Poetry

In: Verse

March/April 2018


We introduce a new column in which Fred Johnston casts his eye over the latest poetry releases and comments on some of them.


Santiago Sketches. David McLoughlin. Salmon Poetry; 96pp; €12 pb; 21cm; 978-1-910669-75-4.

I envy McLoughlin’s knowledge of Spain and his conciseness. In the introduction to Santiago Sketches, poet John Liddy, a long-term exile in Madrid, remarks that McLoughlin’s ‘sketches or searchings are better than any tourist guide.’ They would certainly make a worthwhile document for any visit to Santiago, always remembering that the poems are spiced by an outsider’s take on things; it should be said that McLoughlin spent some considerable time there. Santiago Sketches comprises, for the greater part, short poems—you can almost hear the shutter clicking—creating an impression of immediacy and a certain enthrallment. This struck me particularly, as I can recall that while in Algeria, I tended to write ‘immediate’ poems about almost anything that moved. It’s what a human camera tends to do.

In the cathedral with a mad gleam St James the Moor-slayer sweeps off Forty-thousand heads. (Santiago Matamoros)

 Santiago is a city of pinpoint impressions and memories that fasten on small things. Fitting, then, that McLoughlin should provide us with memorable glimpses that come together to create a whole.

 

Migrant Shores: Irish, Moroccan & Galician poetry. Manuela Palacios (ed.). Salmon Poetry; 138pp; €12 pb; 21cm; 978-1-910669-96-9.

I wonder why McLoughlin wasn’t asked to contribute to Migrant Shores, which presents itself as ‘threading together Moroccan, Irish and Galician poetry’. One might ask how the Irish poets were chosen, to play off those writing in Spanish and Arabic. I doubt that all of the Irish are fluent in Spanish (though some are, or have a good grasp of it) or Arabic; Salmon extricates itself from any difficulties through Anne Fogarty’s comment that some of the Irish poems are ‘responses’. Poetry, Fogarty suggests, is a ‘quintessentially migrant art’, which is debatable but clearly a requisite definition in this context. And then we have the old question as to what constitutes a translation.

In the introduction, Palacios provides explanations of the cultural and social connections of the countries involved. Concerning ‘Galicia and Ireland’, he discusses to what degree Galician Celticism was influenced and directed by the Irish (a well-known musician pointed out to me that Galician music, under the stern Franco regime, was influenced by the music of the Chieftains, among others). Eiléan Ní Chulleanáin’s translation of a work by Martín Veiga about Galician emigration to Cuba (the Galician origin of the name ‘Castro’ is worth mentioning here) carries a force and beauty of its own, doing great honour to the original:

The crumbling ruins of that house I had, and I used to have a house in Havana, where I was born the first time into the world, they tell of the rumours of absence, the damped-down devastation that did not end … (A House in Havana)

One could read this poem as if in an Irish context, and such mirroring continues through many of the poems here. It is not merely coincidence that these regions were colonised, often brutally, and that the first things restricted or subverted were cultural. Even given some reservations, this is an interesting and arguably important anthology on several levels.

Given Light. Michael Coady. The Gallery Press; 94pp; €11.95 pb; 21cm; 978-9-1133-730-0.

Coady is a fine and tried poet by any critical measure, and this collection confirms his reputation. He ranges widely, but his poem dedicated to the late Dennis O’Driscoll, who died on Christmas Eve 2012, is quite extraordinary in its depth of humanity, concern, and simple, almost casual, elegance:

How strange—yet not strange at all since life was in full swing— that on that afternoon while I played at being my own Santa Claus in High Street, Kilkenny, you were headed into mystery of ultimate lift-off … (Dear Afterlife)

Black-and-white photos pop up like illuminations in an ancient text, not so much explaining as decorating the text and subtly, perhaps, directing us to ideas of place. Prose pieces feature too, one striking example being Coady’s Palestrina and Amigo Holden of the Hill, which is a meditation on a local ‘character’ and on greater things, such as a cowboy-movie-drenched childhood and mortality’s relentless ability to reduce everything to shreds of memory. Coady makes no apology for rendering into story-in-verse the local and the loved, and this in itself creates a particular energy that vitalises his work. This is one of the great virtues of Coady’s poetry, this ‘amplifying’ of ordinary histories, stories, lives, into something that shouts rather than whispers, or, perhaps more accurately, sings. This is the plainchant of observed life. And few poets can compose its equal.

First of the Feathers. Amanda Bell. Doire Press; 79pp; €12 pb; 21cm; 978-1907682-56-8.

Doire Press are comparative newcomers but they have established themselves as producers of good-looking, well-edited books, along with some poets worth watching. It can only be for the good that a competent new poetry publisher enters the Irish market. It has perhaps been too long dominated by a child’s handful of Arts Council-supported ‘big beasts’, whose titles easily find reviewers and broadcast media time, thus effectively squeezing out the product of smaller, mainly unsubsidised publishers, mostly based outside Dublin, surviving on a wing and a prayer. Irish poets have found publishers in Britain, thus widening their reach and, for some critics, their relevance: it is a wrongheaded view, but one which I have heard expressed, that Irish scribes haven’t quite ‘made it’ until a UK publisher takes them on. Doire Press, a beyond-the-Pale (geographically speaking) publisher, is capable of promoting their authors, even into the capital, but there are parts of the Dublin-centric poetry world that will not be breached.

Amanda Bell has published widely, distinguishing herself in the composition of haiku, as well as other forms. She is no stranger to the Irish lit-fest and readings scene. Doire’s Lisa Frank did the striking book cover. The notes struck throughout this collection are often flavoured with the personal:

I love its lack of looking back. How it cuts so cleanly through the ties that connect me, still, to you. (The New Road)

Many poems, too, are laced with travel snaps and show once again how poets are entranced by the experience and images of foreign lands. Are they a new breed of foreign correspondent?

Three of Bell’s poems recall an Ireland whose strangeness now may almost be termed foreign; indeed, another country. In Tuam, recalling that unearthed scandal, she notes how we ‘lay our wafers on the body politic’. In Moving Statues, 1985 other medieval affairs are brought to mind—though the stanza recalling them is a tad ambiguous, and, unless read carefully, might seem to locate the unfortunate Joanne Hayes in Granard. The Ballad of Mary Anne Cadden (Nurse Cadden as she is more commonly known), written in a songlike style, recalls dark secretive days of out of sight, out of mind and Cadden’s death in an asylum in 1959. Cadden, a qualified midwife, offered pregnancy terminations, among other things, from her ‘basement suite’ in Dublin’s Lower Pembroke Street. Ah, well may we sing of the rare oul’ times.

Fred Johnston.


First published in Books Ireland magazine, March/April 2018 (Issue no. 378)


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