‘White Whale’ by Victoria Kennefick
Southword Editions, 2015
Poetry Review by Agnes Marton
Published in The Ofi Press issue 45
Irish poet Victoria Kennefick’s first book , ‘White Whale’, was winner of the Munster Literature Fool for Poetry Chapbook Prize in 2014 and got the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet 2015.
The beautifully produced pamphlet contains twenty-one sea-themed poems with the recurring image of Moby Dick. They contemplate limits and transitions, land and sea, inside and outside, dimensions and distance, even transformations. In the opening poem a beached whale suddenly appears to be the narrator’s mother:
The weight of her past made flesh on her hips,
the scars of our arrivals barely healed after all this time,
my blind hands all over the body.
Grasping, desperate to hold onto something real,
not knowing what that was.
Everyday objects have mythical power:
The iron’s flat plastic body conceals its metal tongue,
pointed with holes, like buds for tasting.
It licks all the wrinkles out,
wraps its long, thin tail around us.
At his every-day ring she runs, the beast hot on his shirt.
I reach up; the creature’s breath scalds.
At my scream she drops the phone,
her slap on my thigh, we both cry.
I touch the burn later; it’s flat, scaly,
The sea motif occurs even in this otherwise fire-related poem: “In small gaps I think I see where sea turns into air.”
Kennefick explores surface and depths throughout this slim volume. In her world skin is always dangerous and mysterious (in the quote above: “dragon”), “loose angry” (Marie Céleste), “wrinkled” (Ritual), “white skin even paler under lights” (The Preacher’s Daughter), “tanned & battered” (“…But One Can Never Be Sure Whether It’s Good Poetry or Bad Acid.”), with “a plaster I had to rip” (Apology).
The evocative imagery is presented in finely crafted, assured lines with visceral strength but also tenderness. The multi-layered poems showcase a series of interlinked elements. Stray dogs make history (Archaeology), whales and humans alike keep struggling with hooks in their hearts, “ (…) piercing,/ into ever deeper water” (Ballycotton Pier); or both our loss and our memories shine in the surface (the “skin”) of the ocean:
The ocean takes us all,
the sky too,