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Review of ‘Some Indefinable Cord’ by Katy Mahon

I’m convinced that when we look back upon the current decade we will come to realise that it has been a golden age for poetry when a succession of impressively talented new poets were discovered by the editors of small poetry presses. Add to that list the name, Katy Mahon, a poet from Northern Ireland, who made her debut in 2022 with a pamphlet, Some Indescribable Cord (Dreich).  You only have to read the first poem in this small collection to be impressed.

As the word, ‘cord’, in the title suggests this is a collection about connection: how we are connected to others and to the past. A number of poems explore this theme in terms of the complex nature of relationships. Mask explores how a potentially warm, satisfying connection can be frustrated by someone who seeks to hide his/her true self behind a facade of perfection (a mask of ‘symmetry, silhouettes too round / and eye slits too fine’) and aloofness that rebuffs the approaches of others (‘a surface hard, unyielding’). The reader is left feeling the wasted potential in the concluding lines: ‘this hard wooden mask/ whose fit doesn’t dovetail/ with soft skin, the lines/ of a smile.’ A more productive relationship is described in Secrets in which a close friend or relation is responsible for the reappraisal of the narrator’s perceptions. However, the confidante’s blunt-speaking, which ‘chipped away at unspoken words/ cemented in my mind’, is painful, exposing ‘hard insides’. The narrator feels demolished by the exchange: ‘Brick by brick, her attention broke/ down brittle parts’ and she must in time rebuild herself, but this time ‘wrapped…in understanding.’ As a consequence, although the outcome appears to have been productive, there remains a tension between them, a ‘silence’, a ‘contention hanging in the air between us’.

Perhaps the most significant relationship permeating the pamphlet is Mahon’s relationship with her father, to whose memory the collection is dedicated. We see her in a number of poems exploring the subject of grief. Cloud gives an account in the first person of a mother tending to a child who has badly cut his/her shin on the day she learnt her father is dying. This is a beautifully structured poem that powerfully invokes the beginnings of grief and the struggle to come to terms with it. Interwoven with the account of the narrator’s description of her treating the injury are descriptions of the environment: ‘the sky has entered cloud’; ‘A river delta flows out beyond mountains’, ‘cloud touches the walls, then passes on.’ Such references create a sense of something larger, of even greater significance happening outside her control. Her attempt to stem the flow of blood becomes a symbol of familial love and of her inability to stem the feelings of loss she is experiencing: ‘I concentrate on softening hardened crust// now quickly dried, careful not to scrape/ the shining stream, but resistant blood holds fast.’ Whilst Cloud expresses the beginning of grief, Mourning Time shows us someone emerging from it. Again in the first person, the narrator is shown to be slowly coming around after sleep, a metaphor for the time lost during the period of overwhelming grief. Her awakening is her putting grief behind her and being able to embrace life again. At the end of the poem, she leaves ‘unanswered questions/ on the pillow’ and finds that ‘the dawn’s pallor/ has turned to gold.’

I have suggested so far that the cords in this collection are relationship ties. ‘Cord’, however, may also refer to the memories that keep us connected to these relationships, even when our loved ones have passed. Stauros shows us how familiar objects are imbued with significance and recollections for the poet. As she looks at the golden cross in her jewellery box it triggers contradictory emotions. She recalls its owner wearing it, ‘shining squat’ against his skin. Such thoughts give her pleasure, it ‘brightens/ the dull light of English winter’ but it also reminds her of the frustrations: ‘of past kindness/ so often automatically rejected.’ Such objects, like a cord, are presented as binding us to the past, reminding us of things we might like to forget or ‘hammer(ing) into oblivion’. Music is presented as having a similar effect, triggering equally complex associations. In Music at night reflects the speaker remembers the irritation she felt when practising the piano (‘the crack/ that slithered where I had struck/ my piano-playing fist when/ carving out the wrong passage’) and the annoyance at her failure to master an ‘unforgiving Chopin glissando’. Yet there is a pleasure too captured in her synesthetic description: ‘I brush notes from my sleeve/ with open mouth, inhale/ their colours, blow/ their prism to walls darkened/ by a bouquet of fresh-rolled paint.’

Mahon acknowledges that it took her some time to realise that it is writing rather than music that provides the creative fulfilment she sought. In Shaping Words she describes herself as a sort of gardener of words: ‘I pluck them out// like seeds from a fattened grape/ and plant them on paper/ with blue-black ink, and watch// as they grow ripe, changing form/ against the darkening night.’  The image is a powerful one: it implies that writing is life-enhancing, sustaining, and fulfilling, but perhaps above all, it provides a sense of self-sufficiency, a means of cutting the chord and of emerging from ‘semi-darkness.’ Mahon came late to writing, but here is one reader that is delighted she has found her true vocation. Like a musical chord, her vibrant poems have a lasting resonance that continues to reverberate long after you have read them.

Katy Mahon is a Northern Irish musician and poet brought up in London and living in York. She has taken writing courses with the National Centre for Writing/UEA under Helen Ivory, and The Gallery Press’s ‘Gallery Goes Workshopping’ with Grace Wilentz. Katy was New Irish Writing’s featured poet in the Irish Independent in February 2022, and her poems have appeared in notable English and Irish journals, most recently Bad Lilies, HOWL New Irish Writing and Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal. Her debut chapbook was published by Dreich last year, and this can be purchased online. Click here for further details of how to purchase a copy from the publisher.


Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

Kent’s poetry is succint, never bloated and always delivered with a poignant and very human point of view.” Priss Bliss, Dreich Broad No. 3


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