Victoria Kennefick is a poet, writer and teacher from Shanagarry, Co. Cork now based in Co. Kerry, Ireland She holds a doctorate in English from University College Cork and studied at Emory University and Georgia College and State University as part of a Fulbright Scholarship.
Her pamphlet, White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Poetry News, Prelude, Copper Nickel, The Irish Times, Ambit, bath magg, Banshee and elsewhere. She won the 2013 Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize and many of her poems have also been anthologised and broadcast on national radio stations.
A recipient of a Next Generation Artist Award from the Arts Council of Ireland, she has also received bursaries from Kerry County Council and Words Ireland. She was a co-host of the Unlaunched Books Podcast and is on the committee of Listowel Writers’ Week, Ireland’s longest-running literary festival.
Her collection Eat or We Both Starve was published by Carcanet, UK in 2021.
Victoria Kennefick is already well established in Southern poetry circles. She has already been short-listed or commended in a variety of poetry competitions, has been a Fulbright Scholar and holds a Doctorate in Literature. A woman of high scholarly quality, her poems already register an annoyance at excessive attention:
flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.
I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip."
A poet, then: here is a scholar-poet, like all the others before her, like Daniel Corkery or Frank O’Connor, endlessly walking in a search for creative silence on our Southern shore. "Are you hungry or drunk on dresses?" she asks of the dusty corpses; but not the dead of history, rather, the dead of half-remembered parties, of aeonian coffee dates, rooms where
"Everything sounds like Carver or Bukowski, you kill me.
I walk home too late in weird-warm rain."
Her poetry has that atmosphere, young as it should be, 1920s, Jazz-age, where the self is arbitrarily negotiated in public atmospheres; where one’s silence as well as one’s integrity is constantly under threat. A registered annoyance will become part of the early signature of her work—whether it is the 'Marie Céleste' that is "too young for this body" or "I sit in your chair, aware that it doesn’t fit" or, in ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’ where the protagonists "bitch about the red-haired girl, the fetish model,/ a preacher’s daughter with a thing for unreasonable shoes." This sense of annoyance, a kind of preliminary organising aesthetic, rarely fails her, allowing her to select and arrange a great deal of material, from romance to elegy. In later poems such as ‘(I don’t know how to spell) Meningioma’ her method becomes clear; her intention is brilliant:
"Sun gropes my body back to skin
in the hospital garden.
You are not here but you are warm.
My hands are yours, palms up.
The bulbs, the bulbs are polyps too,
they have split open in the soil,
and there are daffodils."
This is superb writing, the closing image that confirms all the ambiguous, multi-layered descriptions of hospital corridors, the GA Ward, the anti-bacterial soap that melts in her hands. The last line might seem thrown-away: it is anything but; it confirms the catalogue of ambiguity, bringing fear into bloom for the reader and allowing the fear to flower, or fester, in the reader’s mind. The same finely sharpened presentation of metaphor is evident in the final poem, a heart-rending elegy: "You pull your weeds,/ in your element. Heaviness tugs at me, you do too./ A corset I wear made of your ribs, my rib that made you." It is very fine work indeed, emotion held in check, annoyance abated, the poem clearly achieved.
/ Beached Whale
At first, I thought that enormous lump of red-brown on the sand
was the trunk of some ancient, washed-up tree.
It was only when I mounted the object,
digging my small hands into something far too pliable,
that it really hit me, the stale smell of a thousand low tides
and the mute open mouths of the many onlookers
with their hysterical dogs, the seagulls circling like squalling clouds,
my mother’s curlew scream as she ran towards me, disjointed.
Astride the whale like this,
looking at my mother move through dimensions,
planes of distance,
I thought of boutique dressing rooms brimming
with clothes and tension, like gas, expanding. And of two little girls
watching their mother cry at her reflection distorted in a fluorescent mirror.
The weight of her past made flesh on her hips,
the scars of our arrivals barely healed after all this time,
my blind hands all over the body.
Grasping, desperate to hold onto something real,
not knowing what that was.
/ Researching the Irish Famine
Bulldozers disturb the old workhouse site,
uncover babies’ skulls
curved like tiny moons. Their mothers
beside them, lullabies
locked in their jaws.
They can measure hunger now. Test
how much bellies rumbled, the stress
teeth were under, rotten
before they broke
Mothers exhausted their own bodies
to produce milk. High nitrogen
evidence of body tissue
anyway. They all died. Wasted away
in the ground. The whole
What was left buried in memorial gardens,
alongside statues to honour hunger:
children with milky fat,
teeth in braces.
All we do now is eat.
/ Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016
I am standing outside the GPO
in my school uniform, which isn’t ideal.
My uniform is the colour of bull’s blood.
In this year, I am sixteen, a pleasing symmetry
because I love history, have I told you that?
It is mine so I carry it in my rucksack.
I love all the men of history sacrificing
themselves for Ireland, for me, these rebel Jesuses.
I put my finger in the building’s bullet holes;
poke around in its wounds.
I wonder if they feel it,
I hope they do, their blooming faces
pressed flat in the pages of my books.
I lick the wall as if it were a stamp,
it tastes of bones, this smelly city,
of those boys in uniforms,
theirs bloody too. I put my lips
to the pillar. I want to kiss them all. And
I do, I kiss all those boys goodbye.
/ Doll Game
I enjoyed nodding
my Barbies’ heads vigorously
so the toggle allowing them to bow
broke each moulded neck.
The sound of the crack reassuring.
I collected the shards
in a small velvet purse,
pushed the heads down hard
on the splintered stumps
to re-capitate. Each Barbie
neckless but alive.
Then I chopped off
their hair with a safety scissors
and presented such a doll
to my sister on her birthday.
She stripped her naked
as a new-born, brought her
to the beach to baptise her.
It wasn’t cold.
My birthday too,
I carried my box-fresh Barbie
tight in my small white fist,
encouraged her to look up
and down, back and forth
along the sand. Testing her,
the tan plastic that made her,
I tugged at her blonde strands
already loose. Though I pointed
out my sister to her on the shoreline,
her long hair whipping
around her head, a tiny storm –
though I gestured out to sea,
to the neckless doll’s head bobbing
in grey November waves, she didn’t blink.
Sitting alone in the house eating
my fingernails/watching the sky
move away. The room is full/versions of me
crouching on the floor/balancing on the window sill/
reclining on the pout of my lower lip/
asleep in the crease of my eyelid.
Not alone/with myself/A snare /I have been
running from I do not live
the way humans are supposed to,
compare my face to others you know.
I fall short/an embarrassing fringe/No matter
what face I try on it’s exhausting.
All versions shake our heads.
There is much to do/until we think we are not
What We Are: Victoria(s). I see
those letters written on envelopes I know
are for me because of the shape
of that word/that greedy V –
its two arms open wide/ready
to accept anything.
I want to hold things in my mouth –
the click of a boiled sweet
A toddler I stole my mother’s pills,
prised the lid off the bottle with tiny teeth,
arranged the tablets by colour and size.
My mother panicked when she found me,
drugs skittled on the bedspread.
At the hospital the nun
held the cup of charcoal to my mouth,
I spat black into a white bowl.
Its burnt taste,
I thought I must be bad.
Given a boiled sweet as a child, by an older cousin,
I popped it in
a dainty shade
My father spun me upside-down,
the sweet shaken loose.
In another version, my mother
pushes the sweet down
my throat with a finger, or maybe
that was when I was three
and nearly choked
in a different cousins’ house
gagging on another boiled sweet.
that’s what I’m looking for –
my mother’s finger
down my throat,
deep into me.
I sucked marrow from bones at dinner,
my father’s face a bloody grin of pride. I ate liver in chunks
for breakfast, pink and firm, jewels to adorn my insides.
I gloried in the feel of flesh, the exertion of the chew.
Holding my mother’s hand in the English Market,
I saw them – turkey chandeliers, plucked,
bruised purple eyelids dainty lightbulbs.
Their smell, fresh as the insides of my mouth.
Mother stroked my hair. There, there. I refused to eat
meat, became pillowy, meek. She hid muscle under mashed potato,
I tasted its tang in soup. Eat up, my parents said. I could not
swallow. My skin goose-pimple yellow, doctors drew blood
in tiny, regular sips. Teeth turned to glass and shattered
in my mouth. All I could taste was blood.
/ Hunger Strikes Catherine of Siena
My sister taught me how.
Oh Bonaventura, they wanted
me to marry him, the slack-jawed widower.
I vomited twigs, hid in the convent,
wore a widow’s habit. The other nuns complained
until at twenty-one I met Him.
He presented me with a ring fashioned from His skin.
Told me this sliver of flesh bound us,
wait, He told me, promising it would be special.
I levitated; only ate His body, others did not
understand how good it was
to kiss His holy prepuce.
Oh, Bonaventura, I am a house of sticks,
my bones rattle with desire until I lick it.
I feel it quiver, alive on my tongue.
/ Open Your Mouth
As a toddler,
Krishna ate clay
his worried mother
prying open his mouth
felt herself whirling in space, lost
inside that baby mouth
the whole universe,
moving and unmoving creation.
The earth, its mountains and oceans,
moon and stars,
planets and regions
and the child Krishna
with his wide-open mouth
and her kneeling
before him, and within
that mouth another
he said, holding out
in his chubby hand,
and so on,
or we both starve.
She opened wide, kept
her tongue flat. The substance
She did not know
what she was
/ Alternative Medicine
I am here to heal, to confess to that darkness
standing in front of my eyes when I open them,
that food squirms as if alive with maggots,
that I have shut my mouth to everything but words.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself. Also, a Celtic priestess;
I hope I had red hair, that I ate men
like air, all that jazz.
She moves to my forehead; her fingers drum
on my skin. There were two of you, she says.
My body remembers in a jolt, the guilt
black and endless. It is a tunnel.
No, it is someone else’s shadow. Almost like mine.
A twin, poor thing. In my mother’s womb
I consumed this sibling, she says, like I gnaw
at my flesh now, my body feeding on whatever scrap.
You didn’t do it, she says. I know I did,
I know I did.My little twin, one of us had to go.
/ Second Wife
I watch our neighbours dither
when meeting her at mass, in the shop,
at my father’s graveside, search their little brains
like squirrels troubling dirt, frantic for her name only
to unearth another entombed one, greedy for any acorn.
I swear I see a strange expression of delight
paw across their faces as my mother’s face stiffens.
Exhilarated by their mistake, defiant. Don’t they see
my mother? I wonder. Don’t they know she is a different woman?
More than just my father’s wife. Her name
means unity, means unique. I hold an acorn in my palm,
push it through tributaries of flesh.
Scraping it’s pointed heart into cemetery mud,
I spell out her given name in blood.
/ Forty Days
Sister, let’s unwrap Lent like a treat,
stroke the smooth chocolate egg beneath,
the one that we couldn’t eat;
the wafer, yes, but no ice-cream.
Little Jesuses in the desert with no dessert.
The devil tapping on our flat-black
window pane before bed; mother, cutting
tiny slices of bread in the kitchen corner,
eating from doll plates. She couldn’t be prouder
of our ecstasy of denial, little letter-box lips
refusing the sins of the tongue.
Easter bells rattled the glass, Christ has risen, Alleluia.
Resurrection with chocolate sauce made us sick,
giddy pupils rising in our irises, yours
the most divine Holy-Mary blue. We held hands,
spun around, fizzy-headed, falling down.
Open the chocolate box, sister, see liquor-centred
grown-up sweets. Pillows of sin, full
with seven deadly tastes, a menu read to us on waking.
In the Ordinary Time of your dark kitchen,
we drop tissuey tea bags into boiled water.
Rust whispers to transparency. Peace blooms,
bleeding into molecules, slowly.
/ Hunger Strikes Columba of Rieti
My body is a temple I keep
clean for You, spotless –
lashing my skin so it grows
tired of bleeding.
Wearing hair shirts I cannot forget
what it means to be alert.
I have toured the Holy Land in visions.
I don’t imagine they would understand
what I see.
When they came for me, the men,
they ripped off my robes
expecting to find me virginal,
How they gasped in horror!
How glad I was that I had used myself
like an old rag.
Beating myself with that spiked
chain shielded me,
my breasts and hips so deformed
they ran from me,
/ Prayer to Audrey Hepburn
O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting
bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing, I’ve missed
your nightly visitations. I summoned you, carefully cutting
around your monochrome face in mother’s fashion magazines,
pointing the scissors away from myself as I had been taught,
your name an incantation on my lips. I stuck those pieces
of you to my pink walls with rolled-up sellotape, and waited.
You came, sheathed in black with the posture of a reed.
Hypnotised, I prayed to you for grace, that I could sew
my mouth closed like a doll, be a sculpture made of skin.
Years later and there’s a person growing in my uterus,
my body a building-site. I intercede to you again, snip around
your slinky silhouette. In scissors’ blades I see myself,
thirteen, when you fall out of the shadows. Oh Audrey!
Can’t stay, you hiss. You stare at me with saucer eyes. I am hungry, you say.
Hungry, like you.I can’t help but laugh – I am too big to be a woman.
You lean over the bed; I am conscious of my pudgy belly,
my rat’s nest hair, but you take my face in your hands, kiss me hard,
pushing your gorgeous tongue across the length of mine.
Afterwards, our seams popping, we shriek with laughter.
I’ve never thought about the moon so much,
considered it sister-like, watching us learn
how to be together. You in my arms, perfect
circle of your small mouth pressed to my breast.
Lunar light from my phone, my own brain, the moon
all shining. It’s scary how big the night is, how small
we are in it. Think of the others up with us,
a night-nation of milk and mouths, all fumbling
towards each other in the dark, singing.
The shape of you, a crescent against me. Little planet
exploring your phases. Oh, moon be good to her
in the ebb-and-flow of monthly life. Lick the path clean.
But for now, sweet Nightbaby, rock with me.