Colette Bryce

Derry born poet whose first two collections have garnered an impressive crop of prizes

Colette Bryce was one of three Northern Irish poets shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award in 2004, the others being Tom Paulin and Michael Longley.

Though the prize was awarded in the end to George Szirtes, to have been shortlisted for one of English-language poetry’s most important awards, and in such distinguished company, was an impressive achievement for a poet still only in her mid-30s.

Colette Bryce was born in Derry in 1970, and attracted notice as a poet in her 20s—she was the winner of an Eric Gregory Award in 1995. Poetry Review magazine calls her ‘an unusually gifted poet’, and her first collection The Heel of Bernadette (Picador) won the Aldeburgh Best First Collection prize on its publication in 2000. The volume also gathered strong reviews in both Ireland and Great Britain, where the poet lives.

The poems in The Heel of Bernadette and its impressive successor, The Full Indian Rope Trick, demonstrate in their adept stanza-handling and understated rhyme a valuable engagement with traditional form, a feel for the contemporary and ordinary that sometimes seems to owe more to British than to Irish models. There’s a kind of Larkinian melancholy to ‘Wish You Were’’s vision of the western edge of London under Heathrow’s flightpaths:

…an aftertaste of traffic taints
the city’s breath…

we watch the black shadow of the plane
free itself from the undercarriage,
separate, then fall away.

Nevertheless, and despite the collection’s
reception, there often feels like there is something shaky, uncertain, underachieved in the poems, moments where the off-balance effect that the poems seem to seek undermines their own equilibrium. Perhaps, though, that’s part of the point. Welcome, the form says, to the modern world, its termini and depots and transitional arrangements:

He arrived, confused, in groups at the harbours,
walking unsteadily over the gangways;
turned up at airports, lost in the corridors,
shunted and shoved from Control to Security…

A Guardian reviewer notes the same quality: ‘the [title] poem [of The Full Indian Rope Trick] is as elusive and slippery as the trick itself. It is a childhood fantasy, a painful rite of passage, an artistic statement, a comic wind-up, a self-consciously self-contradictory flight of bravado…’ If some find this playfulness immature rather than comedic (and the judges in the 2004 National Poetry Competition clearly did not) it can also be seen as a deliberate, dramatic distancing of the speaker from pain or trauma, the suicidal impulse or act that lies behind the poem:

Then a rope, thrown, caught by the sky
and me, young, up and away,
Goodbye, goodbye.
Thin air. First try.

Not always convincing, perhaps, or particularly moving where it convinces (too earnest, too sincere, for conviction, too predictable in its chosen themes to jolt or shock) the poetry of Colette Bryce nevertheless has earned plaudits for its virtues. Clarity of expression, a keenness of memory never letting poem or reader forget the contemporary world, an ear for the colloquial, the ordinary: these are strengths in anyone’s book.

Martin Mooney