February 8, 2017
February 3, 2017
Very honoured to be included in #15 of The Stony Thursday Book, Limerick’s long-running yearly collection of contemporary poetry, this year edited by John Davies. About 1800 poems were submitted, we were informed at the launch, and so John had what must have been the herculean task of selecting the 98 poems eventually included in the book.
And so it is hard to pick out my preferences, but here goes –
Evan Costigan’s ‘Memo’ (p.13) is very short (all of 8 lines) and has the concision and attractiveness of a William Carlos Williams piece. Usually I don’t like cat poems, but exceptions prove the rule. I loved the final lines which indicate what this particular moggie has been up to:
… to the pond
where two goldfish
no longer flash.
And what a poem is David Lohrey’s ‘Muddy Water’ (p.39). I read in the bios that he ‘grew up on the Mississippi in Memphis’ and all I can say is that he has written a poem worthy of that historic region of the USA. One can get a feel of the people and their way of living and the constraints they had to deal with. Going up to northern Mississippi for a ballgame wasn’t a journey undertaken lightly:
They were greeted upon arrival by the local sheriff
And his cow-shit-stained deputies who aimed their shotguns
At their heads and shouted “Niggers don’t play ball down here,
So y’all better git back yonder.”
Edward O’Dwyer’s ‘Going’ (p.60) is a sad poem about someone taken ill in a car at a traffic lights, all the more effective for me because I witnessed something similar one time. I thought the restraint of the last few lines was admirable:
Some people too are moving towards
the man’s car in a tentative fashion,
the way people do when they are expecting
to find something disturbing.
I also liked another rather sad poem dealing with an older person’s forgetfulness: ‘Testing’ (p.114) by Martine Large.
She knows the name of the prime minister,
it’s right there, give her time …
Ron Houchin’s ‘The Crows of Ennistymon’ (p.14) captures that sinister aspect that clings to crows and which was exploited so well by Ted Hughes and Hitchcock:
… the crows who keep a little to themselves,
who feed on death so often, know this and their wailing gyre
tells of each new vapor rising, a spirit they must rail about
from each night’s vantage above the Falls Hotel …
And there were so many others I liked very much. Anamaria Crowe Serrano’s ‘Cauthleen‘,Paul McNamara’s ‘Little Bits of Processed Nature in Small Locked Boxes’, which was very enthusiastically received on the launch night, and ‘Elephant’, enacted by the redoubtable Norman King.
One of my poems ‘Kilmainham Elegy’ deals with the 1916 rising, or rather the aftermath thereof. During a walk some years ago in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham cemetery, I came across the graves of some very young British Soldiers who were killed during that Easter Week. My sadness at the loss of their young lives is no reflection on the lives lost by the insurgents, nor on their cause. I hope this comes across in the poem because I would be seriously upset if there seemed to be any criticism of the Irish rebels. I am no revisionist in matters of the fight for Irish freedom. Still, the death of a 19-year-old, whosoever they are, and in whatever circumstances must always be a sad event. You can be sure that someone somewhere grieved the loss of his young life.
for two soldiers, aged 19,
of the Notts & Derby Regiment
As in life, now at the last
we are together, side by side,
two English boys who disembarked
to angry streets at Eastertime.
We who thought to ship for France
to fight for freedom of small nations
lie with dust of older wars
in this Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
A century has driven past
along the St. John’s Road. Nearby,
Kilmainham Jail remembers those
were conscripts of a dream and died.
Two English boys fresh from the Shires,
we fought and fell, our long decay
now equal part of Ireland’s soil
with those who raised her flag that Sunday.
My other poem ‘An Emigrant’s Return’ is rather long and deals with some personal family memories. I am particularly grateful to John Davies for including it in the anthology because it can be quite hard to get a long poem published. And I was particularly grateful to be afforded the time to read out, complete, on the night.
Contributors receive two copies of the book and it is available from the Limerick Arts Office (email@example.com) for €10, p&p free (+353 407363). The cover art is ‘Heterogeneous’ by Beth Nagle and the overall design is by Richard Mead. Submissions for #16 are now being considered and should be sent to Limerick Arts Office, Limerick City and County Council, Merchants Quay, Limerick.
December 29, 2016
Cover image: ‘Bardic Shield’, by Miles Lowry, B C Canada
Another autumn, another Crannog, Galway’s (and the world’s) long-established quality poetry and prose magazine that insists on setting high standards in the writing world three times a year. Of this crop of 32 poems I liked best Bernie Crawford’s She Walks and not just because it is on a subject which determines much of my own output … well, yes, this. But also because of its control of the inevitable emotions raised by the subject. Every couplet is a text-book example of the restraint requisite in dealing with the horror of war, if the horror is to be conveyed fully. And the economy in the use of words is really excellent. Look at those last lines:
She walks to forget the piece that flew from her heart
that day the air strikes started.
And I liked the light, but effective, tone of Ask a Tattoist by D C Geis, a poem which which deals with a problem people must have with tattoos chosen at a particular time when, say, one is madly in love. And then, when the love – recalling Hank Williams – ‘grows cold’ – what happens? The tattooist, says the poet, can do a lot to block out former passions,
… Michaels devoured
the Karens lasered off
with no more considerationt
han bacon friyng in a pan …
But there is a limit to what he can do. As regards birthmarks,
… he informs you,
nothing can be done.
It’s very hard to limit oneself to just one more pick, but here goes: Anne Tannam is a good friend of mine but that won’t stop me choosing her terrific poem ‘By Decree’. It is a poem that brings to mind the age-old desire to create an ideal world devoid of suffering,
There will be no blame in my kingdom.
In my kingdom no one will point the finger, no one will lay fault.
Though the poem is short, or perhaps because it is short, it seems to have a very ‘absolute’ kind of power. I think it is because of the unflinching certainty built into every line.
Of the stories, I liked best ‘Flutter’ by Niall Keegan with its wonderful descriptions:
The air is thick with dust. fat enough to scribble on with a wet finger.
It might be I like this story – apart from the story – because the language approaches the ‘poetic’ at times.
My own contribution is a poem ‘Next of Kin’ written when the George W Bush American invasion of Iraq was in full swing but I hope, as in the Bernie Crawford poem I mentioned above, it is relevant to the wars presently raging and the ones that, unfortunately, will rage in the future. The poem is constructed out of the actual words said by people trying to express their feelings and which I read or heard on TV over the while. They are necessarily reconfigured to fit into a stanza/rhythm/rhyme format but I think they still convey their original sense of bewilderment and heartbreak. We have to remember that the death of any one soldier will be devastating for the many relatives and friends who loved him, or her.
Next of Kin
… see, David was the kind when things got rough
he’d always help… … He leaves a wife and son.
She took it bad … For all of us it’s tough.
We miss him awful … … Can’t believe he’s gone.
Matthew was … … the best you’d ever find.
The army man spoke of the legacy
courageous men and women leave behind…
But losing Matthew … It’s a tragedy.
Our Carl was killed while clearing IEDs.
His tour was nearly up … He was that close
to coming home … … and then the news he’d died.
It’s hard on them out there … and hard on us.
… our Kay. Our girl … So good at everything.
There wasn’t any challenge she wouldn’t meet,
no matter what … … So when they came recruiting
she enlisted. Only there a week …
Crannog is published three times a year in Spring, Summer and Autumn. Submission times: November, March andJuly. To learn more or purchase copies log on to the website http://www.crannogmagazine.
September 22, 2016
A great time was had by all at the pre-launch of issue 7 of Skylight47 at the public library in Clifden on Thursday 15 September as part of the Arts week. The magazine is the result of some very hard work from the Clifden Writers Group and the accomplished poet Robyn Rowland was at hand to officiate. A number of the contributors attended and read out their pieces. I was very taken with Anne Irwin’s ‘Omey Island Races 2015’ with its vivid description of the event; and ‘Elegy to Some Mysterious Form’ by Ria Collins was quite a moving and unsettling poem on a very personal and traumatic decision that had to be made. Indeed all the contributors must be congratulated on a very fine selection of poems. There are prose articles too in the magazine on topics ranging from poem-writing itself (Kim Moore’s ‘Poetry Masterclass’) to reviews of recent books published.
The venue of Clifden Public Library contributed enormously to the cordial atmosphere of the proceedings, especially the three skylights overhead which, Tony Curtis assured us, were put in specially for the occasion and at great expense! Congratulations to all the Skylight Team on such a fine magazine and compliments to the library staff on the wonderful venue.
As mentioned, Australian poet Robyn Rowland did the honours and I was pleased to meet up with her again. I remember well her reading from her collection ‘This Intimate War’ recently in Dublin at The Sunflower Sessions in Jack Nealon’s (Capel Street, every last Wednesday, 07.30pm. Come along!). It is a most impressive book dealing with the terrible Gallipoli engagement in WWI and is a hard read since it eschews any self-serving attempts at ‘glorification’, and conveys much senselessness and absurdity of war. Robyn gets down into the dirt and blood with the soldiers and the sense of verisimilitude is stunning. Extra-fine poetry, then. And what a great writer she is and what a great thing to meet her … twice within a very few months!
My poem, Day of Judgement, was the last to be read out, and just as well too since it is a poem about ‘last things’. Not the kind of poem one would like to hear at a Christmas party (or any party!) but poems like this do have their place in the Great Order of Things to Come (but not to come too soon we hope!)
Day of Judgement
They who come to clear this room
will show a ruthlessness unknown
to me. The histories of my books
and how they came to claim a space
along these shelves will be unknown
to them. The brush and vacuum cleaner
will probe every corner, frames
will leave rectangles on the walls
and files of half-formed poems will bulk
black plastic sacks. This desk and chair
and radio/cd/clock will find
our long companionship concluded.
Half an hour will be enough
to sweep away a life, to feed
the hungry skip, allow the skirting
run around the room again
unhidden; there will be no mercy
for old pencil stubs, news clippings
yellowing in trays. Each spring
I tried, but never could be heartless,
emulate that day of judgement
when my loves must face the flames
or crowd the local charity shop,
forlorn— hoping for salvation.
Single issues of Skylight 47 are available at €5.00 plus postage, from skylight47.wordpress.com or come to the launch in Galway City Library at 6.00pm on Thursday, September 29 and pick up a copy.
Submissions for Skylight 47 issue 8 (Spring 2017) will be accepted between 1 Nov 2016 and 1 Jan 2017. See skylight47poets.wordpress.com for details.
May 25, 2016
Following a time-honored tradition, the Spring/Summer Cyphers magazine was launched in April in the elegant surroundings of Strokestown House, Longford, during the Strokestown International Poetry Festival. Eilean Ni Chuilleanain officiated and, as always, the launch itself was a festive occasion, combining the debut of Cyphers 81 with that of two new poetry collections, On a Turning Wing from Paddy Bushe and Music from the Big Tent from Macdara Woods (both from Daedalus).
This Cyphers edition features a selection of New Zealand Poets, among which are fine pieces from Dinah Hawken (Haze) and Bill Manhire (Coastal). Among the rest of the poets I particularly liked Mary Montague’s The Road back and Where the Brown River Flows by John Murphy.
A poem of mine also features in this edition and I just cannot believe that it is thirty years since I first had a poem in Cyphers. Thirty Years! A Connaught Man’s Rambles is a poem about my father, one of that ‘lost generation’ of Irishmen of the 1940s and 50s who worked in England for practically all of their lives, sending money home to their families. Besides being a hard-working miner in the coal pits of Lancashire, ‘Sonny’ Lynskey was also an accomplished Irish Fiddle Player who shared many a session with some well-known names, such as the great piper Felix Doran (pictured with him below) This is the only photograph I have of my father playing. It was the age before Facebook and camera phones.
A Connaught Man’s Rambles
(in memory of Eddie (‘Sonny’) Lynskey, 1914-1972)
and Michael Coleman cuts the discs
will guide the bow a generation.
You in Mayo find the tunes
are slowly forming in your fingers –
Miss Mc Leod’s, The Creel of Turf…
to Holyhead and Lancashire:
a collier’s life of dust and dirt.
Your bow has split the resin stick,
your fingerboard has lost its black –
The Munster Jig, The Frost is All Over…
back in Dublin you will try
to leave behind the life you’ve lived
since first you lied about your age
to take the cage with pick and lamp –
The Sheep in the Boat, The Morning Star…
and tired of jobs on building sites
you’re back in Manchester to rooms
and mineshafts, ever shorter letters
to your family of strangers.
Toss the Feathers, Cherish the Ladies…
in Meelick cemetery someone
pours a naggin on your coffin
just before the sods are shovelled.
Old men watch, remembering –
The Sailor’s Hornpipe, The Kesh…
I hear Tommy Peoples play
and hear you chase the slurs and slides
with Michael Coleman’s 78s –
I see you raise your shoulder, bring
The Connaught Man’s Rambles to a close.
Cyphers, Ireland’s longest running poetry and prose magazine (with some artwork as well!), is available wherever good poetry magazines are sold, as are the two Daedalus collections by Paddy Bushe (On a Turning Wing) and Macdara Woods (Music from the Big Tent).
And hearty congratulations also to the Strokestown International Award winners John Murphy, Beatrice Garland and Jed Myers.
May 6, 2016
Another fine issue of Boyne Berries, edited by Orla Fay. This is a themed edition, centered around the Easter Rising of 1916 and it reviews that cataclysmic event from a variety of angles with an extensive range of poetry and stories/articles. I can only deal with a few and the fact that I leave some out of my reckoning is absolutely no reflection on their quality.
Michael Farry’s ‘John Gormley’ is based on the death of a 25-year-old RIC constable shot dead at Ashbourne on Friday 27 April 1916. It is a fine combination of the usual humdrum life of a policeman transformed by the chaotic arrival of the Rising:
Back in the barracks that evening news
of the Dublin rumpus unsettled us.
I was sent to Slane to guard the castle.
Robert Tully’s ‘Flags’ with its down-to-earth assessment of patriotism appeals to me. The question in the final triplet demands an honest answer:
We’ve come such a way
In a hundred years.
‘Conversing with Our History’ by Stephen O’Brien is a fine poem, and is also given in an Irish language version by the poet. Both versions work well but I have to say that the Irish reads and sounds better. The poem picks up on Robert Tully’s question quoted above:
How would they react,
Our nation’s heroes,
If they could see our
An outstanding poem in the book is Clare McCotter’s ‘Epsom, 1913’. Based on the death of suffragette Emily Davidson, which resulted from her falling under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Epsom derby. It is a poem that one can read again and again and still be moved, especially at the way Emily was force-fed in hospital afterwards:
I cannot breath
I am not breathing
I am drowning
and will drown forty-nine times
My own contribution, ‘I fought for King and Country in My Boyhood’, is a poem of Ireland’s ‘eastern seaboard’, that territory where I grew up reading about how the bravery of the European pioneers wrested the lands of North America from the savages who deserved no more than to be shot on sight, and how the British had single-handedly defeated Hitler. That is to say, my head was filled with the exploits of comic-book heroes like Kit Carson and General Montgomery rather than with the sacrifices of the 1916 insurgents. I admired them too but, because of my family background (and I do not blame everything on my family!) the more recent World War Two and the epic stories of the Wild West were more in my mind:
I Fought for King and Country in My Boyhood
I fought for king and country in my boyhood,
surveyed the trenches from an R.E.8
in constant danger from marauding tri-planes,
was saved a hundred times by Sopwith Camels.
I flew Spitfires too, downed Messerschmitts
in flames with no regrets, though he was I.
At Alam Halfa and at Alamein
Montgomery owed his victories to me.
At school by day I learned about the men
who shook the Empire. Momentarily
I faced the bullets with them in Kilmainham
and admired their sacrifice and yet
by evening shells exploded all around me
in block lettering, and speech balloons
above me shouted orders to my troops
to make the final push for Anzio.
Many other poems bring alive or commemorate that 1916 triumphal failure: Orla Fay’s ‘First Frost in the Park’ concerns an insurgent raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park on Easter Monday 24 April 1916, and Andy Jones in ‘An Easter Visitor in 2010’ has a a person from 1916 having a look at present-day Ireland. He/she doesn’t feel entirely welcome and sardonically observes that it is
Just as well I’ve become I’ve become invisible.
No one would have bought me a pint!
And now I must risk the ire of my fellow poets when I say that the most striking piece in the magazine is, for me, a prose piece by Noel French, ‘Remembering 1916: A United Ireland’ is a bewildering read for the first page or so until one grasps that Noel is indulging in what is called ‘speculative history’. That is to say, his piece centres around the idea that the Rising had never happened. It is a highly unusual and imaginative piece and very thought-provoking.
Finally, remember the great illustrations that William Blake designed to accompany his poems? No? Let Rory O Sullivan remind you. Every Boyne Berries has one his extraordinary illustrated poems. ‘Ashland’ and its accompanying design has chilling echoes of Edgar Allen Poe. Rory’s regular contributions are an art-form in themselves.
April 29, 2016
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):
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
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.
December 17, 2015
Another Crannog Magazine full of good things and with the added bonus of a cover designed by our own internationally acclaimed artist Robert Ballagh (‘Bloom on the Diamond Stone’).
My best pick of the poems is entitled ‘Amuse Bouch, the Ortolan’ by Anne Harding Woodworth (p.7) which describes how a type of small song bird – an ortolan – is trapped, cooked and then eaten whole and entire in a particularly gruesome way (an ‘amuse bouch’ is a single, bite-sized hors d’oeuvre). I saw this meal enacted on TV some time ago, and the images have stayed seared on my consciousness ever since.
‘The plucked and footless morsel roasts for eight minutes // in a ramekin*, goes whole into the mouth / but not without the amusing ritual of the napkin held / so that delicious vapours steam into the gourmand’s nostrils …’
(*a ramekin is a small dish)
The event is summed up by the poet in the last line as being equivalent to ‘eating song’ which I found exactly right. Like the poet, I think it an horrific way of eating the unfortunate bird. This is, of course, a kind of squeamishness on my part, but I’m heartened to see that someone else shares my feelings. The language of the poem – coldly and descriptively relentless – is well-suited to its subject. I thought it a top-class poem. I must mention also that there is another classy poem by Ann Howells – ‘Sage of St George’ – on the page opposite (p.6).
Many times when I read a poem by Geraldine Mills I feel like throwing in the thesaurus as a poet myself because she is so good. ‘Poem as Haw Chutney’ (p.26) is a marvellous creation:
‘Dump all you’ve plucked into the pot of possibility / with tart of vinegar, the wages of salt / raisins dried down to size.’
I’m not saying one could produce a poem using her recipe but the comparison of the skills of preservative-making and poetry making is strangely apposite. The last stanza is particularly applicable to both ‘disciplines’:
‘… and pour into a clean jar of page / before hiding it in the dark larder of promise, / to mellow, settle, become its own name.’
Michael Farry’s ‘Passage Grave and Shopping Centre’ (p.61) I liked very much because it’s like a poem I’d write myself (only not nearly as well as Michael’s poem, of course), so near is it to my own concerns about unfettered commercial development and its effect on ancient sites (and small towns). ‘Fatal Distraction’ by Pete Mullineaux (p.75) is a poem that gets to the heart of the way we are all wrapped in our mundane distractions to the point of being blind to what’s going on around us. I loved the snappy language. I liked ‘Bog Cotton Rhythm’ too, by Vincent Steed (p. 44). With its strong visual impact is one of those poems that brings to mind one of those beloved old master painting such as Jean Francois Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’ because it is so earthy and grounded in the real.
My own poem ‘Gun Control’ (p.16) is a slighter offering than any of the above, but treats of a very serious subject. It’s not really about the ‘gun control’ that is so much in the news these days, i.e., the limiting of gun ownership, particularly in America. But of course it IS about gun control and has something to say about the mishandling of deadly weapons and the unfortunate consequences that can ensue therefrom. I have a problem with those who think that it is the gun that is the cause of the problems.
This showcase of old firearms
recalls the Lee-Enfield 303
I learned to handle years ago
my left hand cupped below the barrel
right hand firm around the neck
both twisting in against each other
cheek aligned along the stock
the butt-plate hard into the shoulder
eye squared to the sight and then
and only then the finger easing
back into the slack and paused
before the gentle (gentle) squeeze
or else she jumps into the recoil
and fires wide and leaves a bruise
and worse: he now knows where I am.
There are lots of other great poems by great poets too numerous to mention. And Crannog is of course a platform for short stories too and one which had great impact
when read by its author at the well-attended launch night in The Crane Bar was ‘The Perception Illusion’. Rebecca Kennedy invested her story with great energy and managed to get the dialogue exactly right for all her characters. It’s a comic narrative with something of a serious undertow and with just the right mix of both. A very amusing, entertaining piece of writing.
Crannog is edited by Sandra Bunting, Ger Burke, Jarlath Fahy and Tony O’Dwyer. They are to be congratulated on reaching the 40th issue of this fine magazine, helped along the way by The Arts Council, Galway City Council, Galway Language Centre and The Galway Study Centre. Crannog accepts poems and stories three times a year. See http://www.crannogmagazine.com
November 13, 2015
It doesn’t seem like a year has passed since the last ‘Stony Thursday Book’ appeared! Nevertheless, it’s that time of year again and this annual collection of contemporary poetry has arrived in the post. This anthology has been very kind to me over the years and I am very gratified to be included once again in this 40th anniversary edition, edited by Mary O’Donnell.
There are 138 poems here, and many illustrious names, including Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Macdara Woods, Kevin Higgins and Fred Johnson, to mention just a few. So it is that, with such a welter of talent on display, I must confine myself in this brief review to those poems which appealed strongly to me personally.
I liked Graham Allen’s ‘Divorce’ (p.5), with its searing sense of despair. I would be surprised to find that this poem was not based on actual experience: ‘Somewhere in a trail of grey dust / lie all the stories you thought you had secured.’
‘The Request’ (p.17) by Geraldine Mitchell is a short poem with great impact. A disadvantaged student asks the poet to allow him (her?) a pass in a final exam. But the request is fraught with difficulty because although it is really ‘A small request’ , the poet is caught in a dilemma. ‘I have a home, / a job, firm ground beneath my feet./Surely not too much to ask?’ A decision has to be made. Crucially (for the poem), we are not told of the decision. It is a tribute to the poem that it is impossible to give an adequate idea of it in prose.
Patrick Deeley’s ‘Cleft in Metal’ (p.56) displays his ever-present gift for a keen observation of nature’s little-r people, Kingfishers, otters and vixens have populated some recent poems. Here we have the wren, worried about her nest being too near a chainsaw’s blade: ‘The wren’s headache is to get her little brood / out alive. Out of a cleft in the band-saw’s metal jaw, / away beyond the saw-teeth’s seething spin.’ I have written elsewhere about ‘bird-poems’ (see my review of the recent Boyne Berries 18) and how they can often be annoyingly ‘cutesy’ but this one does not fall into that category. It puts me in mind of the many ’empiricist’ nature poems of Eamon Grennan.
Several other poems caught my attention. For instance: ‘Ouija’ by Brian Kirk (p.99), a poem which has much to do with the loss of innocence; and Michael Farry’s ‘Swordswoman’ (p.152), a poem that keeps the reader on edge (no pun intended!) and at the same time has a dash of humour – a strange combination that works very well.
Opposite a fine poem by Mary Melvin Geoghegan on p.66 (‘Ten Years to
Pluto’) you will find my ‘River after Rains’, a poem written after my many years of trying to pluck out the heart of the mystery of the River Griffeen which flows through a park near me. Sometimes I’ve come close, but most times…
River after Rains
“…there is nothing with which it compares.
Tell me, how can I explain?” (Hanshan, trans. Robert Henricks)
So many water-words diluted
in the daily flow: how we are
inundated by our work,
how guarantees are water-tight,
election pledges watered-down,
how one exception can throw open
floodgates, how in retrospect
our quarrels become storms in tea cups
and our grand designs, when tested,
often don’t hold water. Like
my early certainty this morning
I could turn your torrents into words.