Áine Miller's Touchwood
(Salmon Publishing, Ltd., 2000
Co. Clare, Ireland; 86 pp. $12)

By Tim Scannell

The author of these eighty-six poems is especially successful, decades later as a 'mature-student' graduate, a writer settled and acclaimed, in evoking youth, in teasing out a reluctant Muse, in tiring of obligation. If youth is a state of unsurpassed beauty, it is also one of unrivaled, innocent anguish.

When she failed to qualify,
they found her jobs to do.

She set the tables for the teas,
had a dainty way with buns.
("Sports Day")

It is only abed and with a favorite book ("gawky limbs in bronze") that she may be Atalanta

On Cork's Elysian fields

[where] she races, an arrow winging
from the reach of failure.

The very unguarded nature of childhood lips may destroy an idyll valued most. In "A Stay in the Country," the narrator hides in the kitchen, "for fear Agatha would make me / bring the mash to the hens." An older boy invites this timid youngster to fish

for eels by the weir.
[but] Water squirmed and I feared
eels where the tops of brown legs
paled. I hid in rushes.

He followed, wove a basket
for my dolly.

She makes the terrible error--mortifying to the "big boy"--of blabbing the kindness to everyone. Naturally, he tears the dolly basket to pieces, and "His ears bright red, / he cackled like the hens."

In these autobiographical poems, precisely-captured imagery of childhood is not abandoned in the busier rush of adulthood.

She who first felt him slither on her chest
after the whoosh of birth
wondered at his balled-up fists
and his foamy aghast mouth.

Twelve years elapse in this 5-stanza poem, and toward a mother's growing son

even love becomes abscessed.
She recoils from his fang,
in her old silted wells, sure
he is about his business.

As an 'adult' student in Dublin, she finds herself

among schoolchildren, who come dipping
out of the sun,
on one wing to pass me by

Wings of my own,
in harness,
creak under strap and buckle,
wait for the tug
on the rip-cord
that will riffle them
from their folds.

Tested by education, mother-sister-wife confronts

insatiable demand
For more and more of her self.

Habit is all
she can summon to clamber the wall.
Her feet reach for slippers that move
Like floats in the thieving sea.

Added to this is the palpable fear that memories will be lost amid life's ceaseless accumulation of incident and emotion, aftermath and survival: "The album she keeps in her head /As a rule . . . [is] clutched / Near her heart, like a purse." In "Cock Sparrow," the next of these chronological poems, even the beloved Musae seem to wither, to become an eking out, but she renders paucity in such a fine and perfect lyric:

Wintery still that sparrow . . .

Sheltered by the garden tub,
breast feathers in a fluff,

he squats . . .

But he is my whole
communing, all I can absorb,
his sparrowness the stuff,

the very lining, of the poem
inside my skull, the hub
of all that spins the rough

drugget of January to gold,
forming, to a home none may rob,
the blackthorn thicket of my love.

It is in slivery detail, intense attentiveness that Áine Miller's grasp and her powerful craft glitter.

The last poem in Touchwood is a fourteen-page "verse narrative for two voices." In my view, it does not succeed. It is not of her previous "album," a quadruple-score of poems so well-rooted in real event, turned and turned again by memory's exacting capacity for delineation, by heart's yearning to deepen the textured lamination of emotion and meaning. In an early poem, safe in their parental van, shivering from a

scamper and squeal
in the froth of the breakers . . . [the children] take turns
with the towel behind him,

peel off, kick ourselves
free of those colours
of loving, screwed now

into twists like the salt
always there in the heel of
Smith's crisps he throws us

at Cogan's.

These ostensibly simple elements of earth, air, water and fire (salt-edging-the-tongue) are as large as the truly important things in life are ever likely to get.


(A prolific, independent reviewer, Tim Scannell writes for this and many other magazines. He lives in Washington State.)