(Carcanet, 2023); pbk, £11.99
‘O rain falling on the stillest lake that was all of our futures’
(‘Ode to a Shotgun’)
More Sky is Joe Carrick-Varty’s debut poetry collection and the winner of The Irish Times Book of the Year. Carrick-Varty won the New Poets Prize in 2018 and the Eric Gregory Award in 2022 for ‘Sky doc’. He has previously published two pamphlets: Somewhere Far (2019) and 54 Questions for the Man Who Sold a Shotgun to My Father (2020), both of which are included in this collection.
More Sky explores grief and the lingering trauma associated with alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. Each poem shows the reader a memory with Carrick-Varty himself standing there and watching it with you the reader. His non-linear approach to story-telling forces you to piece the puzzle, gathering information and establishing the broader story yourself. This approach is reminiscent of talk therapy; for in therapy, the story you tell isn’t linear, you provide small pieces of information through many stories and memories, leaving it to someone else to untangle.
More Sky is divided into two sections, the first half has individually titled poems, varying in form and length, with recurring sequences. Here Carrick-Varty establishes several recurring motifs: skyscrapers, coral reefs, lemmings, and tennis, among other things. The motifs are both specific and vague in that the reader does not clearly understand their meaning, or what memory Carrick-Varty is calling upon. We know these motifs are important, but we do not know why. Why lemmings? Why skyscrapers? It feels that he is still holding the reader at arm’s length, only allowing them in so much. Are these connected to a specific memory? Possibly. Yet his preoccupation with these images throughout the collection demands attention.
Carrick-Varty contrasts the general and the specific throughout. This is best exemplified in “THE CHILDREN”:
I cannot deny that a ball not a ball but
has landed is landing will land
until it stops being
THE BALL and starts being a ball [.]
The contrast between the general and specific is not always as clear as this, but this manoeuvre is consistent throughout the collection. Through the simple linguistic change from an indefinite to definite article, Carrick-Varty works gradually to remove himself as a particular force within the poem. Although he may be writing about his dad, he begins as if he is merely an observer watching as ‘the dad sips a lime soda…’, as begins the poem, ‘Five days sober and glowing’, thus keeping himself at a distance. He holds himself away from the memory and the poem, viewing it with adult hindsight alongside us.
The second half of the collection is a poem in 63 parts called ‘Sky doc.’ Each eight-line section begins: ‘Once upon a time when suicide was…’. Here Carrick-Varty substitutes suicide for various concepts, continuing from the earlier poem, “From the Perspective of Coral” in which suicide replaces a type of sea animal under exhibit. Carrick-Varty explores suicide’s infiltration into every aspect of life—When suicide was… ‘the weather’; ‘the safest thought’; ‘proof I was busy living’; ‘an empty street’; ‘the sky’; ‘another word for sorry’; ‘a room of dead dads.’
Throughout ‘Sky doc’, meaning changes in the middle of many lines; in the first half you anticipate one thing but the second half flips the meaning entirely. As these poems contain no punctuation, depending on where you imagine the punctuation to be, and which words you stress, meaning changes again—the information being a foggy memory in retelling perhaps.
In More Sky Joe Carrick-Varty encapsulates the act of remembering sorrowfully through the haze of trauma.