Poetry Ireland Review no. 125
A review by Fred Johnston of Eamonn Lynskey’s third collection ‘It’s Time’ (Salmon Poetry, 2017)
The language of Eamonn Lynskey’s poetry is of a sort that invites one into the core of the poem as through an open door. Yet it is only when one has begun to read and contemplate what is behind the door that one sees incredible simple horrors; of violence, neglect, deep injustice, and a calm nobility under pressure.
The human condition in the twenty-first century is not a pleasant one and it is precarious. Lynskey is to be congratulated for reminding us that, in some instances, our own small personal injustices and injuries are often microcosms of big ones and our moral impotence in the face of them.
The title poem introduces us, through a door pushed open into a shed full of garden implements, to the underlying tone of those that follow:
… When I creak the shed door open,
shears and spade blink in the corner: come,
the world must be newmade. It’s time.
In ‘Down to Africa’, Lynskey suggests that, ‘Earth will clothe herself afresh, the way / she greened the terraces of Angkor Wat’; and when this process is complete, it’s back to the possibility of new human beginnings in a natural circle back in the cradle of Africa. There’s an odd comfort in that. But murder and destruction is not a new thing: ‘Warrior’ conjures up Ötzi, the mummified remains found in the Dolomite Alps some years ago, which bear indications of death by a fired arrow; the narrator in the poem, with professional detachment, proclaims that …
We have that unfortunate
and not infrequent military
occurrence: death from friendly fire .
The camouflage phrases ‘friendly fire’, along with ‘collateral damage’, must be two of the most obscene creations of the military mind. If one were Catholic in Ireland, one was at war from childhood, in constant danger of attack from a vague but savage foe, and the enemy was always at the gates:
I try explaining to a grandchild
how we were conscripted in the war
against an enemy determined
to destroy us. – SPEAKING OF THE PAST
Our banners were ‘pictures of the Sacred Heart’, and our propaganda press comprised ‘…The Messenger / brought home from school each month’. How many of us, one might ask, were victims of ‘friendly fire’ or merely ‘collateral damage’ in this invisible struggle?
A quite beautiful poem, entitled ‘Metsu’s Women’, is a reflection of the paintings and short life of Dutch painter, Gabriel Metsu, a Baroque painter whose father was a painter and tapestry worker, and who died aged 38. His works, depicting mainly individuals at work or playing instruments, hunting, or writing, can be seen at Dublin’s National Gallery, one of which is Man Writing a Letter:
Young blades write letters, cavaliers
press their attentions on young maidens,
huntsmen rest long-barrelled guns
at doorways, trade their fresh-skilled spoil
of birds and hares with servant girls,
More than a contemplation of the painter’s work, it has the quiet quality of a lament in which Metsu’s early demise is a poignant reminder of the lasting virtue of art over uncertain life itself. Fine poems throughout this collection ought to reinforce Lynskey’s reputation. As a stylist, he could teach our younger catch of poets a thing or two. And he is never dull.
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Brian Kirk writes a poetry of the crafted line and the weighted word and these 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 Apples, Simple 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
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 http://www.salmonpoetry.com
I am very pleased to have attended the Association of Writers’ Programs (AWP) conference in Tampa, Florida, earlier this month (March 2018) at the invitation of Salmon Poetry and with financial assistance from Culture Ireland.
The response to the Salmon Poetry presence at its own bookstall stand at the event was very positive. A number of Salmon publications were on sale from both American and Irish authors (the latter being myself and Anne Fitzgerald) who were on hand to talk to visitors and sign books. There was also the opportunity to provide more general information about Ireland (much in demand).
This conference was a large event and was very well attended by a considerable number of people over four days, organised yearly by the AWP in various US cities. It included presentations/talks each day on various literary topics, formal and informal readings, meetings between writers, and a large book fair. There was a formal Poetry reading organised by Salmon Poetry at ‘The Portico’, a venue in Downtown Tampa for Salmon poets which was well received and open to all. I had the opportunity to meet several American authors, including a favourite of mine, James Ragan.
I attended a number of events/presentations spread over the duration of the conference. These varied from those connected with poetry (‘Beyond Frost’s Fences: New England Poetry with Ethnic Roots) and the essay (‘Making Room for Essayist Thinking during Fraught Times’), which are my own particular writing areas, to more general topics (‘Native American and Latino Fiction: Intersections on Narrative as Form and Force’). I was also able to attend several readings which showed me some new methods of presentation and performance of my work. Meeting and exchanging ideas with my American counterparts was also very welcome.
Salmon Poetry plans to continue its yearly visits to the AWP Conference next year (in Portland, Oregan). Meanwhile, I will continue to read at venues in Ireland and UK in order to maintain book sales and hope to build on contacts I made in Tampa in order to further sales in the USA.
I found it all an inspiring, if somewhat overwhelming, experience. I was introduced to many different viewpoints and writing methods and somewhat taken out of my usual ‘comfort zones’. I made numerous connections with other creative writers/MFA organisers which I hope will facilitate the exchange of work/ideas in the future. I will continue work on my fourth collection which is scheduled for publication by Salmon in 2020/21.
My thanks particularly to Jessie Lendennie of Salmon for facilitating this very productive visit.
[Note: The AWP conference is open to all (see the AWP site) although to apply for government funding for a travel grant the attendee must have an invitation from a publishing company participating in the conference]
‘It’s Time’ by Eamonn Lynskey and ‘Vacant Possession’ by Anne Fitzgerald