Wednesday 17 January 2018

To hell and back recounted in rhyme

Niall MacMonagle finds the author has captured her recovery from alcohol and drug addiction in hard-hitting poetry
Soul Burgers
Christina Reihill
€12; available from and Dubray Books

iw Christina Reihill by _18.jpg
iw Christina Reihill by _18.jpg

Niall McMonagle

Picture this heady, chaotic mix: an alcoholic, a cocaine and morphine addict, a psychotherapist, a journalist with Vogue and other glossies, marriage breakdown, suicidal thoughts, bereavement, vodka and Valium, depression, compulsions, ten sackings, bounced cheques and unpaid bills.

Christina Reihill has known or been all of the above. If anyone deserves the description of 'having come through the Wars' it is she. But no matter how riveting the story, how intense or compelling the experience, it cannot simply be splashed down on a page. If life is uncertain and confusing then discrimination and selection must make and shape an experience. Confession has its dangers. Yeats knew this when he said: "All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt." Reihill's Soul Burgers, a sequence of poems, charts her recovery, her 'different tune, her different song' and, though intensely personal, it's made and shaped with a deliberate skill.

A straightforward, hard-hitting Introduction gives us the background. Alcohol "dominated every thought and deed of my day: When could I start drinking? What could I drink? What amount, with whom, with what amount of cocaine?" She discovered that: "Everyone has limits and I tested them all, until the only people who accepted me were the voices at the end of the line of a call to the Samaritans or Alcoholics Anonymous."

The poems distil the torment she has been through and the sequence, divided into three sections, The Sleep, The Wake, The Dawn, draw on Dante's Divine Comedy, with its journeying motif beginning in hell. But the most striking aspect of the work is Reihill's opting for old-fashioned, unfashionable, insistent end-rhyme. This should imprison the voice but here it holds and shapes and orders what she calls the "earthquake" inside her. It also curbs the sensational subject matter and creates a momentum that beats its way towards survival. The opening poem captures the moment that triggered Reihill's recovery. In Living Dead she sees a drunk woman in a restaurant, a frightening mirror-image:

A red cloche hat

Red lipstick

Red nails

Eyes pooled in sadness

I sat living a lie

And I knew it

From there she journeys deep into darkness. Dante's poem begins on Good Friday, 1300, in a dark wood, night coming on. He was 35. Reihill at 33 and seven centuries later faces her demons. Compulsion, reckless and alarming, pulls no punches:


Weightless time

Whispered hope

Longing for

Joys of dope

Kill the pain

Numb the brain

Sink the feeling

Fuck the healing

Down the hatch

My loveless match

Booze and drugs

Time out, snatch

A death in darkness

A death in light

Who gives a shit

I own my life!

Though nature brings redemption -- "I'm pleading faith/ in watchful night stars" [Rawhide] -- it is from deep within the abyss of self that a future is made possible.

Reihill, as the memorable title, Soul Burgers, reveals, places the spiritual and the streetwise side-by-side. Her 15-year-long journey has been harsh.

She quotes Nietzsche, "You need chaos in your soul to find the dancing star", and her epigraph from Camus ["In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer"] hints at the healing qualities that willpower brings. Life does go on as she says in her poem New Year:

And now the letting go

Worn thoughts, worn dreams, worn ways

As winter wraps another year

I leave those hope-filled days . . .

Wet days, long lights, the drag of plod and on

Wet days, long nights, the pull of loss and gone

Another year, another song, another layer of feeling

Bring on the death, bring on the birth, bring on the sun of healing.

2012 is up and running, the days are brightening and there isn't a person who doesn't look ahead hoping for good times. Soul Burgers, Christina Reihill's story, ultimately, lifts the heart. Now in its second edition, it has become a live performance, street art, a pop-up poetry shop and website. Clearsightedly, Reihill tackles the past and looks to possibilities. In the end, she wisely and quietly says with gratitude and courage, look, I have come through.

Niall MacMonagle teaches English at Wesley College, Dublin

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