Bad News, Bearings, and Messages:
Afric McGlinchey reviews collections
by Edward O’Dwyer, Patrick Moran, and Frank Golden
Afric McGlinchey’s awards include the Hennessy Poetry award, Northern Liberties Prize (USA) and Poets and Meet Politics prize. She was one of seven writers chosen to go to Italy for the 2014 Italo-Irish Literature Exchange. Her début, The lucky star of hidden things, was subsequently translated into Italian. Afric appears in issue 118 of Poetry Ireland Review, which features the editor’s selection of Ireland’s rising poets. She received a Cork County Council Arts bursary to enable her to write her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.
Bad News, Good News, Bad News
(Salmon Poetry, 2017)
(Salmon Poetry, 2015)
gotta get a message to you
(Salmon Poetry, 2017)
Bad News, Good News, Bad News by Edward O’Dwyer, published by Salmon Poetry
Bad News, Good News, Bad News is Edward O’Dwyer’s second collection with Salmon Poetry. The title encapsulates not only the themes here, but his broader preoccupations in general, which were introduced in his well-received first book, The Rain on Cruise’s Street. Here again, he is engaged in a study of perception.
In these cinematic poems, he focuses his attention on an examination of the Irish psyche and Irish culture in general, as well as more poignant elegies for an ended relationship. The poems take us many times and in many ways to where ‘families sit in living rooms / waiting for the worst / that they said would not happen / and so certainly will’ (‘Bad News’).
The language and register throughout are consistent, though the tone varies from bristlingly angry to wry, sardonic, or unexpectedly tender. The cohesiveness of mood gives the sense of an emotional continuum. O’Dwyer’s voice is authentic, and despite confessions in some of the poems about playing around with the truth, we feel we are in safe hands.
These are poems to and about people close to the speaker, many of whom are no longer alive. But unexpectedly, instead of homages, they are often frustrated angry rants at the deceased. The opening poem, ‘Tuesday’, packs a punch. There’s a sense of unfinished business, a failed relationship, a wasted life. He addresses someone who demanded ‘six feet of cold earth / on a Tuesday / when everyone else / who is no-one/ couldn’t be there / to pay their disrespects.’ Although there is sarcasm, it is hurt and bitter – this is a speaker who cares, who has bothered to write a poem about his feelings. In another poem, ‘Desmond died in his bed / and so was extinguished a long, misspent life’ (‘Desmond’s Tea Break’). This seems to be the speaker’s abiding fear.
There’s the wife who keeps a holiday photo of her husband in Budapest on her bedside table, though she has cut herself out of the picture: ‘She deserves it, / she knows. To be that empty space / in the photo – and especially in that photo – is what she deserves to be’ (‘Deserves’).
I was reminded of Raymond Carver more than once, especially reading the poem ‘And Each Other’ which describes a jumble sale: ‘My golf clubs and tools will fetch a bob or two / and your jewellery’.
In terms of writing style, the plain titles fit these plain-spoken, accessible poems, and O’Dwyer’s preference for long lines suits the conversational register. He experiments with stanza lengths, using quatrains, tercets, couplets and poems in a single block; and a rhyming villanelle slipped in too, as well as some list poems. Sometimes there is a strangeness to the language that may be an Irishism, eg ‘she kept onto the photo’ (‘Deserves’) (meaning she held onto it).
This is a world of divisions, where ‘scumbags’ with knives in their pockets call out the ‘faggots’ (‘My Best Friend Sammy’). The speaker appears to be a bystander, a witness who does nothing but ‘will them to stay inside / ignore the shouting, the smashing.’ The urban landscape is very much a deprived one, where people sign on, regularly eat takeaway kebabs, chips, or ‘a shrunken deformed disc,/plastic-looking cheese jutting out’ (‘A Man About Town’); or get a six-pack from the ‘offie’ to take back to their bedsit. One after another, the portrayals of ‘a hard and underwhelming life’ (‘The End of Ice-Cream’) build up to evoke a kind of contemporary wasteland. The people who populate it are grey, passive and hopeless, who at the very most are in denial about their lot. They seem to accept their powerlessness, much to the speaker’s frustration.
Any references are, appropriately enough, Irish, political or from popular culture: Bertie Aherne, Cecilia Aherne, Waterford Whispers, the Manic Street Preachers, Castro, Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney, Matthew Broderick.
There are a number of encounters with random strangers, such as a fisherman (who looks like Jesus) and a barman (who acts as a philosopher). And there’s dark humour: a waitress (who may be Polish) ‘tells me it’s the end of everything.’ Everyone in these poems is resigned. Even the weather ‘can’t be bothered’ (‘Australia’). The cumulative effect is to heighten the sense of loneliness and despair in the speaker.
Throughout the collection, I became increasingly aware that we are defined by our acts (or lack of them). This is nowhere more apparent than in the stand-out poem, ‘My Best Friend Sammy’, which gives a portrait not only of his best friend, ‘a stubborn bastard’ with ‘big fat eyes bulging out of his head’, but also of the knife-edge danger of confronting the ‘scumbags.’ I won’t spoil it for you by saying more.
O’Dwyer’s tendency to use the second person singular makes the reader feel addressed and therefore complicit: ‘another Saturday night / you’re spending in, /watching the telly (‘The Chip Shop’). I’m not sure how much ‘good news’ there is here, although, minimally, hope is offered in one poem, in the form of a bag blowing in the wind, and ‘you hold on to that image…that empty crisp packet blowing around in the street on a windy day’ (‘Hope’).
This is poetry that has the capacity to shock at times, with the suddenness of struck attack, before we are led to ‘one of those cinematic fades to black’ (‘The Credits’) and we discover we have edged imperceptibly towards a powerful, provocative silence.
Bearings by Patrick Moran, published by Salmon Poetry
Patrick Moran’s persistent themes are personal bonds, community, childhood memory and the act of writing. In this collection – his third – he continues to explore a sense of kinship. Set frequently in the local pub, from which many of these poems were inspired, this is an unadorned voice that inclines towards connection and the pleasure of words. There’s a surface simplicity to these anecdotes, gleaned from neighbours in the ‘snug’, about the marginalised, the lonely and estranged. Some poems implicitly confront the everyday realities of economic depression via migration to England for work, ghost estates, mental illness and death.
This poet is, like many Irish, a talker and a listener – a people person – although there are moments when he shifts his focus to nature. For example, in ‘Gannets, Diving’: ‘the perfected descent: //those great wings folding/just a split second before/heads break the surface;// arrowing into/this elemental,/ consummating catch.’ But his abiding interest is in portraying people, like the old woman, ‘Relic-like, pushing her bicycle, / a stooped, headscarfed woman,’ or ‘That pasty-faced bachelor straggling / homewards in his steadfast anorak’ (‘Advent’).
‘We cannot step twice into the same river,’ says Heraclitus, but I kept having the sensation of stepping into the same poem in this collection. More than a couple of character portraits pay tribute to men who once had a flair with a pool or snooker cue, or a dartboard. Others are triggered by wildlife documentaries that happen to be on in the pub, and these produce more visually interesting images. In ‘Polar’, the speaker is ‘drawn from pub bubblings…to a TV programme about polar bears’, where ‘I saw as much /as anything else /the grand immutables //of my childhood drifting past: surplice acolytes; /unmolested whitethorn…’. ‘All these jottings,’ he writes in ‘Kindling’, ‘hoarded like kindling, waiting for a spark.’ And again, ‘Is this where I am,’ he asks in ‘Harvesting’, ‘My pen merely a rake / tending these shedding leaves?’ I am reminded once more of Heraclitus’s river, which ‘scatters and gathers again.’
As with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, repetition becomes ritual in the way the poems converse, as though we have never left the pub. ‘Faith Healer’ starts: ‘So one night, years after, she resurfaced,/ randomly in talk. Whoever bought her house,/ Joe Mahon said, just knocked it down; //rebuilding on the site. Would that not bring/bad luck, like interfering with a rath?/ And what happened to her relics?’
Moran, like O’Dwyer, favours the simple, plain, usually one-word title, and the small incidents of life around him. But Moran’s voice is kinder, his community less bitter and estranged, more contented, absorbed in chat and the frothing pint. (There is a lot of froth, and clinking of glasses, and publicans calling ‘time’.)
Unlike O’Dwyer’s visceral, frustrated attachment to the marginalised, the down-and-outs, the lonely, Moran responds to the stories he hears with more detachment, and rather with a writer’s quickening for an image. In ‘Report’: ‘When my father read from the local paper / that the grumpy, often tipsy man, who’d come/ in a battered van selling calves, had been killed/ (accidentally, they said) while shooting game – his gun discharging as he crossed a stile – I was barely ten.’ Years later, recalling this story, Moran asks himself: ‘what can I flush/out of that November fog? Not pheasants / rising, nor bags filling; nor stubbles bristling/against his muddy boots. Nothing only/ the gun: its tantalising, stark report.’
Moran’s opening poems are slight, serving simply to establish themes and motifs, to set up the collection, and his closing poems too, are brief. In fact, of the forty four poems in this collection, over twenty are less than half a page long. But midway through the collection, he mines deeper, shifting to childhood poems, and the language and lyrical grace of these more rural, emotionally resonant poems have an altogether different feel to them. ‘Blight’ is one of the stronger poems here, vivid with detail and texture:
In time, I, too, learnt the danger signs.
Days which felt clammy, yet moist and overcast.
Spore-bearing winds. Evenings dense with midges.
Wet foliage. A sticky mist.
A retired post-primary school teacher, Moran is able to write poignantly about pangs for a more charged life, and for sex, and his last poem becomes quite explicit: ‘you and I blur/to climax: need / raising us fleetingly beyond ourselves.’
Such poems indicate potential for further reflection and emotional investment. I would like to have seen more of this. While the human condition is a universal one, we are in danger, on this island, of being both too insular and too guarded. In his next collection, I would hope to see Moran go beyond the familiar territory of the cosy Irish poem, into more challenging terrain.
gotta get a message to you, by Frank Golden, published by Salmon Poetry
Frank Golden’s gotta get a message to you, published by Salmon Poetry, is risk-taking in its address and plural in its forms and voices. Throughout the collection, I was conscious that the poet, like Marcel Proust, seemed to be ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’. Through the act of writing, Golden tells us, the mind is conscious of time both ‘lost and retrieved, retrieved and more deeply lost’. But the language here, especially in the first four sections of the book, is propulsive, more like Ginsberg than Proust, and I found I was enjoying it as a sense experience more than anything else. There is something interesting going on, an originality of observation and expression. The language is somewhat elevated and the emotional punch hits dead centre.
An astute observer, Golden’s points of reference are primarily artworks, and his own use of white space is diverse and arresting. Divided into six sections, the poems range from a series of ekphrastic responses to artworks by Tim Jones, Tom Molloy, Áine Phillips, Hazel Walker and Maria Kerin, to relationship poems, an elegy for Nora Guthrie and several meditations – on his mother’s illness and also the valley of Oughtmama, where the poet lives. His intention is the depiction of ‘characters in moments of crisis or transition’ as the blurb puts it. These include what he calls in the preface ‘an elliptical description of an enigmatic affair’ (triggered by Walker’s paintings) which are, for me, the standout poems in this startling and exciting collection.
The lyric address occurs, as is usual, between an ‘I’ and a ‘you’, aligning the lyric with the uncapturable life force of the lover. The ‘I’ cannot be assumed to be the poet, of course. A singular voice in poetry is, of course, a fiction, just as ‘you’ is invariably multiple individuals. So the relationship poems we see here are addressed to different second persons. By using dramatic monologue in the context of a visual artwork, Golden is protected from the accusation of writing overtly confessional lyric love poetry. And yet, in each lover, as in each poem, an aspect of the speaker’s self is doubtless embedded:
We met again and again,
photographs prove it.
Stations in Veronsk, Palatou, Trabant.
Meet me, she would text.
3 days from now.
Dress in white.
Usefully, images of the artworks are included, enhancing the experience of the poems, which illustrate an ingenious immersion in the source materials to evoke unabashed rapture and sorrow. Rhapsodic for the most part, the poems flow in long sentences, building momentum until a culmination. ‘My flesh aches,’ he writes in ‘To Burn’: ‘I could not breathe when you burned./ Nor could I stop.’
A bibliography at the back references lines taken from Shelly, Francis Thompson, Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson and Sylvia Plath. I also sense the influence of Dylan Thomas’s ‘rage, rage…’:
We walk on though we are broken.
Everything has been turned off.
The door left open.
What we were always destined to do, we do.
The end of conscionable time is coming,
So I call the words out as I see them.
I call them screaming
(‘o peerless god’)
Images accumulate to become motifs: trains, exotic locations, cities, forests, snowy desolate landscapes – a sense of many elsewheres, including the elsewhere of a woman’s orgasm, a place the lover cannot reach. There are many list poems, and many evocative refrains. The poems are often resonant of song lyrics.
Towards the end of the collection, the poet returns home, to Oughtmama, where he lives. Several poems are also addressed to the poet’s mother, who suffered both from Parkinson’s and dementia, and here we see his impulse for listing objects:
How many curlers for her dead hair
How much Chanel for her dead lobes
How much lipstick for her dead lips
How deep to sever the vein she said she wanted cut
How to mend her
How to hold her
How to leave her
How to remember her bones
This is a poet to get excited about, although the wroughtness is lost a little as the book veers away from the intense and enigmatic love poems into this rather more disparate subject matter. Perhaps there are two collections here. Perhaps ekphrastic poetry / collaboration is his strength. Certainly I would have omitted ‘Costa Del Costa’ where the tone descends to bathos and jars with the tone of the whole.
Overall, however, this is a collection of finely crafted and vibrant poems, playing out central concerns of love and loss. To great effect, as with the cover image, the poems blur the lines that communicate what we think and feel and dream, and leave plenty of pace to read between them.
©2017 Afric McGlinchey
These reviews were first published in Southword.