The Speculations of Country People is the debut collection by award-winning Irish poet Majella Kelly. In this tender and inquisitive book, the land and its associated flora and fauna is a key character, as are women’s bodies and bodily autonomy. It is divided into four parts that oscillate between an intimate interiority – poems about desire, family, controlling relationships and self-discovery – and a powerful poetry of witness. Along with its strong, lyrical voice, the book’s sections are held together by evocative personifications of the natural world. A lake, for example, is layered with inherited history – another theme prevalent in Kelly’s work and intricately explored. “That’s the depth of the lake’s happiness,” she writes. “It’s generational and therefore deeper than any scientific measurement of depth. And so it is fathomless.”
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Kelly takes great care in her consideration of the histories she writes about. Part II, titled ‘Songeens for the Home Babies’, reckons with the discovery of a mass grave in Tuam, County Galway and the deaths of 796 children at Tuam Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961. This section is a poetic inquiry, where skilful and moving language is a tool of investigation. She probes at difficult questions of religion, legacy, grief and the responsibility of memory and memorial. The poems are lucid in their remembering, and the readers, too, are warned away from the act of forgetting: “Forget the Memorial Garden. It doesn’t know / what it’s supposed to remember.”
The Speculations of Country People begins with a strong assertion, a poem titled ‘I Am From’, which goes on to emphasise a rich multiplicity: “I am from Kelly, Henebry, Burke, Scully. / Hill. Mulligan. Cullinane…” And yet, Part IV, the book’s final section, is full of discovery, gifting us with the wisdom that the list of places we are from is not fixed, but rather textured with the continuous possibility of finding home in new people and new places.
Alycia Pirmohamed is a journalist and author
The Speculations of Country People by Majella Kelly is out on April 6 (Penguin, £10.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.