Poetry - Eat or We Both Starve

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Tony Cross is reading all the books shortlisted for this year's T.S. Eliot Prize. Here are his thoughts on Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick...

Eat or We Both Starve is Victoria Kennefick’s first full collection of poetry.

There is a quote from Emily Dickenson, “If I read a book that makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That, I think, is how I know too. The technical parts of poetry pass me by. My reactions are at an emotional level.

For me Victoria Kennefick’s collection does that. I read an interview with Kennefick – and sorry, I can’t remember where it was – where she said, “Writing is certainly an act of vulnerability for me and a powerful one.” And she talks about how her father’s death changed the way she wrote. It made her communication of her feelings more direct. It isn’t necessarily direct autobiography, but its intention must be real.

She certainly does that here “A Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” and “In Hepstonstall” being good examples of that. Indeed, “In Hepstonstall” might be one of my favourite poems because – to me – it’s a poem about how poetry affects us.

There’s also a poem, “Swimming Lesson”, about nearly drowning. This is the second poem on that theme which I’ve read recently. The other being by Cynthia Miller in her collection, ‘Honorifics’. And again, having experienced something similar when I was a kid, it really does a good job of putting into poetry the feeling I went through:

“I was alive – my eight year old
Chest tight and sore
It surprised me

How quick
the surrender

My favourite poems though are “Cork Girl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016”, “A Young Girl Considers her Grandmother, Ballinamona Co. Cork, 1921” and “Researching the Irish Famine.” I wonder if this is because those are the three poems most directly related to Irish history. The latter links the famine to the Irish orphanages where children died:

“Babies died
Anyway. They all died. Wasted away
Like potatoes
In the ground. The whole
Country rotten.”

There are a suite* of poems scattered throughout the collection built on the lives of women Catholic Saints, which seem – to me again – to link physical hunger with spiritual hunger. I’m not a Catholic. Indeed, I was raised one of those half-arsed English schoolboy protestants so that pervasive religiosity wasn’t a part of my life. So, it is interesting how Kennefick uses that experience.

I harp on about this a lot but it is difficult to know whether what you see in a poem is what the poet's intent was and perhaps it doesn’t matter but I do feel that Kennefick’s collection is an honest take on the events of her life: family, grief, history, religion, sex and love. There’s also a real sensuality – perhaps physicality might be the better word. I’m thinking particularly of the way she describes putting her fingers into the bullet holes of the GPO building as if they’re physical wounds, indeed in context it feels like a religious gesture like touching the wounds of Christ.

As usual I might be reading too much into it.

As usual I wonder if this is even a review.

Whatever it is I enjoyed this collection a lot.

* I keep using suite and I’ve no idea if it is the correct term but it works for me so I’m not sorry.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

About the T.S. Eliot Prize

The T.S. Eliot Prize, for the best new poetry collection written in English and published in 2021 in the UK or Ireland, is run by The T.S. Eliot Foundation. This year's shortlist "celebrates ten books that sound clear and compelling voices of the moment" and includes one debut collection; work from six men and four women; one American; one poet from Ireland; as well as poets of Zambian and mixed-race ancestry, including Jamaican-British and Jamaican-Chinese.

Raymond Antrobus - All the Names Given (Picador)
Kayo Chingonyi - A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
 - Read Tony's Review
Selima Hill - Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe) - Read Tony's Review
Victoria Kennefick - Eat Or We Both Starve (Carcanet)
Hannah Lowe - The Kids (Bloodaxe)
Michael Symmons Roberts -  Ransom (Cape Poetry)
Daniel Sluman - single window (Nine Arches Press)
Joelle Taylor - C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press)
Jack Underwood - A Year in the New Life (Faber) Read Tony's Review
Kevin Young - Stones (Cape Poetry)

The winner of the 2021 Prize will be announced at the Award Ceremony on Monday 10th January 2022. For more on the shortlisted poets, including videos, readers’ notes and reviews, visit the T.S. Eliot Prize website.

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