Poet of Honour: Martina Evans

Poet of Honour is a series of Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation’s celebration of some of the best contemporary poets who have become iconic and a major inspiration.

Youngest of ten children, if you ever encounter Martina Evans, loquacious friendship is what you will find in her. Shortlisted for the 2019 Irish Times Poetry Now Award, the Pigott Poetry Prize and the Roehampton Poetry Prize, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is her latest collection of poems. Almost a hundred years later, in this exceptional flip side of the fight recounted, the poet makes us relive the period of the men stifled by the Irish Conflict around 1919. Instead of writing with lopsided sentimental and political views, she focuses on capturing an exquisite depository of the characters of the men involved in that conflict. These men are from the stories told by her mother and the others but distilled through the eyes of women in her narrative, to be precise through Kitty Donovan’s and Babe Cronin’s eyes. You are put on the spot to judge yourself a war against fragmentary humanity. Flawed and full of grit are the men of the war she is talking about, so one must not get deceived by the provoking title giving the impression of a feminist agenda or #MeToo tones! The men here are caught in the fighting and dismantled in their wanting traits. “As my mother would talk”, she weighs words, not losing their Irish lyricism—and occasional humour. Martina crafts her poems, leaving us to experience the narrative as a humane emotional roller-coaster cast in her “Irish vernacular”. 

I am thrilled that through her other poems selected here we can celebrate Martina Evans as our Poet of Honour. She brings us her mother’s reigning – but delightful – presence, as well as her own experience as a radiographer recording a kick of a very Irish ‘Oh’ formula (!) that pumps the veins of ‘a mad exhibitionist English‘ Gazebo ‘on an English village green’.

-Yogesh Patel MBE

Three Poems by Martina Evans


young ethnic couple resting in old wooden gazebo on daytime
Photo by Hong SON on Pexels.com

Gazebo was the word my mother
used to describe a mad exhibitionist
or a queer hawk. For example,
so-and-so was going around like a
right gazebo. Naturally I imagined
a gazebo had legs and travelled so
I was surprised to see my first one
on an English village green, going
nowhere, the wedding couple
toasting each other under its rippling
blue and white canopy as cricket bats
smacked slowly in the heat. My mother
grew up near landed gentry and
the gazebos hidden in their walled gardens
must have entered her language
like escaped seeds,
growing into wild tramps
that straggled along the Rathkeale road,
on strange, overblown feet.

The Windows of Graceland, Martina Evans, Carcanet Press, 2016

Facing the Public

joyful adult daughter greeting happy surprised senior mother in garden
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

My mother never asked like a normal person, it was
I’m asking you for the last time, I’m imploring you
not to go up that road again late for Mass.

She never had slight trouble sleeping, it was
Never, never, never for one moment did I get a wink,
as long as my head lay upon that pillow.

She never grumbled, because No one likes a grumbler,
I never grumble but the pain I have in my two knees this night
there isn’t a person alive who would stand for it.

She didn’t just have an operation; she died in the Mercy Hospital
and came back to life only when Father Twohig beckoned
from the foot of her blood-drenched bed.

She didn’t just own a shop and a pub, she told bemused waitresses
that she was running a business in the country, urgently
when she insisted that we were served first.

She didn’t do the Stations of the Cross
she sorrowed the length and breadth of the church.
And yet, she could chalk up a picture in a handful of words

conjure a person in a mouthful of speech; she took off her customers
to a T, captivating us all in the kitchen,
drawing a bigger audience than she bargained for.

How often we became aware of that silent listener
when he betrayed himself with a creak, a sneeze or a cough.
How long had he been standing, waiting in the shop?

We looked at each other with haunted faces,
and I, being the youngest, got the job of serving him
his jar of Old Time Irish, his quarter pound of ham,

writing his messages into The Book, red-faced and dumb
before his replete and amused look.
Meanwhile, inside, my mother held a tea towel to her brow.

Never, never, never would she be able, as long as she lived,
even if she got Ireland free in the morning,
no, no, no she would never be able to face the public again.

The Windows of Graceland, Martina Evans, Carcanet Press, 2016

Clinical Indications

photo of an ob gyn looking in the monitor
Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

Oh was shorthand for the chemical equation
C2H5Oh – Ethanol meaning alcohol,
a tip-off from the doctor,
a coded message
to say drink was involved/ the patient was drunk.
The radiographer faraway
in a deserted X-ray department at night
had to watch out for the obstreperous.
It might have been shorthand for Irish
but how could they scare me when
I only had to lay my Cork accent
like a wand on their ears?
Once I puzzled over
a request form for a chest X-ray
that gave one word – Irish –
in the Clinical Indications box.
Was it a joke? Or working backwards,
shorthand for the drink or drunk
or look out
for the telltale fractures of the third metacarpal
from frustrated Paddies punching walls
for the bi-lateral healed rib fractures
of the older labouring immigrants
who got so plastered they fell down,
broke, healed and carried on,
the stigmata inside the coats
of their skin like the rays from
a sacred heart? Or did it mean
what I never understood?
That night, the young doctor
with the black moustache
too close to me at 2 a.m.,
his breath in my ear, whispering –
Something has to be done about the Irish.
They’re spreading TB, spitting it
on the floors in Kilburn.
I’m scanning another man’s head
so I can’t move away from
the smell of his Wotsits.
I look straight ahead while
through the microphone
on the other side of the glass
my voice echoes –
Keep still, you’re doing brilliant –
to Mr MacNamara, yards away
terrified on a moving table.

Martina Evans
Martina Evans

Martina Evans grew up in County Cork and trained in Dublin as a radiographer before moving to London in 1988. She is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose. She has won several awards, including the Premio Ciampi International Prize for Poetry in 2011. Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Irish Times Poetry Now Award, the Pigott Poetry Prize and the Roehampton Poetry Prize and was an Observer, TLS and Irish Times Book of the Year in 2018. Mountainy Men, a narrative poem, was the recipient of a Grants for the Arts Award in 2015. She is a Royal Literary Fund Advisory Fellow and is an Irish Times poetry critic.

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

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