Anyone assembling a poetry collection usually has difficulty organising around a ‘central theme’. One discovers that, rather like a musical composition, a theme there is, but it surfaces in different ways in different poems, sometimes quite obliquely and sometimes – it seems to the writer – hardly at all. This of course is because the poems probably, and in the case of this collection certainly, have been composed over a somewhat lengthy period of time, during which the writer herself has been changing all the while even though remaining essentially the same. Which goes to prove that poets really are just like other human beings, after all.
So it is that ‘So Long, Calypso’, as a collection has a number of different, we will call them, strands. However, if one were to risk pointing out a central concern it would probably range around those pieces that deal with a sense of place, of home, of self. ‘Treading Out Home’ (p.36) is such a poem:
‘Pick a village or a city. At a pinch / a street will do…’
– Yes, even one’s ‘home’ is a somewhat random circumstance. Very few people have had the complete freedom to choose where they live. Mortgage rates, personal income and so many other constraints intervene, but once one is settled there it’s probably going to be ‘home’ for some time and so will become part of you. And you will become part of it:
‘… day by day, / quite soon you find you’ve walked yourself a past / where time and place entwine and pave your way / to history you’ve chosen to outlast…’.
And we never forget our former places, our former ‘homes’, ‘abodes’. They will have formed us in many ways, even though we may not have noticed this at the time. Maybe not until we read poem like this. And when the time comes to leave forever a place one has for a long time called ‘home’
‘…it’s not possible / to leave without taking a moment first / to look around…’
as Liz observes in ‘Lot’s Wife’ (p.37), a poem placed, significantly, opposite the previously mentioned ‘Treading Out Home’.
This concern can also be sensed in poems such as ‘Tenement’ (p.18), ‘Moscow’ (p.34) and, in an indirect way, in ‘Glasgow Central’ (p. 29), a poem that is superficially merely a re-run of the announcements one would hear in that railway station while waiting for that train and the ensuing announcements while travelling on it. But the poem is more than this: one gets to travel through exotic Glasgow, in the space of a page and a half, while sitting in the train, or well … in one’s armchair at home. And of course, this is a poem that gains immeasurably from being read out in a Scots accent (which Liz does surprisingly well). And when you reach the terminus please ensure that you take your luggage and belongings with you.
This preoccupation with one’s place in scheme of things, and the temporary nature of that place also surfaces in poems like ‘On the Old Road to Cork’ (p.7) and in ‘Orbital Mechanics’ (p.16), the last-named a mine of information how to secure a safe rendezvous with another spacecraft while orbiting the earth. An unusual setting, but the concern for secure location is really much the same as in poems already mentioned.
And now, following my tentative essay to point out a dominant theme I will contradict myself immediately by mentioning several other ‘strands of thought’ equally important in this book. That’s the way it is with a poetry collection. Even so, a close reading will often reveal definite links between ostensibly different strands, links sometime unperceived by the writer, who is often too close to his or her material to see them..
A particularly strong element in the collection concerns aging. I’m speaking now of the ‘Angela’ poems, in which we see up-close and personal that stage we all must reach, assuming we are lucky enough to survive into old age. Angela is an old lady now and quite heavily dependent on others, although one gets the strong impression that in her past she had been an independent type. Her discomfort, both physical and mental, at her surroundings and how things have changed for her, now that she is old, is forensically presented. These are poems of ‘last things’ and bring to mind that passage at the end of John’s gospel:
‘…when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted: but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ (John 21:18)
And this is the way of things with Angela. We meet her first in ‘Angela Gazing at the Stars’ (p.10):
‘It’s after midnight. Angela can see / the Milky Way. It wasn’t a bad fall. / She toppled over, how? She can’t recall / exactly what she’s doing, lying here / at this hour …’
She is reluctant to use the alarm that hangs around her neck because she feels she has bothered the neighbours too much already and so she will lie here a while and see if she can’t sort herself out, herself. Old people can be like that.
This kind of starkly realistic portrayal is one of Liz’s great strengths and can be seen throughout the collection, and especially in these five poems. Anyone approaching ‘elderly’ status will recognise the reluctance to give in to the solicitudes of others. One does not know where such neighbourly concern will end. All classes of people fear the loss of independence but it is particularly a sharp feeling in the aged. And problems that might seem quite small can loom quite large for someone not too good on the pins:
‘The biggest problem is that step between / the kitchen and the hall. It’s not so high / but if you have to steer a walker, lean / and lift it at the same time as you try / to make a cup of tea, it might as well / be Carrauntoohil … ‘ – from ‘Angela Becomes Accustomed to Her New Walker’ (p.15).
Other poems in this series are well described by their titles: ‘Angela’s Mishap whilst Unplugging the TV’ (p. 25); ‘Angela Wonders about Emptying the Commode’ (p. 31); ‘Angela Has Doubts about the Kindness of Relative Strangers’ (p. 58), this last an indication of the ulterior motives that might lurk behind kindly concern, and the suggestion that this concern might lead to her removal to somewhere else…
‘ … she can’t /, be left alone here now. She’ll never face / the winter…’
In an indirect way, these poems are also concerned with home, or perhaps with the impending loss of home. And what very human and humane writing is here, with something of the detail of Austin Clarke’s great ‘Martha’ poems. These are my favourite pieces in the book. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? – nearing the seventieth year of my allotted biblical three score and ten?
And then there are what could be termed Liz’s ‘seascape’ poems. The ‘Angela’ poems were concerned with the situation of another individual, though of course they were also concerned with the writer herself in the sense that they prefigured a situation which she could – which we all could – find waiting at the end of things. All poems are personal, but some are more personal than others and these ‘seascape’ poems with their ‘Turneresque’ backdrops of sea-fronts, mists, waves, tides, rain-in-the-face – these poems are quite unlike the ‘Angela’ poems and are, I think, Liz’s most personal in the collection in that they are intimately concerned with the self of the writer: her fears, hopes, ambitions, sometimes all three together.
It is significant that she has chosen to place ‘Assumption Day, Inch Strand’ (p.11) as the first of this series. This poem touches on one her deep concerns: the search for permanence, followed quickly by the realization that this will always prove be out reach:
‘you could wish for a constant / time and place / with less flux / more of a state to settle into / free from this change…’
but shortly afterwards comes the thought that
‘…this is here after all / things just move / then move again’.
There is a dreamlike quality about these ‘seascape’ poems, something that is seen strongly in a poem like ‘Into the Blue’ (p.32). Again, we have the turbulent seafront,
‘the blue mist, a steel rain that pierces / the skin …’.
a scenario already painted in ‘Storm’ (p. 21) and later on in ‘Finding the Waves at Dun Chaoin’ (p. 35). There is the feeling of being overwhelmed by things. Of being ‘knocked off your feet’. Of not being able to cope. Be comforted, Liz, you are not alone.
These ‘seascape/waterscape’ poems are ‘pure’ poems, in the sense that there is no story other than a few moments of focused personal experience, no characters, no implied criticisms of a system or circumstance (as in the ‘Angela’ series) and probably therefore they are nearer to what poetry is about. This series really is, in Eliot’s words, ‘a raid on the inarticulate’. As Liz herself says in ‘On Burning Bridges’ (p. 26):
‘… There’s no guide-book / for this, no boss to blame, no one you took / the order from. The only way to do / it is to do it …’
It is difficult to write such poems, with no support from a narrative or objective context. The writer really is on her own here, facing into the void. And, as writing, in a book of so many fine pieces, they stand out as something of an achievement.
So many other poems to talk about, but this is Liz’s night and so I must allow her at least a little time to strut her stuff. I will just mention ‘Thermopylae’ (p.51) and the title poem, both of which are products of Liz’s extensive reading of the good old classics. She has chosen to depict ‘Thermopylae’, that military stand-off undermined by betrayal, at the point where the defenders’ morale is still high, despite the odds. And the writing is as confident as the speaker in the poem.
Finally, and on a more cheerful note, we must smile at the self-justifications employed by Odysseus as he ditches Calypso. Men are very good at this sort of thing. It’s always the lady’s fault. Though to be fair, he really does have to get home as soon as possible. He is dead right to say
‘… they’ll need me to sort out all the intrigue at the palace …’
Yes, there has been rather a lot going on in his absence and, as I am sure you will remember, Penelope has been very faithful, but there is just so long a gal can stay weaving at her loom.
This is the breezy, insouciant style that Liz does so very well and can be enjoyed in many other poems [‘Root’ (p.22); ‘Flight Taken’ (p.30)]. It is a complete change in tone from some of the more serious poems discussed already and lends variety of colour and register to her collection. Placed at the end of the book, ‘So long, Calypso’ lifts the collection onto another plane where we can feel a little superior (and what’s wrong with that?) to the man who tries to convince us that he is moving on for all the best reasons: you are way out of my league; I don’t deserve you; it will be best for both of us. It was great fun, but it was … just one of those things And so – So long, Calypso!
An effective, and affecting, collection.