John F. Deane, Semibreve, Carcanet Press, ISBN: 978-1-84777-269-5
Martina Evans, Burnfort, Las Vegas, Anvil Press, ISBN: 978-0-85646-457-7
Nell Regan, One Still Thing, Enitharmon Press, ISBN:978-1-910392-04-1
The poets reviewed here reflect a triangular set of Irish poetic impulses: lyricism, wit and the seannachaí flair for storytelling. The common ground is how their poetry explores the past, both personal and cultural/historical.
John F. Deane has long been a force in the Irish poetry landscape – founder of Poetry Ireland and this journal, a member of Aodána, winner of prestigious awards, a prolific essayist, fiction writer and much translated poet. He was a seminarian for a time, and immersion in the Latinate language has left its mark. In this musically cohesive collection, he dwells on the philosophical, spiritual, and religious issues inherent in grieving, feeling lost, or fearful: ‘What do you say to the dying, when already / they have waded out beyond hearing’ he writes in ‘Driftwood’, a poignant key poem that establishes the tone, grace and lyricism of a collection that is, essentially, an extended elegy for his brother.
The tone is reflective, though at times cut with an acerbic self-consciousness: ‘grief thickens with its selfishness’ (‘High Tide’); ‘I am standing, old and self-absorbed as Lear’ (‘Rain Falling in the Far West’). Idyllic childhood moments are recalled. In the poignantly titled, ‘The Living Room’, he incorporates both piano practice and the notion of outdoor escape, in a single image:
On the parlour floor, remember?
Just there, before the hearth, the river-otter pelt, sleek
golden fur through the underhair, silk-feel and death-grin,
how it brought into the room the stealth of water-dog,
high-jinks and romping, teeth sunk in trout-flesh,
secrecy of den and hold, the chill, the sliming…We
held to the basics, arpeggios, chords and scales;
you mastered them, remember? They have eluded me.
There is a nod to Heaney: ‘I will forge out words, plunge deep into language.’ (‘Museum of Country Life’) This comfort lifts him from melancholia, reminds him that he is alive. Like Hopkins in ‘Carrion Comfort’, Deane ‘can something, wish day come, not choose not to be’. Instead of staring too hard at the brutal certainty of death, the speaker celebrates the sustaining force of poetry: ‘the spirit holding // through the slow counterpoint and the unravelling’.
Nell Regan’s One Still Thing, is a collection of emotional complexity. Her lyrics are all sound-dominant, even where they are dissonant, for example: ‘every / note, whoop and noise rattles’ (A Composer Walks the Catacombs). As with Deane’s collection, it’s a pleasure to hear the fluid music of vowels and consonants:
Horizon tricks the eye, a sea–
long gone – is sighted. A fossil
lightly shifts, remembers tide.
This habit of looking both in the far distance and microscopically, of shifting viewpoint, is a characteristic. In ‘Printers’ Type’, a young apprentice imprints his girlfriend’s rear with the ink he cannot wash from his hands. ‘The oncologist too / will guess his job by what/ the x-ray will reveal. But that/is years away.’
Images echo, taking on a force that imprints (a recurring word) Regan’s poetic landscape– bridges, mountains, glass, pearls, shells, gold – and words like ‘impress’, ‘retort’ (I expected to read ‘report’ as the word follows ‘sniper’ and suggests a gun going off), which keep the collection grounded through leaps in time and geographically.
Conceit is one of the tools in Regan’s kitbag. In ‘Feeding the Birds’ she uses the story of St Kevin to teach mindfulness: ‘How to focus, solely, on the task to hand.’ The task is the thing, as Deane also knows. ‘Archaeology Class’ brings to mind Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’:
It’s all words, says one, as we reassemble
with language of cist and corbel, each part
of the dry wall back unto the cairn.
‘Passage’, a sequence of epistolary poems addressed by a famine emigrant to her sister, begins with a sea-passage. Like Evans, Regan is adept at portraying character. Like Deane, she favours patterning and repetition. From the speaker’s initial fearfulness at being abandoned: ‘under my feet/the ground gives way’, she quickly reveals her essential strength and pragmatism – ‘I am resolved’ – and even a rebelliousness. She goes on a date with a native American, though she knows this will close doors for her: ‘My next/ day off, we meet on top of the world.’(Later in the sequence, a child asks: ‘tell us again, Uncle, how you scalped that squaw.’) Some poems are written in the voice of her lost betrothed, and here the language becomes filled with tools, the practical clatter of industry, as in Adam White’s Accurate Measurements.
After being immersed in a previous century, it’s quite a jolt to return to the present, although travelling by plane for the return journey, as a symbol, is effective: ‘I can see why they say/ the psyche or spirit can’t travel at this speed / that it lags behind at a walking or sailing pace,’ (‘Jet Lag’).
While autobiographical material will inevitably emerge in poems, a seasoned poet becomes more interested in what we learn, what we know, what we’ve been told, and what we make of this knowledge. In this third collection, Nell Regan has captured a resonant moment in history and allowed the stories of unknown individuals to flow around her own, creating an emotional connection across time and space. The recurring bridge is a perfect metaphor for a beautifully distilled collection.
Martina Evans was hooked by the power of books from an early age. As the Graham Greene epigraph that opens Burnfort, Las Vegas tells us: ‘In childhood, all books are books of divination.’ This collection is a voyeur’s insight into the intimacy of a family home, feisty mother and docile, evasive father who escapes, for solace, to his cats. Not just personal stories, these distinctive poems weave in product names and era-defining cultural references.
The title poem reveals Evans’ mastery of the apparently effortless anecdote, digressions that snap back to reveal an orchestrated circuitry, like a kaleidoscope. The poem begins with an Elvis shrine, opens to the pub, the street, out to where the ‘mountainy men’ live, then back to the pub and the shrine. Not only that, but the small country pub has, in the interim, transformed into Las Vegas, by way of New York. The conversational tone also establishes the voice:
A few months ago
the novelty mug frightened us all
by spontaneously bursting
into Viva Las Vegas and I took that
as a sign, did what any
Catholic would do – put up a shrine.
Like Regan, Evans has an eye to America, the richest source of cultural influence for a child of the sixties – not just Elvis, but Frank O’Hara and films like ‘My Darling Clementine’, where the film stirs up a romantic association with her own father:
‘…Daddy suddenly angry
one night he had enough
and refused to be pacified with a drink
which he sent flying down
the Formica like Doc
with the back of his hand’
although her father is really:
‘more like Mack standing behind the bar
when Fonda asks, Have you ever been in love?
The small deferential bald head answers
No, I’ve been bartender all my life.’
The Formica table reappears a number of times. In the prose poem, ‘Daddy and Mae West’: ‘Come up and see me some time, you said, patting the yellow Formica with swollen crooked hands, the morning Mae died and Mammy said there was more to you than met the eye …’ Strangers sit there too: ‘A thin nicotine man/legs crossed showing grey socks/sits at the end of the yellow/Formica table’ (‘Save Us’). The table becomes a symbol for the layering of family history.
Evans, like Paul Durcan, encapsulates her characters by way of gesture, physical feature or expression: a guard’s ‘pan loaf-sized foot poised/on the pedal of his Honda 50’ (‘Known to the Guards’); a doctor’s breath, ‘so wine-rich’ (‘Substitute’). But there is a poignancy too: ‘ten children trapped / in a mushroom cloud of jealousy / over love spread too thin’ (‘Save Us’). Poignancy leaps clear of sentimentality, however: ‘People have this idea of ghosts but isn’t there a reason for everything? The howling? Sure, that was only the old dog, gone demented on her bed, turning round and round on top of the sheets and of course, they had to shoot him too, after’ (Ghost Story’).
Like her influences, Joyce and Flann O’Brien, she is so naturally close to the spoken word, the rhythms and assonance are almost subliminal. But they are there. In fact, so much is layered here, the richness is as palpable as Irish history altogether.