Reviews of third collection, ‘It’s Time’

Poetry Ireland Review no. 125

Review by Fred Johnston

Fred Johnston is a poet, novelist, literary critic and musician.

The language of Eamonn Lynskey’s poetry is of a sort that invites one into the core of the poem as through an open door. Yet it is only when one has begun to read and contemplate what is behind the door that one sees incredible simple horrors; of violence, neglect, deep injustice, and a calm nobility under pressure.

    The human condition in the twenty-first century is not a pleasant one and it is precarious. Lynskey is to be congratulated for reminding us that, in some instances, our own small personal injustices and injuries are often microcosms of big ones and our moral impotence in the face of them.

    The title poem introduces us, through a door pushed open into a shed full of garden implements, to the underlying tone of those that follow:

… When I creak the shed door open,

shears and spade blink in the corner: come,

the world must be newmade. It’s time.

   In ‘Down to Africa’, Lynskey suggests that, ‘Earth will clothe herself afresh, the way / she greened the terraces of Angkor Wat’; and when this process is complete, it’s back to the possibility of new human beginnings in a natural circle back in the cradle of Africa. There’s an odd comfort in that. But murder and destruction is not a new thing: ‘Warrior’ conjures up Ötzi, the mummified remains found in the Dolomite Alps some years ago, which bear indications of death by a fired arrow; the narrator in the poem, with professional detachment, proclaims that …

  • We have that unfortunate

and not infrequent military

occurrence: death from friendly fire .

The camouflage phrases ‘friendly fire’, along with collateral damage’, must be two of the most obscene creations of the military mind. If one were Catholic in Ireland, one was at war from childhood, in constant danger of attack from a vague but savage foe, and the enemy was always at the gates:

I try explaining to a grandchild

how we were conscripted in the war

against an enemy determined

to destroy us.                         – SPEAKING OF THE PAST

Our banners were ‘pictures of the Sacred Heart’, and our propaganda press comprised  ‘…The Messenger / brought home from school each month’. How many of us, one might ask, were victims of ‘friendly fire’ or merely ‘collateral damage’ in this invisible struggle?

   A quite beautiful poem, entitled ‘Metsu’s Women’, is a reflection of the paintings and short life of Dutch painter, Gabriel Metsu, a Baroque painter whose father was a painter and tapestry worker, and who died aged 38. His works, depicting mainly individuals at work or playing instruments, hunting, or writing, can be seen at Dublin’s National Gallery, one of which is Man Writing a Letter:

Young blades write letters, cavaliers

press their attentions on young maidens,

huntsmen rest long-barrelled guns

at doorways, trade their fresh-skilled spoil

of birds and hares with servant girls,

More than a contemplation of the painter’s work, it has the quiet quality of a lament in which Metsu’s early demise is a poignant reminder of the lasting virtue of art over uncertain life itself. Fine poems throughout this collection ought to reinforce Lynskey’s reputation. As a stylist, he could teach our younger catch of poets a thing or two. And he is never dull.

Live Encounters (www.liveencounters.net)

Review by Susan Norton

Susan Norton writes essays, reviews, and literary criticism and is a lecturer of English in The Dublin Institute of Technology

   Irish poet Eamonn Lynskey’s volume of verse called It’s Time, published by Salmon Poetry (2017), is self-conscious in literal and beautiful ways — literal in its articulations, beautiful in its aspirations. “All Those Thousand Souls” (p.25) begins, “This poet never had a lump of shrapnel / wedged inside his head or sat bewildered / in the bombed-out wreckage of his home–”.  It then guides the reader through the devastating violence and loss suffered by families in Bangladesh to conclude that the poet can and should continue to do what little and whatever he can to assuage suffering, including “check High Street labels carefully, choose / Fairtrade products,” and yes, “compose angry poems.”

   Such incantation to power over powerlessness typifies Lynskey’s tone throughout the collection.  He is highly attuned to pain and injustice in life, but not at all overcome by it. His poems ask us to ask ourselves questions and thus insist that change is not only worthy of us, but incumbent upon us too.  In “Deposition” (24), for instance, an unidentified body is found in the night, possibly hanged, yet the women who come upon it in the morning do not look away. They pray over it and leave behind flowers, human compassion once again lighting the way toward tomorrow.

   In “Listening to My Elders” (19), the first-person speaker identifies with those in recent history who have “just followed orders” in carrying out atrocities. By accepting the probability of obedience to maniacal power in times of genocide or brutal colonial expansion, the narrating voice self-incriminates for crimes committed while also rhetorically suggesting the likelihood that many of us would protect ourselves through collusion with evil too. The message?  We must guard society against the rise to power of corrupting forces so that none of us will ever find we are about to “machete severed limb from torso.”

   Such up-close, at times unflinching and always highly specific language of both ordinary and extraordinary human experience is characteristic of Lynskey’s composition. Read aloud, his lines trip easily off the tongue because his lexicon is so common to the words we use with each other every day. His syntax, while never convoluted, still achieves a lyrical quality. Lynskey’s touch is light, his syllabication deft, and his verse thematically inviting for readers of all kinds who wish to ruminate on life as we know it, in the here and now, because every “going forth” is “a risk,” every “safe return a victory”.  And until our “Final Notice” (66), there is still time to achieve a higher purpose.

Brian Kirk

Brian Kirk is a poet and playwright. His first collection ‘After the Fall’ was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017.

    Eamonn Lynskey’s third poetry collection It’s Time opens with the title poem which subtly marks an ending and a beginning at the same time. Winter gives way to spring: ‘…the wheelie bin / has taken on a strange new lustre’ and ‘When I creak the shed door open / shears and spade blink in the corner’. The collection as a whole reflects the turbulent circularity of things in general, the passing of the seasons, the changing of the old order, the past receding, the present stark in its immediacy at times, the future uncertain. But it is also a call to action for us to try again to put the world and the past to rights.

    The reader is led along a deceptively straightforward path with carefully controlled poems that exhibit precise use of language and striking images. The poet draws our attention to a variety of concerns as we move through the collection; expansive themes that meditate on how we are failing as custodians of our planet sit alongside accounts of the horrors of the past, political and social. But within the overall tapestry, between the big fore-grounded themes, the poet sews the details of the quotidian with an acute eye for the details that speak to our common humanity.

    In Home an Hour the poet, lately discharged from hospital, grateful and filled once again with awe for the wonders of the natural world, finally acknowledges with grim humour:

‘Just home an hour and I begin

to worry about new water charges, am

again become immune to the miraculous.

    There is a real concern for the future of the planet and of mankind in poems such as Down to Africa and Lament, but this is never strident. In the latter, which is concerned with the despoliation of the Great Barrier Reef, he could be speaking of the harm done to peoples as much as that done to the eco-system when he writes:

‘How will you escape, crazed refugees,

the dread bombardments that will crash around you?’

    There are many other poems which take on themes of political and socio-political importance, particularly in relation to violence meted out in war or by those in power. Warrior, Civilian Executions, Minsk 1941 and Listening to My Elders all deal with the horrors of war, the latter being most unsettling as it is spoken from the point of view of a collaborator: ‘I would have raped / and plundered, filled mass graves, just following orders,’.

   There is a sequence of poems at the heart of the collection that considers the negative effects of religion in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland in particular. An Early Christian employs an extended metaphor to examine the decline of the Church in Ireland in recent decades.

          ‘And early panics paralysed us, froze us

          in our desks the day the priest came,

          heard our stammered answers to the questions

          from the Holy Catechism,’

    The accumulation of detail in the poem creates a potted social history of the decline of the church in a few pages of rhythmically flowing eight-line stanzas. It’s a very satisfying poem.  The poem April sees a distinct move away from God to Nature, seeing in her cycle the true mystery of life: ‘…Here is full communion / with whatever is unknown, / unknowable, whatever makes, / unmakes, remakes – Whatever is / that shapes the world’.

    Lynskey also displays a real talent for the ekphrastic poem, taking inspiration from paintings and photographs alike in poems such as The Taking of Christ, This Photograph, Miracles and Metsu’s Women. In This Photograph the snapshot becomes a totemic artefact which hold the power that ‘launched us / on this cardboard raft to sail / into innumerable futures.’

    Throughout the collection there is a presiding interest in artefacts. Things, particularly old things, are important to the poet and deepen his and our understanding not only of the past but the present and the future too. In The Oldest Man-Made Object in The British Museum he measures man’s attempts at progress in the natural world over time by considering two items, a stone age axe and an even older scalloped chopping tool.

    Perhaps the collection’s ambition – and that of all poets – is best described in a short line from the very moving poem of loss, Rachael which seeks to understand a world where suffering and loss exist, ‘to reach behind the words / to understand what happened.’

In this collection Eamonn Lynskey has helped us do just that.

Liz McSkeane, Director of Turas Press.

Liz McSkeane is a poet and novelist and director of the publishing company Turas Press. Website:  admin@turaspress.ie

   The title of Eamonn Lynskey’s third collection poetry, “It’s Time,” evokes a sense of meditation – on life, on the urgency of tackling our life’s work, whatever that may be. The reader expecting such reflections will not be disappointed. But from these fifty-two poems, the understated and ambiguous title unravels to reveal a tapestry of interconnected themes that are not only personal, but social and political as well.

    The title poem, which opens the collection, conjures a moment of renewal, a spring day in the suburbs when images of dead leaves and a wheelie bin combine to make the familiar strange:

“There’s something sharp

about the sunlight blinds the eye this morning –

stems have straightened up, the wheelie bin

has taken on a strange new lustre.”

    The beautiful elegy, “A Connaught Man’s Rambles” distils the harshness of life for Irish emigrant workers in a personal recollection of the poet’s father. A stroll in the country, “Nunhead Cemetery” takes the poet, and us, down memory lane and face-to-face with

“…the narrow span / between the spark and its extinguishing.”

    A reprieve from a brush with mortality breathes palpable relief in “That Moment When” and “Home an Hour”. And presiding over all, the shade of that “Thief” who comes in the night and is not just after your money…

    “It’s Time” is also a call to action, in the sense that ‘It’s time something was done about’ – what? In “Down to Africa” and “Lament”, the latter an elegy to the lost and disappearing life of the Great Barrier Reef, the poet casts his appalled gaze over the legacy of destruction and environmental degradation our human intervention has wreaked on nature.  

    He also challenges us to remember the anguish wrought by conflict and wars, past and present. Images here are concrete and often shocking: the voice of a “A Professional in Charge” brings a horrifyingly clinical view of the execution of Anne Boleyn.  “Warrior” subjects the skeleton of a slain Neolithic warrior killed in battle to modern forensic analysis. “Civilian Executions, Minsk, 1941” and “Lists” remember the anonymous victims of atrocities and war, bystanders in the drama of history’s disasters.  And the great events of history are skilfully intermingled with the minutiae of small lives: “Metzu’s Women” in the past, and the poet’s own life laid bare in the clutter of objects being cleared out by unknown successors in “Day of Judgement.”

    Much of the power of this vision is conveyed through the evocation of everyday objects:  a stone-age knife, random objects displayed in a museum, a photograph. The poet’s scrutiny has an ethnographic quality that imbues simple artefacts of the past, and the present, with the lustre of talismans. Lynskey is at his best when his insights are mined from these vignettes of shared humanity, evoked through the everyday and sometimes sinister uses of daily objects. These images permit readers space and freedom to make connections, draw our own conclusions. Only occasionally does the poet succumb to the temptation to interpret on our behalf, such as “This Photograph” and “My Song is Simple” which tip over into didacticism.

    But these lapses are few. This is a book that disconcerts, not least in tenderness not only for our neighbour, but for the Other, such as

“two English boys who disembark

To angry streets at Eastertime”

   “It’s Time” is engaged poetry, imbued with great passion and compassion that smoulders, slow-burning, in the mind of the reader long after the “Final Notice” has been given.

Skylight47, Issue 11 Spring/Summer 2019

Review by David Butler

David Butler is a poet, novelist and dramatist.

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.

Orbis International Literary Journal #184

Review by David Troman

The blurb on the back of this third collection says that the verses offer questions, not answers. However, it seems to me a partial truth because Lynskey does ask about things, although in a manner which makes the readers think they conceived such questions for themselves. He deals with all aspects of life: faith; conservation; personal relationships. In each case, the answer is inherent in the asking, implying therefore further questions –

do I want to contribute to making an answer a reality, and if so, how and when? For Lynskey, the third question is answered in the title.

    The writer clearly feels passionately about his subjects, yet the ‘ordinariness’ of the language is as dispassionate as a barrister presenting a logical case. Often, it’s with a dry sense of wit, for example, in ‘Neanderthals’:

Whereas there is this ‘widespread idea

that Neanderthals had haggard haircuts,

went half-naked. had a wild-eyed stare,

and killed and chopped each other up for food;

… 1 have no doubts at all but they were kind

among themselves and did not soil the ground

where they lay down to sleep, and loved their kids,

and hoped for happiness. And then we came along.

    In the latter part of the collection, the focus is on the issues particular to Ireland. In ‘Speaking of the Past’, we find a desire for unity between people, manifested through Catholicism:

It was all a tapestry of love –

divine, not flesh and blood –

with pictures of the Sacred Heart

in every house…

We didn’t have that point of purchase

Archimedes coveted,

on which we might step out

and view the whole embroidered cloth

and find it all a work of human hand.

   

Reading Lynskey’s work, it is impossible remain untouched.

 

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