Emily Riall will be a new name to many readers of this blog. She was a fine young poet beginning to find recognition for her work (Foyle Young Poets of the Year 2002, Poems for Learning 2006) when she died suddenly in 2006. She was 22.
During the summer of that year I had the privilege of working with her on the manuscript of her first collection A Sinkful of Sky (Lulu, 2006). I had seen various poems of hers before, but this was a revelation. We often talk approvingly about young writers who ‘find their voice early’, without actually saying what we mean by it. Emily’s poems are a triumphant case study of that process in action.
First of all, she had found her subject. Most of what you will read in A Sinkful of Sky concerns the territory of mental illness. Without demeaning the seriousness of that topic, I would however say her real subject is the gaps between people, their silences and hesitations and the limiting effect of language on communication. Far from overwhelming her, she tackled these themes with great vigour and daring.
Secondly, Emily’s poems are minor miracles of precision. There isn’t a poem in her book which does not know when to stop. She seemed to have learned at a very early age that good poems trust their reader, providing them with information, yes, but also with space. Some writers can take years to learn this, but Emily apprehended it young, with laser-like self-knowledge.
This means the poems in A Sinkful of Sky, while full of personal biographical detail, nevertheless read like finished and achieved works of art. Direct in life and in her art, sometimes brutally so, it grieves me that she did not live to see her book published, nor to hear the praise it justly received. The deepest irony of all is that we will not see what Emily might have gone on to accomplish in her writing and her life, now indelibly fused in these amazing poems which preserve her memory with a force none of us could have predicted.
He nods, and looks serious.
Would you like to tell me
a bit more about that?
And she sighs, blurred and teary,
as she tells a bit more –
the bitter powder of the paracetamol,
the acid vomit, the pins and needles.
and the slipping away. And the bright
bringing back, charcoal and Parvolex.
Emily Riall, from A Sinkful of Sky (Lulu, 2006)