The first poem in this collection from Dónall Dempsey sets the tone of book and bears out its dedication to the loving memory of the poet’s parents. His mother speaks directly to the reader here, with her words wrapped in the colloquial language used throughout the book: ‘Ya’d wear the heart out of a stone!’. One of the most frequent definitions of poetry is that it is the most personal of writing and this was never more true of any collection than it is here. Early on we are introduced to other family influences on the writer: an aunt and a grandmother. In ‘Talking with Granny’, the stabilising presence of elders in the life of the young is well said: ‘She gave you back / your self / but a much better self / than ever you could be.’ This poem, and many others, shows how the support and love so necessary in the formation of the growing child was readily available to the writer throughout his formative years. Many of the poems are written in a sense of gratitude for this early support.
In a book of so many well-executed poems there are many contenders that one might choose as an outstanding piece, particularly because such care has been taken to present them in such a fashion as to involve the reader in the development of the family, and the writer, through the years and to ensure that each event or emotion does not eclipse other, perhaps less dramatic, moments. And so it is that while a poem on the experience of revisiting the old, and now ruined, house of his Aunt Nelly is a memorable one, and therefore produces a memorable poem (‘Sweetnesse Readie Penn’d’, with its reference to George Herbert), the collection is replete with lighter, equally memorable, pieces. There is great fun in ‘A Thin Slice of Ham in the Hand Is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream’ (apart from the title itself!): ‘Never bolt your door / with a boiled carrot!’ / as Uncle would say / with a wink – tongue in cheek. / It didn’t always make sense / as our door was always / open’. Poems like this ensure that the collection never assumes that rather maudlin, treacly tone which is the fate of many works that strive to recreate family history. A piece like ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ ensures that the earthiness of rural life is always present to pull the collection back on track if there is any danger of its contents heading in that direction. Incidentally, that particular poem with its evocation of the killing of a fox and how it affected the poet (‘the boy / carries her / death cradling it / in his mind / trying to comfort her / with human tears’) is strongly reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘The Early Purges’ where a similar shock of farmyard reality proves a distressing experience for a youngster.
Finally, the very accessibility of Dónall Dempsey’s writing must be mentioned. Not alone are the poems themselves full of a welcome for the reader but the way they are presented is also very reader-friendly (or, as we say these days, ‘user-friendly’). Throughout the book the poet steps back from the poetry to sketch out a little of the history behind the poems. These prose insertions are never turgid or long-winded – they give just enough to add to the understanding and enjoyment of the poems. Perhaps this is a method that other poets might use more often? Especially in these day when so many readers can find poetry an obscure and forbidding medium? Certainly, they would find Dónall Dempsey’s collection a welcome change.
‘Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy’ is available from the D&W website at http://www.dempseyand windle.co.uk