So beautiful …

There is that famous piece of World War II newsreel that shows London on a morning after another night of German blitz bombing. A lone double-decker bus makes its way through the ruin and devastation all around it and brings to mind that George Orwell said something to the effect that as long as he found that the milk was still being delivered and that the buses were still running he was assured that civilisation still survived.

So it is in this Pandemic that, whatever about the milk, the sight of buses (mostly empty) dutifully servicing deserted bus stops is a welcome glimpse of the normality we used to enjoy (so unthinkingly) and a harbinger of the hope that life might soon return to what it used to be.

Two of my good friends ...

Many are the pleasures I miss during the ‘Lockdowns’, not the least of them my journeys into town by bus from its terminus conveniently located a short distance from my home. Such Great Thoughts I did be having on the top deck! Such unequalled views of the N4 and the wide very variety of traffic that courses along its majestic thoroughfare! –Yes, you’re right, I didn’t get out much before the Pandemic. And now, with the 5km restriction, I can hardly get out at all. And travelling on buses is definitely out!

There are so many miseries caused to other people by this awful scourge of covid19 — so many grieving families and sufferers of the ‘long covid’ – that I hope that no one will take it amiss that I am whinging about not being able to use the bus. I am very sensible, believe me, of how hard the lockdowns have been on so many people — and will be until about June 2021 (horrible thought, but with the new variants popping up all the time, this gloomy scenario seems inescapable, despite calls for an early lifting of restrictions).

Really now, it’s just a bus journey you’re talking about, you’ll tell me. – Not so! A bus journey is an opportunity to think things out a bit, in the mandatory but comfortable confinement of a bus seat. True, it may be a little less comfortable when a rather stout person wedges in beside you, but by then you will be so immersed in your book or your podcast or your own thoughts that you will barely notice.

Own thoughts. Taking stock of family affairs? Of other affairs? Going over some old regrets? New fears? Wondering how it is that things seem to happen to YOU that never happen to anyone else?

Mr Mark Ulysses chose to include my poem ‘On the Bus’ on his excellent Live Encounters website last December 2020 and I am very grateful for that, and for publishing another poem alongside. ‘On the Bus’ is something of an ‘accidental’ piece. After I arrived into Dublin city centre I decided to have a quick coffee in Starbucks (oh! the long-lost luxuries of those pre-Covid days!) and there I wrote out a rough draft in a few minutes. Of course the metrics and stanza-work took some time afterwards, (not to mentionthe help from my Troika workshop colleagues Liz Mc Skeane, Anamaria Crowe Serrano and Ross Hattaway) but the poem is substantially much as it came out in the café, even including the Hamlet reference. Sometimes it happens like that. Not often enough though …

On the Bus

Not my usual bus this - travelling 
my accustomed route yes, but
taking in a few more twists and turns.
Look, that crumbling wall reveals a gap
I hadn't seen before; that gable end
extends a length back longer than I'd reckoned -
all these unfamiliar twists and turns
disclose a new perspective on old journeys,

like this morning that discarded notebook
found forlorning in a desk drawer
and my half-hour spent deciphering
who was it wrote those hurried lines - who was it
tried to slow the world was whirling round him
faster than these neat suburban landscapes
racing past my window now? And yet
I knew of course that hapless wight was me.

This filtering of the ever-present past,
this yearning to go back, rein in the years
and speak a word to all those selves I was,
selves gauche and ill-advised and God knows what -
I want to shout to them above the maelstrom 
swept me on relentlessly before it.
What the resurrections could be mine
if like to Hamlet's crab I could go backwards?

                                                  Eamonn Lynskey

I offer my profound thanks to DublinBus, without which this poem would not have been possible, and to Live Encounters <> for publishing it. And please be advised that no crabs were harmed during its writing.


The Sunflower Sessions continue to flourish, consummately compered by Declan Mcloughlin, albeit with a change of venue and now reincarnated in The Lord Edward Fitzgerald (opposite Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin). And so too another incarnation of its magazine, or ‘narrowsheet’, as its editor Eamon Mag Uidhir calls it, because of its unusual shape.

There definitely is room in Dublin for a publication that brings the poetry of the NOW out into circulation immediately. The poems here in FLARE 08 have all the appearance of being as up to date as you will get, with their ink just freshly dry. There is a lot to be said for a magazine that appears several times a year and features poetry written most probably very recently.

Good quality too. Look at Claire O’Reilly’s paean to the someone (Alva) who arrived into a rather staid place and transformed it: ‘… she was as exotic as pineapple / from another parish … ‘ and who ‘ … nourished our monochrome minds / in the kaleidoscope of her existence …’.  What a phrase! ‘monochrome minds’.

And Rob Buchanan’s For You Is OK is wonderful in the full sense of the word: it is full of wonderful usage of language: ‘Away from line of sight, ascending arabesque railed basement steps / An ancient battle-scarred bare-chested aulfella, drunk and bald like myself / but black, smoke stained arthritic … ‘ I don’t usually go for OTT poems but this is irresistible! Really great stuff.

Peter O’Neill’s extensive Sonnets from The Henry Street Arcade Project brought me new discoveries of a place I see most weeks.  It evokes the famous cave, ‘which according to Vico / In Scienza nuova, Plato singles out as the origin / Of civiisation’. I hadn’t thought to find Plato’s cave round the corner from the GPO  but now I will always. Such is the power of poetry!

I liked Richard Halperin’s sombre Farewell to a Beloved Brother too, with its abrupt start (‘The heavens opened / And he went into them’) reminding me of John Donnes’ straight-to-the chase first lines and equally Henry Vaughan’s (‘They have all gone into the world of light…’). And so I have to say again how privileged I am to be published amidst such fine work. My own offering is also a ‘farewell poem’ in a way, a farewell to all the things I used to do and cannot now do. And despite Allen Ginsburg’s famous line about the dreaded DIY destroying people’s minds, I have to say I always really enjoyed putting up shelves (no, really!):

Material Support

He is come again to haunt the aisles,

so desperate his need. Come to inhale

the resin scent of deal and pine, planed

and unplaned pointing roofward, waiting

for the careful blade will recreate them

into shapes as yet still hovering ghostly

in his mind like Plato’s caverned forms.

Again he wanders down long corridors

of paints and brushes, white electricals

and dazzling displays of indoor lights

that promise to undarken any soul,

surveys unsullied pruning shears and trowels

displaying gleaming edges, circular saws

and hand-tools nestling pristine in their boxes,

sharing side-by-side a universe

where every cordless drill will guarantee

its teethed chuck to grip the bit so tightly

that no tremble of the hand, no lapse

nor weakness in the aging brain will skew

the outcome. Who will pass these choirs of angels

shining in their tiers and not allow

he feels a sorrow lifting from his heart?

Others come with measuring tape and chart

and calculating eye and tilt of head

to weigh a purchase— Motionless, he stands

in Fixings, undecided whether slot

or Philips screw or toggle-bolt or plug

would best secure a shelf to cavity wall

when suddenly the task appears before him

whole, its every separate part in place

and splendidly complete and now he knows

that he can leave, depart as empty-handed

as the hour he entered all his years ago.

FLARE 08 also features great poems from Seamus Bradley, Rob Buchanan, Natasha Helen Crudden, Kate Dempsey, Helen Harrison, Michael Farry, Eithne Lannon, Jonathan Armas McGlinn, Jen O’Shea, Adriana Ribeiro, David Richardson, Polly Richardson, Daniel Ryan, Roman Rye and Breda Wall Ryan. It is available at the Sunflower Sessions every last Wednesday (7.30pm: The Lord Edward Fitzgerald), and at Books Upstairs in D’Olier Street. €5.

Cover and illustrations are from DMC (instagram@artdmc) photographed by Declan McLoughlin.

Come along and read on the last Wednesday of every month (except December) and fulfill one of the conditions for inclusion in FLARE. The other condition is … good stuff! As they say these days in all the best poetry circles in Dublin … ‘See you at the Sessions!’




Front cover artwork: ‘Dragonflies First Flight’ by Amanda Dagg
back cover, detail from image:

My thanks to editor Carole Baldock and her team for including my short piece on the Victorian poet Eugene Lee Hamilton in Orbis no. 183. As always, the magazine makes good reading – poems, stories, reviews and critical content – and, as always, I mention only a very few of the poems that stood out for me among the many others really good.

I particularly liked Martin Zarrop’s Sleepers where humour underpins the poem’s sense of sad futility and die-hard loyalty. He deals in a sensitive way with people who persist in pre-perestroika communist idealism. “Now in their nineties, they are still expecting instructions, / encoded in clues for The Sunday Times, cryptic crossword / or buried in the personal columns of The Washington Post. / Is there an anagram of ‘Felixstowe Workers, Unite and Fight!?’ ” Humour suffuses the piece with affection. One is left feeling that, wrong-headed as they are, these aging ‘comrades’ are in some way admirable because there is always something admirable about loyalty, even misguided loyalty.

I also liked Tony Hendry’s poem on Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Why wouldn’t I since I do a lot of poems from paintings myself? However, I like this one because, unlike some poorly-executed ekphrastic poems, it does not collapse into mere description but engages the reader in an interrogation of aspects of the painting which might usually escape notice, overwhelmed as they are by the main event. Describing the action from the point of view of the ‘cute boy satyr’ was a good idea for getting into the painting, rather than just being outside looking in. It’s a poem in the best tradition of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts.

Nicky Winder’s Death of the Bird Keeper is a poem to reckon with because it’s a poem about The Final Reckoning. He (she?) does a great job in summing up the Bird Keeper’s daily round, now rounding out to its finish. I’m at the time of life when I appreciate poems like this. I am Nicky’s Bee-Keeper, and I know how ‘His margins are shifting’. His other poem, Stealth, is equally good and, further on in the magazine, Lorna Sherry has a really perceptive poem on a somewhat similar theme, as the title (‘Age’) indicates. Okay, okay … but I did say I’m at that time of life …

Featured poet Judith Shaw’s genuine middle eastern sculpture is my pick of the best from her four really outstanding pieces. Allowing the central image to speak directly to the reader is very effective (as was Tony Hendry’s use of the boy-satyr) and nothing is lost of the fleeing refugee’s predicament. He has to part with this precious possession for badly needed cash. It is a sad parting: ‘ … he’ll never sleep again’. The poem puts me in mind of the lost (stolen) treasures from Iraq’s museums during that illegal war.

Nigel Ford’s ‘After they had felled the trees’ is a particularly short poem. I like short poems. I tend to think that those which go on for rather a long time are not really poems at all but short short stories Certainly they often get prosy, despite any poetic trappings of rhyme and meter. Then there is the challenge of how to write about something that isn’t there and without becoming too regretful or, worse, maudlin. Enter Nigel. I admire the economy of how the trees have left ‘… long and stately shadows / old as time, / no longer there.’ (Thomas Hardy’s great poem on absence, Afterwards, came into my mind on reading this. What more praise can I give?) Similarly, the economy of Yvonne Adami’s ‘Walking the Merri…’ was impressive. She lets nothing come between the reader and the physicality of the early morning walk. One really is there: ‘footsteps / echoing / a trail of days / raked over / altars / of stone / casting shadows …’

I can’t end my quick survey without a mention of Hannah Stone’s ‘Gathering/Scattering’. What an arresting first line (‘I carry Dad up the mountain in an Illy coffee canister.’). Well, it’s not really a first line because this is, I think, maybe, a ‘prose poem’, that curious hybrid which I usually abhor. But I’ve come back several times to read this piece because I appreciate both its irreverence and its realism. Yes, this is the way these things happen. And I’m so glad that Mum was happy at the end. It’s all really well done.

Of the stories, I liked best Jim Meirose’s The Burning Bush, at least I think it’s a story. As I mentioned above, there’s such great play these days of ‘allowing genres to flow into each other’ that maybe it’s flash fiction? Or maybe even a ‘prose poem’? Whatever it is, it’s good. Again, irreverence always grabs me. And such a riot of imagery.

And I must send special congratulations to my Dublin poet-colleague Jean O’Brien on her gaining Joint First in the Readers’ Award in Orbis 182.

My own contribution is in the ‘Past Masters’ section and concerns Eugene Lee Hamilton, that forgotten Victorian master of the sonnet. As they say in the coffee houses these days: Enjoy! –

Eugene Lee Hamilton (1845-1907)

‘To each his own’: so goes the Italian proverb (‘a ciascuno il suo’). Every poet has a particular concern. For Wordsworth it was that nagging instinct that we might be at the mercy of a threatening nature and the God who made it. Frank O’Hara often felt overwhelmed by the rich diversities of his city and his own place within it. Eugene Lee Hamilton’s preoccupation was the growing secularisation of society.

Not nearly as famous as his great near-contemporary Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who described the tide of receding religious faith in his ‘Dover Beach’ and elsewhere, Hamilton managed to touch on the growing unease at the passing of the old order under pressure from a new, impatient and less reverent modern era of rapid change in social mores. His impeccable sonnet Idle Charon, a finely crafted piece, has what every poem must have: at least one riveting image. This sonnet fulfils that requirement in its reference to the ancient practice of burying a coin (the obol) with the body to pay the boatman who will ferry the departed across the river of no return to a next world, a world increasingly held in doubt. The classical reference, tinged with a peculiarly Victorian sense of loss, imbues his poem with a sharp and unforgettable poignancy.

The shores of Styx are lone forever more,

  And not one shadowy form upon the steep

  Looms through the dusk, far as the eye can sweep,

To call the ferry over as of yore;

But tintless rushes all about the shore

  Have hemmed the old boat in, where, locked in sleep,

  Hoar-bearded Charon lies; while pale weeds creep

With tightening grasp all round the unused oar.


For in the world of Life strange rumours run

  That now the soul departs not with the breath,

But that the Body and the Soul are one;

  And in the loved one’s mouth now, after death,

The widow puts no obol, nor the son,

  To pay the ferry in the world beneath.


Orbis Quarterly International Journal

News, reviews, views, letters, features, prose and poetry


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skylight47 10.jpg

Another issue of Skylight47 and another selection of poems and essays, provocative, relaxing and informative as always. This issue 10 is something of a milestone, one of the editors, Bernie Crawford, told us at the launch during the ‘Over the Edge’ event in Galway City Library, because they did not expect it would last that long. But it has and is full of good things for the serious reader … and maybe for the not so serious as well! The evening included featured readings from accomplished poets Jessamine O’Connor, Anne Walsh Donnelly and Jacqueline Saphra. Jacqueline had the honour of launching the magazine and several contributors were on hand to read their work.

I liked Mary Lee’s Sunny Day, a deceptively simple poem which opens with the lines

You saunter aimlessly

at the sea’s rimmed mystery:

flow, ebb, alteration,


and reminded me a little of one of my all-time favourites, Henry Vaughan:

Fancy, and I, last evening walkt,

And, Amoret, of thee we talkt;

The West just then had stolne the Sun,

And his last blushes were begun.

It really is hard to write (good) simple poems. Short ones too are no easy matter. I thought Conor McBrierty summed up a lot about present day Ireland in his short poem Crucifixion’. I hope he won’t mind me quoting it in full because it really is a most telling piece:

Jesus hangs on the wall

between the fridge and the phone.

His holy cross lamp is dark,

cable dangling,

swapped for an answering machine.

He died for sins such as this.

Anne Tannam continues her poetic researches into family and generational inheritance in her poem The Image Of, a phrase we hear often when our elders compare us with near relatives. The comparisons are sometimes uncomfortable reminders of how quickly time is passing but we must put up with the fact that this is the way of things. The speaker in the poem sees herself looking out at her from an old passport photo of her mother

come back to tell me what I struggle to accept:

that time, given time, eventually blurs the lines

between each generation, brings us face to face

with a truth we wrestle with for an age …

A very fine poem, focusing in on the reality of things, and there are  many more fine poems and articles. And Orla Fay proves that, no matter how many swallow poems are written, there is always room for another good one, Caught in a Dance:

They fly so close that I could almost touch a wing-tip

but I would be cut in the act so razor-like

are their dives and turns, so close-shaved.

Brian Kirk, besides contributing a poem, provides a review of Liz McSkeane’s latest collection So Long Calypso and there are reviews too of Emma McKervey and Maeve O’Sullivan’s latest productions. However, do not let me give the impression that all the content is as serious as the examples quoted above. There is a lot of fun in this magazine too. What?! (I hear you cry) Fun?!  What sort of poetry magazine is this? — Well, it is a fine magazine, ranging from the serious to the humorous — see for example Kevin Higgins’s My View of Things, though Kevin’s brand of humour is decidedly acerbic:

What I love about lateness is the hope

I might get to slip off home before you turn up …

 Terry McDonagh also has a poem (‘New Ways of Talking’,) describing an unattractive character who happens to be … a writer:

Maestro was a man of few words. He died

before his wife could comfort herself…

My own contribution, Prayer,  falls into the ‘less serious’ category, though I do think there is a serious aspect to the ordeal suffered in waiting rooms and on tortuous bus journeys, when one feels the time could be spent in some more fruitful way …


Is there any way to claim back times

when I was only technically living?

Hours accumulated in waiting rooms

with nothing but golf magazines for company?

A celestial credit-note perhaps, for life

spent on those endless odysseys around

the hinterlands of housing estates before

the bus-route finally reached my stop?

 And all the wasted ages hunting car keys,

overdue library books, TV remote,

that other sock, the passport left in a place

where I would definitely find it next time.

Couldn’t. Surely I am due a discount

for those phone calls kept me holding, trapped

inside interminable manglings of Mozart?

I beseech you, Lord, please hear my prayer.


Finally I will say it is fitting that the entire back page is given over to a poem by Marie Cadden, who passed away recently and was long associated with Skylight47. She is greatly missed by colleagues and friends.

Skylight47 costs (a mere) €5 plus postage and is available online at     The next issue is Autumn 2018 and submissions will be accepted between 1 July & 1 September.







The first poem in this collection from Dónall Dempsey sets the tone of book and bears 9781907435478_orig.jpgout 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 donall-reading-for-website.jpgemotion 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

[Donall is an old acquaintance of mine, though I hadn’t seen him again until recently (Feb, 2018) since the good old times we read together in the International Bar in Dublin … over thirty years ago! Tempus fugit.]

DONALL DEMPSEY, originally from the Curragh, Ireland, is now living in Guildford, England, and was Ireland’s first Poet in Residence in a secondary school, and appeared on RTE with John Cooper Clarke and Paul Durcan. His poems have been published widely in anthologies and online magazines in Europe, England, the USA, Canada and India. He is host of ‘The 1000 Monkeys’, a regular monthly poetry event in Guildford. Four poetry collections published by Dempsey & Windle: ‘Sifting Sound into Shape’ (2012);’ ‘The Smell of Purple’ (2013);’Being Dragged Across the Carpet by the Cat'(2013) and ‘Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy’ (2017)


My thanks to the editors of Cyphers magazine for including my poem This turning hour and everything intent in issue no. 85.

There is the usual multi-varied selection of styles and subjects in this issue, with a strong representation of poems as Gaeilge where Doireann Ní Ghríofa provides Birín Beo (The Glowing Splinter), with its subtitled reference to the lengthy history behind bonfire festivities on St John’s Eve (ar Oíche Fhéile Eoin), a history that reaches out to her in the last couplet, when a spark flies out from the fire towards her and  leaves a tiny mark:

… póigín dhearg dóite

ar mo leiceann, tatú buan.

(a small kiss burnt 

on my cheek, a lasting tattoo.)

In what can only be a very scattershot approach in selecting a few favourites, I will say I like very much Matthew Sweeney’s poem The Hards where, despite the behaviour of the rough boys in his neighbourhood there is a distinct note of regret that he never became part of their world. I use the word ‘rough’ advisedly because I found the poem had strong evocations of Stephen Spender’s My Parents Kept Me from Children Who Were Rough, especially in the last tercet:

it’s the term that stays because I hear it

still every time I stand on the beach, staring

at those houses I wasn’t allowed to enter.

I have a weakness for such poems because of my own rather strictured upbringing, but this does not explain why I like Bogusia Warden’s A Privilege of Hurricanes with its image-laden, enigmatic lines, each one of which might be detached as an aphorism in its own right:

You have nothing to lean on but this gum shield.

The worse you feel the better you look.

The descriptions would seem to lead to a rather depressing view of the person (or persons) in question, yet there is the feeling that something extraordinary might be in the offing. I’m not sure I have understood exactly what is going on, but if I did understand exactly what is going on it would not be the intriguing poem it is.

Not intriguing but right on the money is Stuart Pickford’s Emily, which is as good an astute observation of recalcitrant teenagers as you’ll get anywhere (and I should know, after 30 years of second-level teaching). Caught outside the school gate rolling a cigarette, she tells him: Strictly speaking, / holding a cigarette isn’t smoking it. He’s snookered.

Eiléan Ni Chuilleanain’s essay Stalking the Negatives suggests ways in which writers can employ figures of denial to add mystery to their work.  She holds that ‘the negative is one of the great resources of language, perhaps analogous to shadow in painting’. One might think immediately of that great Caravaggio in the National gallery and how much the surrounding darkness adds to the drama of the Jesus’s betrayal. The essay includes clarifying quotations from Siobhan Campbell, Ger Reidy and John Murphy. And from John Milton. What more could one ask?

There are many other great contributions in this issue, and I must salute my old friend Richard Halperin for his fine offering, The Snow Falls, and say how privileged I am (no, really) to share page 42 with him with my own contribution, the title of which leads into the poem:

This turning hour and everything intent  


on furnishing another day, I see

a flake of sunlight slant from branch to leaf,

and raindrops wink among the clothes-pegs.


On the cobwebbed lawn still wet with dew

a plastic laundry basket spills its colours,

ivy writes illuminated text


that tells how night is trembling on the cusp

of morning, blade and bark awakening

and every moment dying towards the dawn.


The magazine was launched in the regal ambience of Strokestown House during this year’s Strokestown Poetry Festival 2018, with several contributors reading their work.

Cyphers is an occasional publication on Literature and the Arts, supported by the Arts Council (An Comhairle Ealaíon) and the Arts Concil Of Northern Ireland. For information on  submission detail, subscription & etc., see


Brian Kirk writes a poetry of the crafted line and the weighted word and theseAfter-the-Fall-by-Brian-Kirk.jpg qualities are very evident in the title poem of the collection After the Fall, a passionate poem elegantly contained within a careful construct of short lines: 

The residue of that first kiss
upon our lips
like a bruise …

This choosing of the right form in which to enclose the thought continues throughout the book, laying before the reader the realities of living daily life where the ordinary is often displaced unexpectedly by the sudden appearance of the unusual. Two Foxes is such a poem, where the excitement of the unusual is captured, together with the realization of a wilder, hidden strata running beneath the monotony of daily events:

… and I knew I would never forget
the night we saw foxes on Barnsbury Road,
and remembered our love in the body,
the skin and the blood
on a wet London street.

It is a truism that all writers (especially, perhaps, poets?) are given to seeing around the corners of reality. The Barnsbury foxes, an indication of a hidden world, bring a poem like Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings to mind, with its probing beneath the surface of an event the poet happens into by accident. There are many poems in this collection in which we are given not only the surface of things but the underlying hidden pulses as well. Poems like New Year and Leave Taking are what they say they are but are so much more. In the latter poem, for instance, we read about an elderly man visiting his neighbours’ houses for what he knows will be his last time. The poignancy that rises up through the matter-of-fact descriptions gives the poem its impact:

… he was feted by farmers and their wives
like one who’d been away at war for years,
wondering what his business could be now
beyond the final saying of goodbyes …

This is a poem of great humanity and understanding.

Careful lines and carefully chosen words are nowhere more apparent than in poems like Rotten ApplesSimple Vows and A Map. There is always something restful and magical for the eye in poems that make good use of space and a minimum of words. It is always a mystery how a little poem like Rotten Apples, so reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, can have such a big effect and is proof that, in poetry as elsewhere, very often ‘less is more’. Simple Vows is also well served by this economy of treatment:

Beyond the Hermitage I dreamed you close,
Among new leaves your smile was apple bright.

The long line is also used to very good effect. It is always difficult to pack lots of information into a poetic line without lapsing into prose and many pieces in the collection achieve this balance. ‘Balancing Act’ is a poem featuring the Irish urban/rural divide and is an example of the several poems that explore topics to the fore in our newspapers and in, as the phrase goes, the ‘political discourse’, of today’s Ireland:

My children are happy but urban and thin,
they speak with inquisitive irony
when describing the world as it is, real or virtual;
their futures mapped out before them …

There are many other fine poems which could be discussed but Orienteering must be mentioned. This is a wise poem that speaks to those of us who have lived long enough to have ‘a past’ (in the sense of a lengthy series of regrets) and is a warning to those who have not yet accumulated too many years that there is a shape to the things that are to come, a shape which may not be very attractive:

… If you sketched
a map from memory
you’d maybe see
the broad outline
of staggering events,
or feel the smart
of tiny hurts
absurdly magnified
as you move away …

Again, craft is evident in the decision to eschew stanzas and deliver the poem in one continuous flow, rather like a thought that comes, makes its presence felt and then goes away. Again, the choice of form is just right and, as becomes apparent as one reads through the book, this poet is comfortable with many different forms: sonnet, single couplet, formal stanza, the cascading line.

For anyone who likes a poetry of the well-chosen word and the economic line, Brian Kirk’s collection ‘After the Fall’ will fit the bill. Nor does he come up short on the unexpected and the lyrical (‘The bright talk of past days / unspools to slurs’). This short review cannot do justice to this fine collection. It is a book that will lure a reader back again to have another look. And this surely is the ultimate accolade?

Eamonn Lynskey (c) 2018

‘After the Fall’ is available from ‘Books Upstairs’ and other bookshops in Dublin, and from the Salmon website

salmon logo.jpg



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 mentionedTreading 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.


 Liz, Eamonn Lynskey and Ross Hattaway

at the launch in the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin


When reading a poet completely unknown to me, I always try to avoid getting too much information about him/her beforehand. This is not always easy to do, given the prevalence of publishers’ advance notices, press releases, ‘puffs’ and ‘prelims’. So when an opportunity presents itself to read an author whose work one has never encountered before, it is an opportunity to be grasped as a way of getting straight into the heart of his mystery, unfettered by other peoples’ opinions.

When I enquired in Powell’s bookshop in Chicago about contemporary poets from that city writing at the moment, the helpful shop assistant picked out a few books, among which was Stuart Dybek’s ‘Streets in Their Own Ink’, a collection of 35 poems, published in 2004 in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My copy was a hardback edition, thereby allowing me to remove the informative dust-jacket, with its bios, critical comments and endorsements prior to making Stuart’s acquaintance. This option is one of the advantages of a hard-back edition, thereby allowing one to read the book without being encumbered by hyperbolic statements (” … only once in a generation do we find a writer who … etc., etc.”).

So it was I set off into Stuart’s book, powered by the full sails of my ignorance, with only the title to hint that it was to be a poetic overview of the poet’s city, and a quotation from Apollinaire. This nod to that most idiosyncratic of poets, whom we lost so tragically and at such an early age, was also a hint of things poignant (and surreal?) to come and was for me a good omen because he is one of my old-time favorites. So it is that, even without blurbs and bios, it is hard to escape being ‘pre-dispositioned’, but at least these prelims are chosen by the poet himself are therefore an integral part of the work itself.

The first poem usually (though not always) sets a tone for a collection and offers a hint of things to come. ‘Windy City’ is such a hint. As a poem of place it unfurls itself in cascades of comparisons, which ripple down through the poem to end with an image that reflects its flowing structure:

I remember closing my eyes as I stepped

Into a swirl of scuttling leaves.

‘Scuttling leaves’ is something of a cliché’ but its position here at the end of the poem gives it new life (and is it one of a poet’s functions to rescue words and phrases and recuperate them?). This is a poem of startlingly original comparisons (‘at night, wind rippled saxophones/that hung like wind chimes/in pawnshop windows’) and a poem well-suited to begin the collection, providing a vivid glimpse of the Chicago known intimately to him. Its fast pace is emblematic of the Chicago I glimpsed during my short stay: a city confident of itself and busy without ever being too preoccupied to stand and chat.

Many poems I find particularly appealing because of the way in which they reach down into my own childhood memories, such as ‘Bath’, which is so evocative of my own childhood and the women who cared for me:

She mops a washcloth down his spine and scrubs

until his bones glow with the inner light of porcelain …

This remembering of childhood events similar to my own and the religious backdrop to many of the poems is deeply affecting to me. ‘Benediction’ I find particularly appealing, with its epiphany-like moment:

For me, the complexity of a grasshopper


from the Congo behind a billboard

was irrefutable proof

of God and his baffling order.

The more tangible experience of everyday life ‘as it is lived’ is evident in poems like ‘Election Day’ with its hints of irregular voting practices (a phenomenon not unknown in my own country):

… wind

muscled the shadows as if the dead

were lurking—lost souls, spirits wandering

like drunks wondering where they’d parked

their cars, ghosts—most of them still voting …

The last poem in this first of three sections, ‘Angelus’, shifts the focus to a higher spiritual level and prepares the reader for the rather mystic tone of section II, which offers a glimpse behind (or beyond) the outlines of the city. The first poem, ‘Sirens’, is preoccupied by what the surface sights and sounds might suggest of another reality somehow running along under the material world, a reality glimpsed sometimes in those dreams during which one awakes suddenly, feeling that surfaces were stripped away and a truer true account of one’s was life laid bare, though in a format hard to decipher:

As dreamers know, it’s possible

to rush in silence toward disaster

the way one rushes toward desire.

In general, the poems in this section have a more spatial structure. There are less of the left-justified and blocky certainties of section I and more of that suggestiveness that couplets and triplets and blank spaces can bring to a piece. ‘Sleeper’, for example, glides down the page, slowly releasing the suggestion that a lot is happening when, seemingly, very little is (‘A sleeper/purifies a room…’) and ‘Seven Sentences’ has an enigmatic feel of ancient maxims being handed down:

It will take more than a new day to erase tonight’s moon.

In ‘Three Nocturnes’ we return to the region of dreams and their revelations (‘…  loneliness/seems just another/way of loving/only yourself.’)

As I mentioned above, those aspects of a poet’s life which are closely aligned with one’s own are bound to draw a reader closer to a writer and the resulting empathy is bound to contribute to the reasons why a reader ‘likes’ a particular poet more than others. In this section (II) it is Dybeck’s and my own shared experience of a religious upbringing which is aligned. There is too the feeling that this religious faith has never quite left him, no more than it has left me, despite my many rebellions. The way a person is taught to see the world in the formative years stays as the basis of one’s world-view, no matter how many times it seems one has left it behind. I am surprised (and pleased) at the astonishingly naive (and somewhat ‘unfashionable’) reference to the Creator in poems like ‘Benediction’. But then, I have always thought that naiveté (and ‘unfashionabless’!) is one of a poet’s strengths, probably because I am that way myself,

Section III includes some longer poems and therefore gives a wider reading of the concerns broached earlier. The gritty realism of the earlier poems (e.g., ‘Ginny’s Basement’) seems to have blended with the spiritual dimensions of the middle section which is mainly concerned with memory and the trick it can play. The imagery moves more definitely towards the surreal and brings back to mind the quotation from Apollinaire given in the opening of the book.

(Who are the great forgetters

Who will know just how to make us forget such and such a part of the world

Where is Christopher Columbus to whom we owed the forgetting of a continent)

‘Vespers’ is a series of poems, commencing with a short piece in which ‘… an altar boy kneels ringing a bell / at the shoreline of an undertow…’. I have to think a little about the ‘undertow’ bit, but the image of the altar boy sends me back immediately to St James’s Church in Dublin in the 1950s where I shivered through many an early Mass on many a cold morning. This combination of the strikingly clear and evocative alongside the more unexpected images continues through this section, which presents another look, from another angle, at his city and its sometimes eccentric inhabitants:

Beneath a daylight moon, the bag lady

kids called the Hag

foraged doubled beneath the hump

she lugged everywhere.

Other pieces catch the reader’s attention. In a poem beginning ‘What was the record wingspan for a crucified Christ?’, an arresting line in itself, the poet ends with a somewhat surreal memory:

Once, when I thought I was in Love,

I was sure I recognized the imprint of her lips

on the wounds of his feet.

The poem that follows the ‘Vespers’ series stand alone. ‘Revelation’ and also is concerned with memory and the way memory works. Or rather … just suppose it didn’t work?

Suppose the past could not be recalled

any more than we can foretell the future

the future…

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking poem which, in my view, would work even better if the last stanza were omitted.

‘Anti-Memoir’, the series of poems that concludes the book, takes up where ‘Revelation’ left off and continues with a close examination of the workings of memory, visiting various streets of the city, some ‘… whose name and numbers / have been erased, although at dusk / smoke from its chimneys still hovers / as filmy as black lingerie’ and other streets ‘without trees, without seasons’. These are ethereal and surreal landscapes where ‘grated pawnshops appear / to jail all the lovely instruments / condemned to exile by electric guitars’ – this last image a neat reference back to the opening poem of the collection ‘Windy City’ where

At night, wind rippled saxophone

that hung like wind chimes.

in pawnshop windows …

There is a poem too that echoes the title of the book (‘This is a street whose tentacles / ravel about you, drawing you in, / la calle en su tinta, / a street stewed in its own ink). But, ethereal or surreal, these are the poet’s familiar places where

Alone, along a street that’s suddenly

like any other, you’re blessed

simply to continue

another night’s walk home.

This is an accomplished collection, carefully presented. Sometimes perhaps alliteration is employed too much (‘… the complexity of a grasshopper catapulting from the Congo…’) and sometimes too many images employed too close together can result in a loss of vividness overall (‘The walls are a journal kept by crowds / passing into a phantasmagoric mural, / graphite coats and tablets of tenements / with the scorched patina of angels…’). However, these are minor quibbles. This is a poetry that appeals to me, with its weighed words (the word ‘Nacre’, for instance, in ‘Sleepers’. I had to look it before I could appreciate how apt a word it is for the work it has to do) and its weighed lines. There is no flab here. In my view, less is always more, and this is one of the reasons I have always found poets like Whitman tedious.

Deceptive effortlessness is also a hallmark of good writing and the more especially, perhaps, of good poetry. To disguise the midnight oil and elbow grease, to have the graceful line be just that and unremarkable until the reader pauses for a closer look and is astonished at the ligaments and tensed tendon imperceptible beneath – this is the real business.

As regards the dust-jacket and the endorsements I eschewed in the name of direct access, it is no surprise to find now that a Sandra M. Gilbert compares his work to Eliot’s early poetry such as ‘Preludes’. Also no disagreement from me when a Geoffrey Wolf says the poems ‘consecrate a shadowed, alternate city of dreams and retrospection’ (but why ‘consecrate’?) and I agree with Lawrence Joseph that these poems are ‘ultimately poems of praise’. In the world of inflated extolling so often a feature of back-cover blurbs it is always satisfying to find, after you have read the book, that they confirm your opinions rather than contribute to them.

I realize that this review is somewhat self-defeating in the sense that, should you read it before you have read Stuart’s book you cannot follow its advice. But maybe next time you come across a complete stranger’s work you will venture into its jungles … alone?


About the author: Steve Dybeck’s books include I sailed with Magellan (FSG, 2003), The coast of Chicago (Picador, 2003), and a previous volume of poetry, Brass Knuckles. His writing has been frequently anthologized and has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Poetry, The Paris Review and Triquarterly. He has received several major awards, including a PEN/Malamud Prize and a Pushcart prize.




























Ground Forces

‘Ground Forces’ by Paul Allen, Salmon Poetry, 2007

So much good poetry to read. I have at last caught up with Paul Allen’s collection ‘Ground Forces’ some eight years after it was published by Salmon Poetry in 2007, and this despite having lodged it on my shelves some time ago. In a book filled with good material it’s hard to separate the sheep from the sheep. The title poem ‘Ground Forces’ signals many of the book’s concerns, especially the idea that despite the daily defeats that life deals us, we just have to get on with things. There are no exceptions:

“…the last shall be first and the first shall be last—but


A recurring feature of Allen’s style is his wry humour. For instance, most of us will be acquainted with the bible story of how Jesus dealt with the evil spirits by casting them into a herd of pigs and then sending the herd headlong over a cliff, but have we ever considered the subsequent plight of the herdsmen and how they tried to explain things to their wives when they got home?—

“A god came along today and threw our herd

into the sea. We may have to tighten our belts.”

There’s no way around it. Like Auden’s Unknown Citizen’, one must become resigned to what can’t be changed:

“When there was peace, he was for peace.

When there was war, he went.”

There is an accessible, colloquial style about poems like ‘Mifford’s Work’ which is reminiscent of the strongly narrative, down-to-earth approach of Robert Frost’s ‘Out, out’. Like Frost’s, many of Allen’s poems are about actual people and ‘real events’.  Mifford is an undertaker, whose young assistant is somewhat scornful of his employer’s rather disreputable past (Mifford is an alcoholic and has had six wives). He advises his young assistant:

“ ‘ … I guess you stay married to one too long,

you get attached. That’s a little piece of advice

you can keep.’ ”

To which his assistant’s (unspoken) response is:

“As if I would keep the advice

of a man who couldn’t stay married,

cheated on his wife, drank himself

through four states and a dozen starts…”

And yet, the youngster has a grudging admiration as he watches how the undertaker goes to work on a victim of violence, using a lifetime of expertise to blend together fake with real flesh. The image employed to convey this admiration is startling:

“… right in front of my face

they become the gentlest hands I’ve ever seen

on a man: The hands of a bricklayer, say, changing

the sheets for his brother who is dying of AIDS …”

The poem that follows, ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’ opts for what I take to be the ‘prose-poem’ format and because of my own rather conventional style of writing poetry (i.e., strictly linear and metered), I always find it difficult to respond to this form. I am aware it has a long history (Baudelair, Whitman, Ginsberg & etc.) and yet every time I come across it I have to remind myself of its parameters. One definition tells me it is “a brief composition printed as prose but containing the elements of poetry: carefully designed rhythms, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, figures of speech and recurrent images” (1). Another has it that: “Though the name may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry… While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme.’ (2).

Fine. However, I find that ‘prose-poems’ sit a good deal nearer to prose

Paul Allen
Paul Allen

than to poetry. As always, it’s all about how well the potential of the language is realized. In many prose-poems that I find the poetic quality (or as it used to be described, that quality of ‘heightened language’) is often lacking. The jugular reach, which is so much a part of poetry’s strength, is often muted or missing entirely. This is not to say that the complete list of rhyme, metre, stanza and all the other poet’s sleights of pen are absolutely essential to the making of a good poem. It is the combination of some or all of them which does the trick of raising the language above the ordinary. However, when I come across ‘prose-poems’ I am often unsure as to whether I am reading good prose or broken-up poetry, especially when one considers that good prose can also rise ‘above the ordinary’. Think of Charles Dickens’ description of the storm at Great Yarmouth in David Copperfield.

In short, I am often unsure as to what I am dealing with when I come across prose-poems. For instance, I am indebted to one reviewer, Newton Smith (3) for designating two pieces in this book as prose-poems. Would I have recognized them as such without this help? Maybe. But that might be because I see that their lines reach the right-hand margin and that there is no discernible ‘poetic structure’ such as stanza’ or rhyme. In other words I’m looking for what is not there.

As to the poems /prose-poems themselves (as designated), the first line of ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’

“Not everybody is born, but everybody does die”

talks a truism, but enunciates it with that abrupt delivery of poetry which gives old phrases a new life. The five paragraphs of the piece cascade smoothly and unfold their concerns in an arresting series of images. The language is indeed heightened and the flow of the narrative very gripping. We are given a catalogue of persons in distress, their distresses becoming more and more acute as the poem races inexorably towards its despairing end:

‘They’ve been beaten badly. They are not going to make it. Pick them up. Get them some help. Pray for them, pray for them. And your mother, your children, your hairdresser, the guy who’s trying to help you adjust. On your way to the hospital, stop at city hall; the mayor you didn’t vote for is dying. While you’re at it, load up his staff. Hurry. Hurry. They’re all dying. You might not be in time…’

It is never possible to rise to every occasion, the poet is saying. The sense of being ‘overwhelmed’ is vividly conveyed, as is the desire to clear off and let things take their course, since there is not much that can be done. Beneath a patina of comic description this poem is asking serious questions about the human predicament and our powerlessness in the face other people’s suffering.  The reviewer I mentioned above (3) wrote that,  in poems like this, and other poems in the book, ‘the spiritual question … is about how to live with perpetual loss, the constant disappointments, unfulfilled ambitions, thwarted hopes, and never measuring up to expectations. The list becomes absurd’.

Similarly, in the other prose-poem ‘Silences’, which concerns Rwanda children who have suffered through war, there are lines that go beyond a mere prose factual re-telling: ‘they cannot speak or hear because of what they saw and heard’. Again, there is a compression here which lifts the language above standard prose. Is it the case that it is this type of ‘compressed’ language that turns a good prose piece into a poem? It seems to me to be as good a criterion as any other, given the absence of the usual poetic structures and devices.

These two pieces are very successful for me, whatever definition of form one uses. Everything is working, although they look and read like prose. I feel they might have been even more successful if they had been wrought under the more demanding disciplines of linear poetry. There is too much going on in too many large chunks of writing and the prose-poem format severely limits the use of the weighted word or line, while many style features (such as enjambment) are not possible. It is true that the poet here avoids much of the verbosity and lack of focus that can often be a part of the prose-poem and certainly these two poems do appeal to me because, in venturing into the prose-prose, Allen, as a good poet, cannot help leaning heavily to the ‘poetic’ side of writing. However, I cannot shake off the feeling that they might well have been even better should they have been written as either prose, OR poetry,

The middle section of the book, ‘His Longing: The Small Penis Oratorio’ was apparently issued previously as a chapbook and contains poems in which the motif of a small penis is employed to explore the idea of human inadequacy. The poems indulge in a somewhat obvious humor which, because it is obvious, does not work as well as the understated humour which runs through other of his poems. They have the feel of material which would work really well when performed live, but which do not quite lift off as page poems. This is of course a personal view and is qualified by pieces like ‘Repent’, a poignant poem about that personal history we all accumulate and the which, past a certain point in our lives, transforms into ‘baggage’, which we would dearly love to be rid of. Like the possessions that clutter up our house as we grow older, we would like to jettison at least some of this history and start furnishing anew. Your wife demands

“‘Why can’t you throw anything away? Why the Hell can’t you just get rid of stuff?’

What you do not say back, standing at the toilet, shaking your bud, is that you do not know, and oh how you wish you could.”

As I said at the start, trying to separate sheep from sheep is nonsense and so is trying to pin down a ‘best poem’ in a strong collection. However, it is an exercise that concentrates the mind (rather like Dr Johnson and hanging) and it very often comes down to something in a particular poem that ‘hits the spot’ for the reader.  And so it is with Allen’s ‘Reunion’ down the end of the book. All poems are poems of personal response, indeed all writing is (even writing perhaps in the area of mathematical aero-dynamic equations?).  Occasionally, however, one comes across a poem that speaks immediately and directly to the reader because it links to his/her own personal experience, ‘mirror poems’ if you like, because reading them is indeed like looking into a mirror of yourself and seeing yourself moving around between the lines. Sometimes these poems are in themselves are not very good and owe their impact almost wholly to the shared experience, but ‘Reunion’ is a very good poem. Not quite the best poem in the book, but it appeals to me because, here in all its pathos is that peculiar ambience which attaches to those get-togethers of former colleagues, that mix of forced camaraderie, inward melancholy and, after a few late-night drinks, maudlin nostalgia and yes, I’ve been there a few times, opting out when I realised it was bad for my mental health.

I most definitely have ridden that elevator the poet takes, midway through the poem. I have seen it fill up at each floor with my somewhat overweight companions (of yore), keeping my eye all the time on the weight restriction sign, as he does (”MAXIMUM LOAD THIS CAR: 2400 LBS”). There is of course worse to come when we at last reach the top floor bar:

“Alright everybody, here we go:

Who has the most children?

Who has changed the least?

Who remembers all the verses to our old song?”

The three shorter stanzas lay the groundwork for the final, extended one. This gift of seeing clearly past the scars and marks left by the world and its ways and plunging down into the concealed worth of the person is a frequent theme in this collection.  A reaffirmation that even ’the least of these’ has qualities worth valuing, like Mifford, who is, in Thomas Kinsella’s words, “… not young, and not renewable, but man”.

Read this collection. It could make you a better person and more understanding of the faults of others. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.


(1) Literary Terms: A Dictionary. Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, Noonday Press, a Division of Farrar, Struas and Giroux, New York, 1989.


(3) Newton Smith at