Fall 2020, Volume 29

Mothers of Ireland by Julie Kane

       Review by Bill Neumire

Confronting chaos and trauma with the formal control of poetic repetitions and patterns, Julie Kane, in her newest book, Mothers of Ireland, attempts to corral the disorder of alcoholism and troubled relationships. Kane, the great grandchild of eight Irish immigrants, served as 2011-2013 Louisiana poet Laureate, and her book is dedicated to 15 “strong women before [her]” as right away we’re told these poems will deliver “horror movie scenes / in which [her] progenitors performed” and the genetic way those scenes “roll on inside us, soundless and unseen.” Her villanelles predominate in these pages and their companion pieces are always forms that revel in obsession and echo: the ghazal, sestina, and sonnet. Of her affinity for the villanelle, Kane said in an interview with The Mackinac, “My doctoral dissertation traced the journey of the villanelle from a freewheeling 16th century musical genre to a rigid 19th-century fixed poetic form (...) In a sense, I think you could strip away the meanings of the words in my poems and be left with abstract musical compositions made up of the rhythms, pitches, and vowel timbres.” It doesn’t take long to feel how the form fits: the new comes from the old as the speaker’s personal journey comes from the passed down addictions and abuses suffered by her foremothers. This echoic memory is a gradual working out of pain “as if language could make it sensible.” Kane speaks of her own poetic process quite overtly, telling us in ‘Family Dramas’:

How habits shape of lives a villanelle,
The repetitions turned to poetry.

I pray to the quatrain to set me free:
We Irish know that language is a spell.

Our poet-speaker understands via poetic form; it’s her metaphoric scaffold for making sense of her life. What is it Kane’s speaker is attempting to control? Gradually, the reader is thrown into narratives of explicit clarity on this point, as in ‘Mornings, My Grandmother’:

I am no girl, and my grandmother’s dead,
Waiting in light at the edge of the world.
Hungover mornings, I’ve flung my legs

Up over men’s shoulders, thought in dread
Of the previous nights when the rooms whirled,
Wished I believed what my grandmother read
Sweet holy mornings she lingered in bed.

The speaker crawls to salvation via AA and poetry, the two not always distinctly separated. Moving through the book, these poems become AA prayers-as-poems, as here in ‘Impatience Sonnet’: “Dear Lord, forgive me my impatient soul: / Remind me I was never in control.” You can almost hear her in a meeting recalling, “I would be lying where she lies if not for the grace of God. / That is the price for trying to drink a whole case of God,” a dark past lurking in the background. And later, in reflection, when they told me, in my drinking days,

I had to find a god or I would die,
I hid my doubts and took a leap of faith.
I knew one certain thing: that it and I
Were different species. With the age of signs,
Of symbol-language spelled in flames or doves
Long over, any first move would be mine;
And the response, if any, would be Love’s.

The feeling of AA forgiveness resounds in lines like “O holy mother, help us to forgive / Those who killed us and those who let us live.” The Irish family history reverberates with Marys and Johns, family dramas and mythology and warnings such as “Don’t marry Irish, / She warned us Irish daughters.” It’s a gossipy book in which “everyone knew everyone else’s secrets” with section epigraphs from famous Irish poets, writers, musicians all forging a “sort of family.” The book moves like an Inferno journey from traumatic hellscape through memories and tragic family lore, a genetic feminine memory, to a yearning for reconciliation and a healthier reconnection to the familial past, from “I carry her disease as I carry her middle name” to “at times my ears pick up the strangest sound. / As if the dead were clapping underground.” It’s a prayer, a voice that exhales finally and in so doing, breathes: “Those years I had a scream stuck in my throat / Until I spoke my truth and did not choke.”




About Julie Kane

Julie Kane is a native of Boston and a longtime resident of Louisiana. She is the author of five books of poetry, including Jazz Funeral and Rhythm & Booze. Her most recent poetry collection is Mothers of Ireland (LSU Press, 2020). A past National Poetry Series winner, Fulbright scholar, and Louisiana poet laureate, she teaches in the low–residency MFA program at Western Colorado University.


Mothers of Ireland:
Author: Julie Kane
published by LSU Press; (February 19, 2020)
ISBN-10 : 0807170755
ISBN-13 : 978-0807170755