Gill McEvoy's first collection, The Plucking Shed, built on the many strengths of her Happenstance debut, Uncertain Days. Rise continues that steady and sure-footed progress, but ventures into new territory, too, and the result is her strongest work to date.
Themed collections seem to be the standard nowadays - that's nearly always a good thing, in my opinion, although that's not to say that there's not still room for a collection that's essentially just a gathering together of the best poems a poet has written since the last one. Rise, and especially the first half of the book, has the strong connecting thread of McEvoy's survival of ovarian cancer, and even more so the celebration of life it has inspired. But it's worth saying that even where that particular theme fades into the background slightly, the sequencing of the poems is extremely well achieved - each poem feels like the only possible one that could succeed the one that's gone before.
McEvoy could never be accused of overwriting - the subtlety and understatement of her poetry is a snug fit with that aforementioned theme, the fragility of life (all life, too, as she's a very astute observer of the natural world, of which more in a minute). McEvoy never tells the reader what to think. Instead, there's always enough space around the edges to allow you to follow the poem in more than one direction - the wrens in Roost, for example, "between the snaggled stems / as if a wind had fluted all the leaves / and blown them there" are symbols of both fragility in the face of nature, and defiance of those seemingly overwhelming forces.
I am, of course, predisposed to take a keen interest in poetry that features birds prominently, but one of the greatest pleasures of this collection is that McEvoy doesn't impose any sort of hierarchy on the natural world - a single leaf, or a gull, lifting from a slurried field, is accorded as much attention and prominence as, say, a rarer bird like a chough or waxwing, and consequently all feel real, rather than mere agents of the poet. There are neat reversals of expectation, too - in Birding/not Birding, a sky is kingfisher blue rather vice versa, another example of how diligently McEvoy focuses first on the small detail and the close at hand, opening gradually out to a wider perspective.
Metaphors are delicately deployed, and indeed at times McEvoy is willing to undermine or deny them. In Oncology Waiting Room, for example, a leaf powders to "threads of veins / a span of bones" while a few pages later, in Visitors "a leaf on a tree is a leaf on a tree". The effect is to recreate the compulsive looking for signs, omens and parallels that being brought face to face with mortality can engender, and the corresponding reaction, to attempt to confine yourself to a world of bare facts.
In the second half of the book, two sequences (the Nuala poems and the Almond Street poems), take McEvoy's work in a different direction, most notably by moving away from the first person. It's skilfully done, especially as the threads followed earlier continue through this less obviously personal work, and sequences suit McEvoy's patient unfolding of effect perfectly. The best, on this evidence, is still to come.
You can buy Rise here.
I'll be interviewing Gill McEvoy, and featuring several poems from Rise, in the coming weeks - keep reading...