kind of straitjacketing imposed largely by religion – whose imagery is both played with and put under destructive force – and also by the traditions of patriarchy and family:
An uncle condemned me
– you invite the devil to sit down beside you
(from ‘Jesus in the Painting, Mary in Blue’)
Foyle, however, understands that as much as our new, looked-for experiences it is our background and early influences that shape our responses to the world:
I come from the fear of God also
and my mother’s tears
and my father’s sharp dreams
into mine and
mixed with words
that would like to
Burn – It – All – Down
(from ‘I Come From’)
On occasion the collection is blemished by excessive introspection; there are poems making use of abstract language in an attempt to decipher the meaning of love, or dissect the break-up of a relationship, or examine concepts such as morality, evil, and our modern condition. One or two didactic poems have crept in which, irrespective of what they convey, sit uncomfortably within the language and mode of composition that defines the rest of Foyle’s poetry.
But this is perhaps all the more so because she often spoils us with morsels of simple, clear, forceful writing:
He moves about on strong feet.
His clothes smell of sweat.
He likes what my pen paints.
He knows I want his passion.
(from ‘Van Gogh Visits’)
But I spat out their goodness
like spare vomit from my lungs.
I developed my own Blasphemy.
(from ‘Someone Crept up to Me’)
Imagine me in a man’s arms
the buttons of my dress pressed into his shirt.
Music and evening sun
the kind of heat that gives sheen to everyone’s skin.
And then there is the closing poem, ‘Experiences of a Man in Great Debt to Esther’, which gives a hint as to where Órfhlaith Foyle’s poetry might be moving towards as it evolves further: when she allows herself to look outwards, having re-imagined herself into an independent position and armed with all that she has gathered in her way, she promises a spate of poems of sustained richness, clarity and vividness.
For now, the elements that comprise Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma add up to an intoxicating collection, unafraid to hunt for juxtapositions of images and sounds that aim to touch hitherto unutterable depths. Whether they sometimes fail is almost immaterial: the process yields something valuable for both the writer and the reader.