A review by David Butler of Eamonn Lynskey’s third poetry collection ‘It’s Time (Salmon Poetry, 2017)
In an epigraph to his 1914 collection Responsibilities, Yeats famously asserted ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. To modify the phrase, for Eamonn Lynskey, in poetry begins responsibility. A retired teacher, his third collection addresses a number of issues that should be of concern to all of us, but with a sense of doubt as to the efficacy, and even the ethics, of assuming a poetic stance. ‘This poet never had a lump of shrapnel / wedged inside his head’ begins All Those Thousand Souls, a poem empathetic to the airstrike victims euphemistically referred to by the military as collateral damage. If the poem’s grief were to explode, he continues, it might leave ’empty slogans / twitching in their helplessness’. The poem concludes: ‘He vows to do everything he can / check High Street labels carefully, choose Fairtrade products, compose angry poems.’ It is a refreshingly honest position, akin to Auden’s assertion, in an elegy composed on the occasion of Yeats’ death, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.
Angry poems (and there are more than a few in the collection which excoriate mankind’s various depredations) are not necessarily the most effective. Perhaps the only responsibility of art is to permit us to look again and, looking, reconsider. In Metsu’s Women, Lynskey surveys the series of female subjects engaged in mundane tasks presented by the seventeenth century Dutch Master, the poem culminating in a delicate portrait of lonely old age:
The hearth is swept now, pots hang on
the chimneybreast. She eats alone.
As is the way, her man is gone
this several years before her. Shadows
touch her dress and nestle in its folds.
An equally delicate meditation on the absence occasioned by the untimely death of a young student, ‘Rachael’, drawn one assumes from Lynskey’s years as a teacher, acts as a fine counterpoint.
The title poem, a catalogue of spring’s foison which opens the collection, is an invocation to the poet (from garden shears and spade!) to ‘come, the world must be newmade. It’s time’, while the collection’s last poem, ‘Final Notice’ closes the cycle with an image of a return to ‘weeds everywhere, / the hedge grown wild, / the lawn luxuriantly / overgrown.’ In the body of the collection, there is a strong sense of revisiting images and objects from the past to renew or reconsider them. Several for instance deal with the spectral art of photography Civilian Executions, Minsk 1941, Arthur Advises (in memory of photographer Arthur Fields) and This Photograph, the last of which is a meditation on the ‘innumerable futures’, ‘endless possibilities’ and ‘the ocean of what might have been’ suspended in an old, rediscovered photo of a New Year’s party — ‘gli atti scancellati pel giuoco del futuro’, in the epigraph of Eugenio Montale. Other points of departure for Lynskey include gallery paintings and items encountered in museums — the British Museum, the Lincoln Town Museum, the National Museum of Finland.
Religious imagery is another strain running through the collection, with Speaking of the Past imagining the poet’s Catholic upbringing as an all encompassing Bayeux tapestry. April recycles a lot of the language of scripture to suggest the transformative power of nature, while Deposition reimagines this staple of Christian iconography as the removal of a dumped corpse by ambulance, the deposition witnessed, as Christ’s, by reverent women. Calvaries remembers the trauma of school-bullying and corporal punishment in the imagery of the Passion and the unrepentant thief, while in The Taking of Christ, which responds to Caravaggio’s great picture in the National Gallery of Ireland, one suspects Lynskey understands the artist’s compulsion to include his own portrait amidst the throng that ‘irrupts into Gethsemane tonight.’
If, as the All Those Thousand Souls cited in the opening paragraph above perhaps hints, some of the poems of It’s Time push a little too easily and insistently in the direction of declamation, repugnance or outrage, there are plenty too that urge us to see again and, seeing, reconsider.
David Butler’s most recent novel, City of Dis was published by New island. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published by Doire Press in 2017.