London Grip Poetry Review – Roisin Tierney


Poetry Review – TIGER MOTH: Amelia Walker gives Róisín Tierney’s latest collection the close attention it deserves


Tiger Moth
Róisín Tierney 
Turas Press
ISBN 978-1-913598-33-4

According to philosopher Simone Weil (in a letter to Joë Bousquet, quoted in Simone Pétrement’s Simone Weil: A Life) attention makes for ‘the rarest and purest form of generosity’. In today’s era of ecological devastation and violence wrought by careless greed, the generosity of attention appears something we as a species sorely need to revive. Róisín Tierney’s new poetry collection Tiger Moth is a book that pays careful attention, inviting readers, too, into spaces of noticing and appreciating minutiae too often overlooked amid everyday hurries. Tierney achieves this through fine description, striking imagery, and sensitive details. The poems in Tiger Moth never tell readers what to think, but rather, via juxtapositions and connections, give rise to thought, deep and complex.

Woven through Tiger Moth are recurrent themes that, through their braided interactions and transforming reiterations, dialogue with each other, creating a whole that is far more than its sum of parts: the book’s ordering is itself also a poem. Those themes include nature’s beauty, human-animal connections, illness, death, and vulnerabilities, of human and beyond-human bodies, emotions, relationships and (eco)systems. Throughout, there is a strong sense of inter-species entanglements such as those written about by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing. The opening poem, “Wren”, traces these interrelations as it sketches human life, death, and suffering from the vantage-point of a wren in a park:

here is an old woman, here an office worker

and here is someone from the hospital 
nursing a wounded eye

In this old plague-ground, on this hill of bones,
see them unwrap themselves, settle to eat

trailing their plague-masks, their bandages,
gulping their coffees and sandwiches,

inhaling the pestilent air

These observations both connect and contrast with the final lines, which address the wren in second person to remark:

How nicely you hold your tiny skeleton.
How nicely you mirror theirs, sternum, clavicle.

How short is a wren’s life. Barely two years.

Later, the preciousness of animal life is reiterated through poems like “Death of a Hen”, which details final hours of ‘the black hen with the emerald sheen on her feathers’ who ‘used to like sunbathing, one dark wing / spread out like a fan in the dust, her body / tilted slightly to better catch the heat’, and “Suck”, a poem about an old man and a young girl butchering roadkill because ‘Clean meat for the dogs’ is ‘Too good to waste’. Yet they respect and feel for the creature whose death they are benefiting from. This is evident from the opening paragraph, which establishes the scene in careful detail:

They admired her before stringing her up
by her long lets from the meat hook;
the grey-grown coat, white scut,
the blue-veined semi-translucent ears. 
She was downy – soft to the touch
when they stroked her. No rigor mortis yet.
Dark eyes filmed with the sheen of death.

The sadness of the animal’s death is intensified when the old man and young girl notice ‘on the flagstones of the dank shed / there mingled drops of milk and blood’, thus realising that the dead creature was a nursing mother, and reflecting ‘Poor things, they’ll starve. Hard to think of. / A weakening litter in a cooling burrow.’

The human empathy with animal suffering evoked in “Death of a Hen” and “Suck” sits in poignant tension with poems evoking human cruelty and exploitation of our beyond-human kin, such as “Jar of Brown Moles”, which depicts the ‘picked babyhood’ of moles preserved in a jar of formaldehyde for scientific study:

…anaemic snouts pressed against the glass
on thirty frozen grimaces or kisses. Your velvet coats
are still a deepest brown, dark chocolate pelts,
onesies of the underworld of show. Each tiny hand
a creamy glove, each foot a palest pink,
free-floating, poised for ballet.

Likewise notable is “Nemesis”, in which the poem’s speaker is initially frustrated by a noisy parrot, but shifts attitude as they recognise that what makes the bird annoying is its mimicking of things humans have said—via which the bird becomes a reminder of all the worst attributes our species can bear—and furthermore, that it is endangered, bordering on extinction:

I was put in mind of a herd of almost-Aurochs
I saw in a zoo somewhere, tilting
their heads so that their giant horns
did not catch on the trees in their enclosure.
I don’t know what they really were,
an ancient cattle breed – Longhorn? Heck?

They approximated the real thing, no doubt
but seeing them made one instantly aware
pf something gone. Extinct. Kaput.
and Polly, for all her flair
at mimicking us and all our noisy trivia
is sliding towards that same precipice.

These poems of animal deaths sit alongside poems evoking human death, paying due respect to each, and reminding us of how similar we are in our frailties and our interdependence. Especially powerful for me was “Ataxia”, which, written in second person, describes the initial symptoms and diagnosis of degenerative condition for a ‘you’ with whom the speaker is plainly close, thus conjuring the heartaches of both sufferer and family in the context of incurable illness. Later poems in the collection, including “Heaven”, “The Mirror”, and “The X-Ray Reporting Room” also address a gradually-dying ‘you’, whom I read to be the same person, seemingly the speaker’s father, whose funeral is depicted in the penultimate poem, “Adiós Padre”, which opens:

You lay in repose, the casket open,
made newly handsome, whole again
in your best tweeds, your good silk tie,
dado’s beads threaded through your fingers.

and concludes:

We got into our cars
and drove to Germaine’s
for turkey and ham and wine.

And then there was hail
and then there was sleet,
and then you were gone.

The entanglements of death with life are brought forth via weavings and juxtapositions of the illness and death narrative with poems about travels to Spain and Greece, which describe beauty as well as sadness in those places and their ecologies. Many poems reference astronomy, astrology, and Gods (these include “The Planets”, “Io Rising”, “The Idolator” and “Aphaia, Invisible Goddess”), which give pause to think of Earth’s preciousness as well as its smallness: there is so much out there beyond our capacities to reach or know. For instance, “Io Rising” depicts Io, moon of Jupiter, as ‘a black marble thrown, a pea of jet’ that is simultaneously ‘golden, speckled, gorgeous, volcanic / hot and firey, a Klimt painting, glittering’.

This shrinkage of our human world is humbling, and destabilises our anthropocentrism; yet it does not minimise the significance of the life and death moments the collection places in focus. The death of one person may seem, to the cosmos, even tinier than that of an insect or moth seems to human eyes. Yet the moth’s wings are ‘Beautiful, double clothed, / red-gold in flight, a tigerish zigzag // of cream and brown stripes when at rest’ and the speaker cannot help but wonder at ‘that old dilemma: / am I woman dreaming of a moth, or rather…’

Tiger Moth’s final poem, “Safest”, placed as it is after two poems about death, suggests finding solace in nature while mourning. Its structure, which intersperses two-line stanzas with single-line ones harks back to the opening poem. It sings the value of being present in small moments, of listening to quiet, and of attention to all that we might otherwise hurry by too fast. It opens:

Right now

An ouzel dips a wing to list
sideways through the gap in a gale,

a gust blown up out of nothingness;

a heron dreeps its feathers to hunch
under a hail-scur by the bosque;.

and concludes:

multitudes of mussles thread their byssus
onto the seabed, onto rocks,

hold themselves (their little selves!) steadfast
against squall, riptide and tempest

or just the general ebb and flow,
while we lie here in the cool of our room,

quiet now.

So ends this accomplished collection—which, as the best of poetry books do, immediately made me want to return to the start and re-read, with greater attention still to the fine scenes and moments Tierney has crafted. This is a book our world needs right now. I hope it will be read widely, and with care.