Doireann Ní Ghríofa (#6)

Review: Dream Country (New Island Books, 2013) by Donna Sorensen

Dream Country (New Island, 2013) is the début collection of Donna Sørensen. Born and raised in the UK, Sørensen has been living in other countries since 2005, including some time spent living in Dublin. She is now based in Copenhagen. As one might imagine, a sense of exile, of searching for one’s place in unfamiliar surroundings permeates much of this collection. These are poems that  juxtapose the familiar and the foreign, the past and the present, childhood and adulthood. The title poem vividly illustrates the speaker’s experience of settling in a new country, a feeling that will resonate with many readers of Sørensen’s generation:

I am here and in my dreams, I am there leaving the trail of crumbs, the pieces of my own puzzle, my life, one night at a time.

Many poems in Dream Country touch on different constructions of home, of conflicts between the homes left behind and the drive to create a new home. Sørensen explores this theme effectively in the poem ‘Wind at the Zeppelin Hall’, where the speaker is suddenly reminded of England by a fleeting smell so familiar and evocative of her childhood that she imagines herself returned to those days. This poem is concluded deftly and poignantly-

I could walk here a thousand times, could step on and through my own footprints, imprinting them on this city – indelibly – and still it would never be home.

This is familiar ground in Irish literature, yet Sørensen  succeeds in turning the old stereotype on its head; she renders it freshly through the voice of an exile, a ‘foreigner’ based in Ireland. We have become used to assuming the role of the emigrant and it is with interest that we read from this perspective. Here is a writer who relates with empathy, depth and intelligence to issues that hold relevance for a generation. The idea of Home is one which Sørensen interrogates again and again throughout these poems. In Murmurations, the speaker reflects on the spectacle of a flock of starlings in flight and considers the universal desire to create a home:

This common search for nesting places, the desire to shelter together

As one might guess from the title of this collection, many of these poems veer through themes of dreams and nightmares, of beds, of sleep. Perhaps the most effective of these is the exquisite short poem To Bed:

Perched as a paper crane at the only still moment of the day, waiting to unfold myself into a blank sheet, ready to be written on by dreams.

The imagery of these poems often evokes the twilight between sleep and wake; Sørensen  is at ease in explorations of liminality.  Here, sudden realisations strike on thresholds:

A jolt – on the front step, head tilted skyward. Mortality was on top of her.

Gateways, dunes, canals, clouds, rain are motifs that the poet returns to again and again in her evocations of the opacity of liminal moments in life. Perhaps it is in her evocation of these thresholds moments that Sørensen is at her strongest, as in the poem Knives, Forks and Fathers where the speaker is emerging from a post-university haze into an acceptance of her life as an adult:

Without looking up, we talk of this and that and it happens – that each of us carefully places our worries for our fathers upon the table between us, amongst the glasses and hands clutching slightly warmed metal and I only know then, finally, that we are no longer children.

Other poems cover familiar ground for a first collection including the obligatory moon poem (Iris). There are many moments of poetic radiance here, poems that delve into surreal and dark matter and delighted this reader (There Could Have Been Sparks, Evergreen, The Puppet Son). However, there are a few of the poems that come across as a little overwrought and might perhaps have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. The poem ‘Misery’, for example, veers a little too close to teenage angst:

There is a doomed spirit – it crouches in the dark and mutters, misery… misery…

That said, these rare missteps do not topple the collection, and the bulk of Sørensen’s debut is strong enough to overlook the weaker poems among them.

Dream Country guides the reader through a series of dream-like, often liminal landscapes. These poems work as well on the page as they do aloud. Indeed, Sørensen’s deft handling of rhythm and language lend themselves to a certain poetic musicality that complements the dreamlike tone of this collection. Donna Sørensen is a poet of substantial dexterity who tackles issues of our time with a voice that is measured and distinct. In Dream Country she marks herself as a poet of intellect and empathy, resolutely of our times.

Pushcart Prize nominee Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in many literary journals in Ireland and internationally, most recently in France, Mexico, USA, Scotland and England. The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her a literature bursary (2011 and 2013). Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim. Her pamphlet of English poems Ouroboros was recently longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).