Recent Reading Four: More Short Reviews

The Kerosene Singing, Alistair Noon, Nine Arches Press, ISBN: 9780993120169, £9.99.

A Tug of Blue, Eleanor Hooker, Dedalus Press, ISBN: 9781910251225, €11.50.

Like A Fish Out Of Batter, Catherine Graham, ISBN 978-1-910834-30-5, Indigo Dreams £6.00.

The Tender Map, Melanie Challenger, Guillemot Press, £8.00.

The Swell, Jessica Mookherjee, Telltale Press, ISBN 978-0-9928555-4-3, £4.00.

Not exactly recent, having been published in October 2015, The Kerosene Singing is Alistair The Kerosene Singing cover web.jpgNoon’s second first length collection, the first being 2012’s Earth Record. That book included a sequence of 40 sonnets, which may have exhausted the form for Noon, as this second volume features none. Instead, it is formally varied, with poems in quatrains, tercets and longer stanzas, as well as freer forms, and the stanzaic poems are metrically varied, using a range of full, half and no rhyme, showing a high degree of technical accomplishment and control.

These stanzas frequently consist of collages or collage-like patterns of language items ‘borrowed’ from a wide range of areas of jargons, so that a ‘typical’ Noon quatrain might look something like this:

“Delete all words”, wrote a Chinese sage,

“and then you will have the true poster.”

“There is no such thing as a statement.”

“Am I asking too many questions?”

[from ‘Introduction to a Congress’]

The apparently random phrases will be all too familiar to readers who have ever attended a business conference, but there is an artful deployment of sonic affects (sibilance, alliteration) that lifts the poem beyond the merely representative and into the sphere of verbal music, an effect that points towards the multiple meanings of ‘congress’.

Noon is primarily a poet of the city, of urban life, but he is also, on the evidence of his poems, an inveterate traveller, and one who wears his travels on his sleeve. His journeys sometimes take him to liminal margins, borders, tombs, of the Oblast of Kalingrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast, whose defining feature appears to be a salt-water lagoon.

They sow the alders

To halt the dance of the dunes,

The lagoon smooth as a salt plain.

Cattle gaze from the tarmac

And a pig is loose in the village.

The coach will take us

Under the turnpike

And out of the National Park.

[from ‘Oblast’]

Here, as in other poems, the natural world is a place to visit and leave, an attitude that is held up to irony in the opening poem of the book, ‘Encounters’, a poem about desk-bound workers who go hiking in summer (and only in summer), with the narrator demanding that they ‘remove [their] office arse/from its roundabout chair’.

In ‘The Milan Duomo’, the liminality is of a different order. The cathedral is one of the greatest works of the Italian Renaissance, a landmark of Western art. But for believers, one imagines it to be more, a place where one comes to commune with another realm.  Noon looks at it keenly, and sees the economic basis of culture exemplified:

five centuries of surplus value transformed

into a thousand stories in stained glass

Another poem to deal, obliquely, with economics is ‘The Burbage Valley’, which is, amongst other things, a meditation on the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the landscape of the English midlands. Here, ironic distance is set aside, and form, language and intent become fully integrated, resulting in a poem of great engagement, not in the narrow political sense of ‘engaged poetry’, but as a mind engaging with the world through words and with that most old-fashioned of virtues, sincerity. The voice engaging with the natural world in this poem is not a tourist, but an attached observer, and the result is the most complete poem in the book. It’s is such an integral whole that quotation is almost impossible, but fortunately a video of the poet reading it is available online here.

The lightly ironic tone of ‘Oblast’ is perhaps the single most characteristic aspect of Noon’s work, at least as presented in this book. At times, it is to the point, but too often there is a sense of irony without an object, a reflex condition of post-modern ennui. Noon is understandably wary, it seems, of anything that might smack of self-expression, and is well-versed (pun intended) in the art of deflection via an ironic mask, and the poems he writes are masterly examples of this approach. But perhaps the mastery is over-achieved? Clearly, here is a poet that has found a voice he is comfortable with, one that he is in complete control of, a kind of poetic ‘safe space’, in a way.

However, I can’t but feel that he is selling his ability short by accepting the limitations of the safe, the uncertainly certain. Noon can write, and write well, and on the evidence of this book, he has a poet’s instincts. It would be interesting to see him push himself beyond comfort, to take more risks with the technical skill he clearly possesses. Poems like ‘The Milan Duomo’ and ‘The Burbage Valley’ may perhaps indicate the way for this to happen. They lift an otherwise interesting collection onto another level. I’m left hoping that they point something as a way forward, into more uncertain territory, for Noon as a poet. A recent review of Philip Rowland’s haiku-like short poems is interesting in this context.

A Tug of Blue is also a second collection, and like Noon, Eleanor Hooker has also settled into a-tug-of-bluea comfortable personal voice, one that is characterised by a kind of whimsical sense of the absurd everyday. The poems in this book are very well made, distinctly Irish, with the land, rain, family and a troubled relationship with god at their core, all seen through Hooker’s distinctively quirky eye. The problem for me at least, is that they are closed systems, in which the world behaves as it does only in poems. Take, for example, the opening of ‘A Calling’:

The night is a drowned woman

in off the lake to waken me.

She is filled with stones and moulded

by the weight of fog.

Which is perfectly well-written, but the night is no such thing. The same problematic personification, the anthropomorphic fallacy, is present in the very first poem in the book, ‘Weathering’, which is nominally about rain:

Rain enquires if I’ve brought questions.

I am allowed four. Four only.

Before I can deny it, she presses

her sodden lips to mine.

Not now, she says. They are come.

This way of writing about the natural world as if it were human is so widespread as to be almost invisible. It is also, as I have argued elsewhere, deeply anti-ecological, a way of making valid a relationship with nature that is possessive and exploitative, regardless of the poet’s best intentions. It is tempting to dismiss this criticism as trivial, but in my view it raises a vital question: what is it that we want from poetry? Closure or restlessness? The pleasure of recognition or the challenge of disorientation? The first choice leads to a poetry of explicit simile and metaphor, underpinned by the reassuring illusion that the world can be made comprehensible in a neat box, the poem. The second takes us down a different root, a poetry whose humility in the face of the world’s complexity imposes a sense of restless inquiry that, paradoxically, results in a poetry that is considered difficult because it insists on looking at the world as it is in and of itself, where the thingness of things is the organising principle, a poetry where rain is rain, the night is night, in all their rich complexity.

Hooker comes nearest to this position in the most satisfying poem in the collection, ‘The Shout’, which is grounded in her experience as helm for the Lough Derg RNLI lifeboat.

After an unpromising first line (The wind is inconsolable.), the poem unfolds in a narrative of ordinary detail:

I ease us from windward.

A crew climbs across, carrying

a radio, a smile, First Aid.

Eight on board, all below

except the skipper, luminescent

in his orange lifejacket.

In this poem, where the mechanics of the poetic are least evident, Hooker achieves the best writing in the book, and, as with Noon, perhaps has discovered a less comfortable but more rewarding voice.

batterThe organisational principle behind Catherine Graham’s Like A Fish Out Of Batter is ekphrastic. The pamphlet consists of a sequence of poems taking off from paintings by LS Lowry, but Graham does not set out to describe or evoke the pictures themselves; instead she creates and peoples an imagined world based on them. This world is an unromanticised version of Lowry and Graham’s shared working-class urban North of England. She creates characters who weave their ways in and out of the stories she tells, stories of the everyday fabric of life as they lived it.

These interlaced stories are redolent with the anxieties of their place and time, which generally happen to be anxieties of any place or time: sex, and ignorance about it, pregnancy, abortion, money, difference, death.

I never wanted kids; never wanted to be

a father, I’d rather bat for the other team

than turn out like my old man. He can

go to hell. All I wanted was a bit of fun,

she knew the score, where’s the harm?

[from ‘Shift’]

The writing is apparently simple, but it is not artless, and there are echoes of, among others, that great poet of the local, Dylan Thomas:

She donkey-stoned her doorstep on Thursdays,

polished George on Wednesdays and if it wasn’t

a good drying say, gave Mondays a dirty look.

[from ‘Nancy Dreever’]

Graham clearly takes pride in her roots, and these poems are ultimately warm and affectionate portraits of the world she grew up in. But she has also, in a sense, grown out of it, if nothing else by being a poet, an observer more than a participant. This need to escape is captured in two poems towards the end of the pamphlet, ‘Head of a Young Man in a Cap’ and ‘A Letter From London’. The former concerns a French pen-pal and a disapproving father. The narrator’s Par Avion relationship with Segre allows her a sense of sophistication that seems to extend beyond the end of the poem. The latter is a found poem from a letter from Lowry to his mother, and is more restrained in its response to the exotic, a bit distrustful, lonely even. These different reactions to escape act, in a sense, as the poles of the world Graham creates in this enjoyable little volume.

The three books reviewed so far are all serviceable, readable and attractive paperbacks; The Tender Map is more consciously a book to be admired almost as much for how it looks as what it contains. As with Guillemot’s other publications, it marries text and visual art to create thought-provoking conversations.

This is Melanie Challenger’s first poetry publication in almost a decade, although she has Tender map.pngwritten several librettos and prose on the subject of environmental history, and this concern feeds into the poems here. I say poems, but in fact these small texts interpermeate to create an interesting, if not entirely successful ecosystem of meditation on place and people. Initially, I was concerned that the strategy of naming each piece on the model ‘Placename or Emotion’ signalled an overdose of the pathetic fallacy, but Challenger is a more subtle thinker that that. She skilfully weaves place and emotion so that the emotions are understated, emerging from the placing of the human in the place, not bending the place to the service of the emotion.

The heron feigns death, its shadow flies

across the river. Memories

of the fens move unfluently between us.

We chase the dark horse of night   cut the waters

and curse our luck.

[from ‘Fidwell Fen or Nostalgia’]

The uncertain strength of the writing is apparent in these lines, but so is the single flaw that I find in it, in the somewhat clunky metaphor in the third line. In fact, near the start of the series, Challenger cleverly calls attention to and simultaneously undercuts stock metaphor, the stock metaphor, in the lines ‘a plough hums,/a reprisal of the endless tides’. Unfortunately, scattered through the book there are a number of implicit and explicit comparisons that call far too much attention to themselves:

‘The river is black as the blown candle of our embrace’

‘time giving ground/like a frightened sea’

‘A slow dusk smokes the kill through the day’s memory.’

But these are relatively minor blemishes, and anyone who can write a line like ‘those thin tongues of grass thrashing his little death’ quite clearly has a poet’s ear.

The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee is the most recent in Telltale Press’s short first collections dustjacket-theswellby emerging poets. The writer’s coop model of publication is admirable, and these little pocket-size booklets are fine examples of the sort of thing that only small presses can really do.

Mookherjee has an interesting background, the child of Bangladeshi parents who grew up in Swansea, she occupies a space between two cultures, and the poems here reflect the tensions of her position as a woman making her own way in that space. In some respects, these are poems of a misfit, uncomfortable in the skins that family and society intend for her, intent on small, or large, acts of rebellion.

Suspicious of prayers to invisible gods, I stared

at vicars and asked them who would go to hell,

whether they worshipped thunder.

[from ‘The Liar’]

She also embraces the physicality of female identity, as in the title poem about, apparently, her mother’s pregnancy:

Drum tight, she looked about to burst.

He made a fuss of her for a change,

waded in wearing galoshes

as her waters broke, flooding

the house, leaving us to stay with strangers.

In the acknowledgements, Mookherjee thanks her teachers, and I do detect something of the workshop about these poems., Nevertheless, I also sense an interesting voice emerging from that marginal space that she occupies. An interesting little book.

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Review of Denise Riley in Eborakon

Eborakon is a poetry magazine based at the University of York and the latest issue, Vol 1, eboIssue 3, is just out, featuring, among many good things, my review of Say Something Back, by Denise Riley. Here’s a brief sample, you’ll need to buy the mag to read more:

Throughout the collection, the formal restraints of song, with or without rhyme, provide a sense of emotional restraint, a pattern of emotion expressed, and then drawn back, an exploration of the language to enact this pattern in, that is deeply moving.

Collected Poems 1964 – 2016 by Barry Tebb: A Review

barry-tebbCollected Poems 1964 – 2016, Barry Tebb, Sixties Press, 978-1-905554-31-7, £10.00

Barry Tebb is something of an outlier when it comes to the history of British poetry over the last 50 years. His career began apparently riding the wave of 1960s counter culture enthusiasm, only to collapse into a quarter century of silence, followed by 20 years of intense writing and publishing activity on the margins of both the mainstream and alternative poetry ‘scenes’. It’s a trajectory that can be mapped now thanks to this welcome Collected Poems, published, as most of his mature writings have been, by his own Sixties Press imprint.

Tebb is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, not least of which is his position in, but not of, the Northern working class milieu of 1950s Leeds, a world which was to become the ground on which his poetry rests. This ground is apparent in the first poem in his 1966 collection, The Quarrel With Ourselves, ‘School Smell’, a poem which, presciently, Michael Horovitz was to include in his seminal 1969 anthology The Children of Albion. This poem, a memory of the poet’s Leeds childhood sense of ‘outsiderness’ prefigures his later work, but is absolutely untypical of the three volumes he published up to 1970.

Much of this early verse is apprentice work, a young poet’s idea of what poetry should be, with many of the poems being about artists and musicians, and the poet’s sensitive reactions to them. The importance of ‘significance’ is over-emphasised:

Lodged in some deep recess of the soul
Poems are waiting for me to write them
(from ‘Expectancy’)

It is interesting to see they young Tebb absorb the modified Surrealism of the 1940s so-called New Romantic poets in poems like ‘Everything in its Place’:

The blackboard is cleaning itself behind me,
Making my neck prick as it scattered dust

There are also a number of short, haiku-like Imagistic poems, along with echoes of Eliot, Yeats and, more surprisingly, Browning:

But my father called, I left my people
With a sot who embarrassed the Bishop.
I was not long in my see, two Popes died quickly
And my father’s whispers never ceased, Rome called
And I was Cardinal at last.
(from ‘The Cardinal Looks Back’)

And through all these influences, the patient reader can detect traces of Tebb’s original voice emerging:

Slumped in action
A matrix of motion
Blurs direction;
Left and right
Gathers them in, sucking
Gently round blind corners.
(from ‘Absent Enemies’)

And then, 25 years of writer’s block intervened, years in which Tebb says he was ‘unable to write’, a silence which was brought to an end by a dream of his first love, Margaret, who called him back in space and time to the Leeds of his childhood. The work which followed his return to writing is at times uneven, but almost always interesting, the ear which was latent in the earlier work blossoming into a unique voice full of assonance and alliteration:

As soon as we entered Yorkshire
Hughes’ voice assailed me, unmistakeable
Gravel and honey, a raw celebration of rain
like a tattered lacework window;
(from ‘Hughes’ Voice in my Head’)

There is a greater emphasis on the personal, and even those later poems that deal with art and artists feel earned in a way the earlier work doesn’t. There are a number of poems, probably too many, on the state of contemporary poetry politics, a not unnatural result of Tebb’s sense of being excluded, but these are more than outweighed by the honesty of the personal poems, especially in those dealing with his troubled marriage to poet and mental health activist Brenda Williams, most notably ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’:

We were wrong from the beginning, you always said, wrong
To be together, wrong to go away or perhaps, as Hobsbaum said,
‘It was the place’s fault. If we’d made it to Haworth as we
Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears,
The wind sighing its threnody, crying its cradle-song, whispering
Promises of its care to come, its breath caressing the very stones
We sat on, lost beyond the ken of any guide, beyond the signatures
Of time and place, beyond, beyond…

This passage might be seen as typical of Tebb’s method, with the preponderance of trisyllabic feet and concomitant preponderance of unstressed syllables contrasting with the intrusion of occasional adjacent stresses acting as counterpoint to the patterns of vowel and consonant sounds; ‘Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears’. It’s a distinctive and fascinating voice, adaptable to a wide range of tones and styles.

At the heart of Tebb’s achievement is the long autobiographical poem that is the direct outcome of his dream, Bridge over the Aire. Despite internal nods to a number of 1940s poets, this poem seems to me to owe a great deal to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. As with Bunting, Tebb’s return to poetry is also a return to a lost childhood love and to its associated state of prelapsarian simplicity.

Aire is 80-odd pages long and divided into six named books, each consisting of shorter numbered sections. The whole progress in a kind of spiral, with themes, scenes and emotions recurring, but at a different slant on each occurrence. The tone ranges from dense sound patterning to child-like simplicity:

I began this prayer of poetry in poverty
And this never-ending song started in silence
After the bells quietened and Sunday was in
Church or still in bed as I watched the tusky
Growing in the fecund darkness. The shed was
Holy, warm and in wonder I felt it move and
On my scooter I flew over the holy stones of
Jerusalem the Golden.
(from Book One)
 
“Rag-bone rag-bone
White donkey stone”
Auntie Nellie scoured
Her door step, polished
The brass knocker
Till I saw my face
Bunched like a fist
Complete with goggles
Grinning like a monkey
In a mile of mirrors.
(from Book Three)

Book One, Against the Grain, which is the longest of the six, maps Tebb’s reconciliation with his past, with Leeds, with remembered first love, and with poetry. At the core of this deciding for poetry and for love is a thirst for simplicity:

It’s been a problem ever since
With everyone, no-one else was
So simple, always wanting more or
Less than I could give, when all
There was to follow was more of
The same

The reconciliation with childhood involves an invocation of his pre-pubescent love of Margaret, and the book ends with a physical encounter (whether real or imagined is not entirely clear) between her and the narrator, their love finally consummated.

Standing In Eden, the second book, opens with twin images of the young Tebb claimed by poetry and of Homer singing the nostos of Odysseus, before moving to a fragmented delineation of the Edenic Leeds of 1950s working class community, as seen through the eyes of children. Tebb is aware that things were not so ideal for all his neighbours:

For fish and chips
We went past ‘The Mansions’
Half a dozen enormous
Victorian houses abandoned
To the poorest of the poor
With front steps missing
Holes in the halls so big
You had to jump and
Rats the size of cats.
 
The children who lived there
Pushed coal in broken prams
Their jerseys had more
Holes than wool
They had impetigo
We passed them quickly
On the other side.

The tone soon turns to lament; slum clearance meant that homes, shops and trades, an entire way of life, have been eradicated in the space between the now and then of the poem. This is Eden demolished, if not entirely eradicated, to be rediscovered only in the smallest of things:

In the May dawn silence
I walk the cobbled road,
The houses gone for sixty years.
A single wallflower grows
On the ravaged bank.

This clearance also meant the movement of people. and the separation of the young lovers of the poem. Tebb moving to the suburbs, grammar school, teacher training college, outwards and upwards, Margaret to who knows where.

Book Three, The Kingdom of my Heart, moves from the mythic and communal to the personal and historical. The kingdom in question is both the emotional terrain of first love and the Anglian realm of Deira. It’s an urban landscape transformed by the twin powers of love and poetry:

The park itself will blossom
And grow in chiaroscuro
The Victorian postcard’s view
Of avenue upon avenue
With palms and pagodas
Lakes and waterfalls and
A fountain from Versailles.

And these powers are inextricably entwined:

Margaret, now we’ll see
What truth there is
In dreams and poetry!
I am at one with everyone
There is poetry
Falling from the air
And you have put it there.

The fourth book, Land of my Childhood, brings the reader back to the poem’s present, and at its core is Tebb’s recognition of his ‘outsider’ position: ‘My trouble was I’m not/Really working class’. This sense of difference extended to his preference for playing with girls rather than boys, a distaste for football, and, now, for the sanitised new Leeds of the planners’ dreams:

This is no land for me
I who have seen Excalibur
Pulled from the living tree
I who have drunk the wine
Of Margaret’s memory.

The Mooring Posts of Book Five are the landmarks of the gone world, ranging from the bridge of the poem’s title to local shops. Death, clearance and the brave new world of 1950s suburbia, with its shiny Formica and bright interior décor are folded into each other to signal the Fall, the end of innocence and the loss of love.

The closing book, The Walk to the Paradise Gardens, which circles around Bonfire Night 1954, is both coda and a closing of the poem’s spiral. The poet finds himself returned to an Eden he never really left, thanks to the power of art. It’s an ending of quiet hope, based on the premise that what is made well and with love endures:

The Hollows stretched into darkness
The fire burned in the frost, sparks
Crackled and jumped and floated
Stars into the invisible night and
The log glowed red and the fire we
Fed has never died.

*

Bridge over the Aire is a singular achievement in the same way that Briggflatts is; a poem unlike anything that Tebb’s fellow Children of Albion have, or could have, produced. As with most long poems, there are some flat moments, but overall it is a poem of great accomplishment as well as being a remarkable document of a world that has melted away before our very eyes. There is much to admire in this Collected Poems, but this poem makes it a book to treasure, a book to return to. Tebb is, above all else, a survivor of a gone world, a world of hope based on a firm sense of community and of social democracy in all its messy glory. Read it.

Six Irish Poets: A Review

Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haibun and haiku, by Amanda Bell, undercurrentsAlba Publishing, ISBN 9781910185353, €12 / £9 / $14

Haibun is a literary form of mixed prose and verse that has its origins in the travel journals of Basho, the great Japanese master haiku poet. These include his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s a highly flexible form that allows the poet to blend the inner and outer paths that any journey involves, and to seamlessly incorporate memory, history and immediate sensation into the text.

It’s a form that is experiencing something of a revival, in part at least because of the rising interest in psychogeography as a crucial mode of landscape writing. In Undercurrents, Amanda Bell applies it to a very specific end; a meditation on various Irish rivers that for one reason or another have significance for her. This is not a journal of a single journey, but rather of multiple trips through both space and time, the resulting texts being both local and personal, the rivers ranging from the Liffey to the Mulcair to an un-named mountain stream.

Rivers are, of course, the most liminal of sites, and Bell’s haibun reflect this essential fact. The Liffey damned at Poulaphouca for Dublin’s water supply covers flooded farms and houses that reappear when the level falls, a drowned world momentarily, and vacantly, revived. The Clare, on the Limerick/Tipperary border, is site of a double death. The Mulcair, which flows a few hundred yards from where I’m writing this review, marks an adolescent rite of passage.

Bell’s prose is direct, unpretentious and lucid, conveying fact and impression with ease. Haiku is one of the most difficult verse forms to carry off, allowing the poet the narrowest of opportunities to fire a synapse in the reader. Often, this reaction turns on a single word. At her best, Bell manages admirably:

cutting this year’s wood

for next year’s fires –

who will feel its warmth?

Undercurrents is an interesting and rewarding little book, not least for the way it indicates something of a shift in the dynamic of Irish verse as our poetry of place moves away from the pieties of the last century and towards a more exploratory, indeterminate mode.

inabsentia

EchoNone, Michael McAloran, Oneiros Books, ISBN 9781326289393, €8.40. `


In Absentia
, Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN 9781326618292, €7.18.

Place, in the sense of a defined location, is entirely absent in Michael McAloran’s work, which is grounded in a nihilistic view of the void in which nothing is, or can be, known or communicated; a state in which, to quote the epigraph to EchoNone, ‘what resonates is the sound of zero cracking apart’. The texts that comprise these two books are not prose poems, but rather poetry in prose (McAloran also writes in verse), syntactically disrupted blocks of language, in which the only punctuation used is an occasional parenthesis and frequent slashes and ellipses.

Both books are an attempt to articulate the nothing, zero, the great egg of the world, and these punctuation marks are a crucial device to help the poet avoid the danger of total stasis that could all too easily ensue. In EchoNone, for example, each block of text opens with an ellipsis, pointing back to the previous text and ends similarly, pointing on to the next (or, in the case of the first and last pages of the book, to the silence the text emerges from). Slashes punctuate the constituent markers as pauses, not of the breath (these are very much texts for silent reading, not for performance) but of the mind that would comprehend the underlying, almost Socratic, maxim ‘I speak therefore I know no thing’.

EchononeThe idea that life is meaningless, unknowable, unutterable presents certain challenges for the nihilist writer. The problem is that language continually asserts meaning. Put a word on the page, say ‘a’, and already a constellation of expectation asserts itself. A noun is required, a thing, indefinite but real. ‘a shred of pulse’, which is life, and what of it? What does it do?

…a shred of pulse sung some distance din breath lapse of reduced to nothing or of what matter echo/

And the reader makes sense of it, the ellipsis sends us back to what went before (‘silence silenced/…) and the slash both stops us and prepares us for a something next. Which is to say that the nothing is not everything, that endurance and continuity matter. That, to quote an obvious exemplar, ‘I’ll go on.’

There is a great deal of Beckett here, not least in the emphasis on silence and echo, a mutually contradictory complement. Or, to quote the final paragraph of In Absentia:

seals up in wound of speech echoing distance untraceable/ stillness/merely broken bones

More surprisingly, I am often reminded of Beckett’s Irish contemporary Brian Coffey, who, for all I know, is not known to McAloran. In lines like

black light vibration returns unto premise premise none yes or no/ futility bitten artery un-shine

there is a strong echo of passages from ‘Advent’ or ‘Mindful of You. Of course, Coffey leaned on religion as a stay against the void. McAloran has no such easy answers, and yet there is a sense through both these books that he is aware of something behind the nothing. Whatever that may be, he’s clear that it is neither simple nor easy.

Like so many of our most interesting and challenging poets, present and past, McAloran is published mainly by small foreign presses or his own Black Editions. Consequently, you’re unlikely to come across his books in your local bookshop or library, but they are very much worth tracking down and reading.

oranges in finland, Judy Kravis, Road Books, €5.00oranges-finland

Road Books is an imprint run by Judy Kravis and Peter Morgan from their home in West Cork. Her most recent publication, oranges in finland, is part of the second series of their ‘colour books (will fit in a shirt pocket) line of handsome little books. If McAloran’s writing can sometimes teeter on the edge of nightmare, Kravis inhabits a somewhat different dreamscape. As she puts it herself ‘Forty-three dreams. Forty-three mornings. Write after breakfast, before the dream disappears. Revise in the evening with the day’s weather, the day’s plot woven in.’

These poems capture the banal absurdity that characterises most of our dreams: an airport becomes a hospital; you open a knocked door but nobody’s there; journeys lose their destinations. Kravis presents these dream incidents in carefully crafted poems that refuse the temptation to interpret, hovering on the edge of sense, and not straining to impose an artificial order.

in media res

 

the people you have met

merge with the people you

have not – you know who

they all are but not yet

who you are nor just

how brinkish the

middle of thi-

ngs can be

Despite their obvious differences as writers, Kravis’ work sits outside the Irish mainstream as much as McAloran’s does. She eschews the expected rhetoric of self to create small poems in a minor key that are individual, honest, unpretentious, and carefully crafted. They are poems that feel like they have been written for the sake of it, and not to appeal to a putative audience. This is, indeed, a book to slip in your shirt pocket and enjoy in quiet moments.

A Childhood UnsharedA Childhood Unshared: The Crumlin Poems, Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne, Clothesline Press, ISBN 9780951941232, €10.00.

Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne grew up in mid-20th century Crumlin, a working class suburb of Dublin and although their experiences overlapped they didn’t meet until adulthood, brought together by a shared interest in poetry. Here they present a set of paired poems reflecting their different but similar childhoods. It’s a conversation between two distinct but complementary voices that grow out of lifetimes immersed in books. Fayne sums it up well in her opening piece ‘The Poet Dreams of Crumlin’:

 

The shock of recognition

in each others words –

the dream lives and perfect homes

born between the pages

of the books that sustained us,

the same envied neighbours, the one

need to belong.

Unlike most Irish poetry of place, which depends on the magic of naming and of rootedness, to the point of cliché, these urban place poems are, like most working-class urban living, a negotiation between a sense of community and a kind of rootlessness. In the 1930s, Crumlin went from being the dairy farm of Dublin to a sprawling development designed to facilitate inner-city slum clearance. As such, Fayne and Murray represent the first or second generation of children to grow up in this new environment, which is both theirs and not. The poems they collect here reflect this reality, celebrating not the shared history and myth of the place, but rather the creation of its history and myth. Phil Lynnot is a god who walks among them, as too, in a different way, are young men in uniform, whose army jobs are a kind of way out.

The resulting work has a surface simplicity, but any idea that it is simple is undercut by Murray’s first poem in the book, ‘To Me Fella, A Letter’, a well-judged parody of Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife. A Letter’:

At sixteen, you departed, went into far Drum-Con-Dra,

by way of the dark lanes across the river

of swirling eddies and you have been gone five months.

The magpies make sorrowful noises overhead.

However, the rest of the work avoids a self-conscious literariness and is Poundian only in its direct treatment of the thing; the thing being daily life. Crumlin and the poets’ experiences of it are not made to stand for something else, they are lucidly themselves. In ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, a poem about back-garden entertainments, Fayne brings this world to life in the sophisticated ordinariness of her particulars:

Patiently accepting

well watered squash,

Marietta biscuits

and cornflake sandwiches.

If variety is the essence of a literary culture, these quiet poems, these poets, must be welcome as an integral part of the pattern.

Distance, by Ron Carey, Revival Press, €12.00FRONT-Jpeg-Print-Ready-Distance-Cover-Final-Draft.indd-page-0011-191x300

Distance, the first collection by Limerick poet Ron Carey was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 for the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is, I imagine, a pleasing achievement for the poet and for his publisher, a small Limerick-based press dedicated to the publication of local poetry.

It’s not difficult to see why Carey’s book would be popular with the judges; it’s a very self-consciously literary book in the rural Irish tradition of Kavanagh, who is the presiding spirit in the collection. Carey covers the well-worn themes of childhood wonder, eccentric relations and neighbours, fathers and mothers, rural electrification and the confessional, and the redeeming powers of art in a series of ‘well-made’ anecdotal poems, with all the strengths and dangers of the genre. It’s not a kind of poetry that I read much of, so I am, perhaps, not well-placed to judge this book.

There is, however, one thing that jumps out of these pages, which is a dependence on simile and metaphor as a central organising method. If Fayne and Murray respect their landscape in and of itself, in Carey’s poems, everything tends to be seen in terms of something else.

This is fine when it works organically in the poem and when the comparison forces the reader to see things in a new light. However, there can be a tendency to a bathetic flatness, as when a dry-stone wall is compared to a Large Particle collider, or in a poem about one of the eccentric relations:

In the evening, his head on Aunt Lilly’s lap, they lay

Among the grey-haired dunes.

At other times, comparison seems to be made simply for the sake of it, adding nothing to the poem but extra words:

My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight

In a country lane

There are moments when the method does work:

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

On balance, however, the poet seems to be in love with comparison, but not in control of it.

Carey now lives in Dublin and it will be interesting to see if his second collection moves away from his essentially rural vision to encompass the realities of his new urban environment or if he will develop a different vocabulary and more open method for his work as a result.