Guest Review: Houghton On Bourke
Nicholas Houghton reviews
by Eva Bourke
Despite having lived the latter part of her life in Galway, Ireland, Eva Bourke’s German heritage and education are woven seamlessly into her most recent collection, Piano. A background rooted in the heart of continental Europe, then nurtured on its most westerly point, has granted her a feel for atavistic detail and oblique metaphor that enables her to take us on a journey to the essence of existence.
The eponymous third poem in the first section, ‘The Soul of the Piano’ is anything but oblique though, it is a statement of intent, enclosing the poems to come within the smooth polished wood of Bourke’s metaphorical piano, while simultaneously placing the piano at the centre of the poems:
The soul of the piano smells of damp backyards, potato soup, harbour bars after rain, of school proms, war and gun powder, perfume and palace gardens in spring.
It is the deftly played notes of this piano that augment our journey through Bourke’s world of people and things to the centre of experience.
In the second section, ‘Achill Kileen’ takes a folk custom of old Ireland, that of burying unbaptised babies near to prehistoric graveyards in the hope that the ancient gods would look after their souls, and places it in a contemporary setting, deftly mixing past with present. The first stanza ends with:
…far out between two rocks, the sun
opens a blue door
and ushers a trawler and crew into
the glittering high rise of the day.
But by the third stanza:
I stand in a field above the sea
strewn with pieces
of white quartz
each marking a child’s grave.
By moving from the everyday beauty of trawlers going to sea in this fundamentally unchanged environment, via the conduit of the grief of parents burying children too young even to be named:
But the young parents who knelt
on the hillside knew them by heart-
grief they were called, loss and anguish.
to a tight focus on a small patch of quartz marked grass, Bourke has forged a connection between past and present, the everyday and the seemingly insurmountable. Work and grief are always with us.
The shifting nature of our relationship with time and nature is a theme that recurs, and is ultimately uplifting, as in ‘Evening near Letterfrack,’ one of the many prose poems, where two women are observed walking along a beach:
of plaited locks, the other’s head shone in the evening light
like weathered driftwood, smooth, bleached and silvered….
….where were divisions now? The line between
the water and the sky, all binaries and opposites
dissolved here at the end of Europe.
These two timeless figures could be from any age, and bring a healing perspective to some of the images that have gone before.
The poet as recorder of scenes is explored in a series of poems that address the power of photographs seen years after they have been taken, the most powerful of which is ‘Self-portrait, 1939.’ Here, the decay of the photograph becomes a pathetic fallacy, leading the subject to ruminate on her own eventual death:
Was it some lingering illness
that killed me or the darkroom toxins?
allied to the spread of war,
or was I buried beneath the rubble
The poem then opens out, growing further from the detail of the photograph, creating a sense of foreboding:
Should I have watched the signs,
the rallies in the squares,
the marching songs, shouts shots,
the birds scattering in a panic
from the treetops on the left,
the ineradicable stain that spread
across the image from the margins
blotting out the world?
It is rare to find a poet who can move so swiftly and yet in such a perfectly judged way from musing on their own mortality to the horrors of global conflict, without seeming self-indulgent; Bourke achieves this seemingly without effort.
Bourke’s ability to move from the quotidian to the transcendent is much in evidence in a series of prose poems toward the end of the collection. In ‘Journal from the Mirrored Cities,’ the:
bleached blondes talking incessantly, serve underworld delights, hot mustard, aromatic wines, blandishments,
expands exhilaratingly to:
the peace-keeping army of stars streaming across roof tops, the great fireworks in summer that consume the night.
Later in ‘Journal from the Mirrored Cities,’ a bus journey delivers an everyday vision written in the type of magnificently quiet language that pervades the collection:
The young woman beside me on the bus who was plugged into another universe wore a sheer blouse over her shorts and a thin red necklace from Bruges. She was so beautiful that even her freckles were celestial, a fine spray of golden constellations.
The penultimate poem, ‘Koan,’ circles back, recapturing the sense of faith that pervades the earlier poems, and connecting it to actual religious imagery:
despite the explosives the great Buddhas are still there guarding
….demonic intertwined forms, the devils wear delicate beaded
skirts to cover their shame, Isaac
leans his young head into the crook of his father’s arm whose
is already lowering the knife.
Ultimately though, the poet leaves us on our own:
a single player in an empty court
in darkness, fog and silence.
The poems in this collection encompass spirituality, human suffering, beauty and kindness. This is the type of book that will resonate with readers of all ages. Much like a piano, it reflects the player’s commitment to that instrument’s complex possibilities, and I shall certainly be re-visiting these poems.