Review of Shelley Tracey’s “Elements of Distance” by Maeve O’Sullivan

Elements of Distance is the first collection by of poetry from Shelley Tracey who is a long-term resident of Northern Ireland. Its title aptly reflects the various aspects of distance addressed therein, with respect to both space and time. The twin engines of travel through the decades and the range of physical journeys give the book a strong momentum.

The first few lines of the opening poem “Rain” act as a signpost to some of the book’s themes, including losses and other types of personal turbulence.

“Beginning with absence/dreaming the storm”

Family members feature strongly in this collection. I like the way they and there are introduced chronologically , the dramatis personae starting with the speaker’s grandparents, then the parents, then siblings, followed later by her husband and child. I found the poems about the grandparents among the strongest.

“Bell” is an arresting poem – despite some questionable enjambments – which includes text messages from the speaker’s father on a visit to Dachau where his own father (a dissident transported/for his thoughts) had been killed. This serious subject matter is well-handled.

A grandmother is tenderly remembered in “Grandmother’s Museum”, with a hint of intrigue around the subject’s missing birth certificate and “The emerald on grandmother’s hardened knuckle, “ which might be a present from a secret lover.” “My Grandmother always cheated at cards” also offers a telling vignette.

A hospital based memory of the speaker’s father in his later years is especially poignant in “Words, I, which ends with the lines,

“I write the word father. Father. It takes a long soft breath/flowing smoothly, then it falters simply trickling away”

Other poem endings are less successful, however in these Tracey sometimes leaves in a redundant expository couplet, Instead of ending the poems on a strong, memorable image, for example in “Speaking Liminality.”

There are evocative elegies and poems of remembrance whose subjects are not identified , including “Story of loss in Seven Garments”, “Forced Removal” with its various first person voices across 150 years, “Sandwich” and “Yellow”, which underlines the predictability of life cycles,

planning promises of yellow
daffodil bulbs in their flimsy coats,
listless roots in cavities carefully prepared

In fact among the more effective poems in the book are those which evoke flowers and fruit, including those of her native South Africa, as in “Good Taste”. “Explaining Guavas to a Northern Irish Friend”, and the fine halbun “Memory Keeper” conjuring up peonies and roses and ending with this haiku,

four peony petals

heart-shaped, pressed inside a book,

blurred around the edge

The visual arts also feature, for example in “Six Self-Portraits by Pablo Picasso” in which Tracey uses spacing to innovative effect.

Her poems on these subjects, along with those which address more personal issues, are reminiscent of the work of Doire poet, Susan Lindsay.

This review appeared originally in The North Magazine –

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