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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
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JENNIFER MATTHEWS

 

 

Jennifer Matthews

Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg, and has read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK. In 2010 she was anthologised in Dedalus's 2010 collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places.

 

 

 

 

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The Boy in the Ring
Dave Lordan
(Salmon 2007)
€12.00
Buy The Boy in the Ring

 

Dave Lordan did a reading at O’Bheal in Cork a few years back where he kept the audience engaged with his intensity and wry humour.  I remembered the poems as being dark with a strong voice, and that he said poems without clinging to a page. The delivery was personal and powerful. From a lazy assumption on my part, I had him pegged as (exclusively) a performance poet and assumed The Boy in the Ring would be pieces better heard than read. How wrong I was. They are very accomplished pieces, working both on the page and in performance (something often assumed to be paradoxical). It’s no surprise that it won the Strong Award for Best First Collection.

       This collection is a secular Book of Revelations, warning the world to get its affairs in order. It catalogues violence, isolation, depression, loneliness and political exploitation. Few are safe here as the collection goes about its business of exposing sins that had been ignored, covered up or too easily forgiven.  In ‘Ode on de winning of de Entente Florale’ he subverts the idea of a commissioned poem, in this case taking the piss out of Clonakilty winning the Tidy Towns competition.  The poem’s persona uses the win as triumph over the undesirables, the ‘filth o’ de likes o’ ye’, he so hatefully wants to make disappear. ‘We’ve patched every crack with vines/ blossoms cover every stain.’ The Boy in the Ring’s mission is to cut away the vines and blossoms and expose the way things really are.

       As in ‘Entente Florale’, Lordan resists romanticising Ireland in his work. He is anti-pastoral.  In ‘Scrobbers’:

      

Step soft

       on the whip of grass

 

       For a stray foot-fall

on that sun-leatherned muck

 

(....)

 

Would set the wild dogs

to warning

 

And draw the farmer down

out of his stony house

 

       Violence is part of the stained, cracked reality that Lordan is exposing. Images of rings (wedding bands, cliques of people, etc.) are recurring in this claustrophobic context. There is ‘The Boy in the Ring’, being bullied, ‘sitting down/and crying/ and looking at himself’. Or ‘A Game of Donkey’ where domestic violence is witnessed by pub-goers, ‘making a ring/around a man and his wife’, but nothing is done. Everyday cruelty is hauled into the reader’s view, showing society as either constrictively inclusive or cruelly exclusive. We are forced to examine our moments of quiet complicity. Who hasn’t seen a mother give a belt to a child on the bus, or a man shouting into his girlfriend’s face on a late night street? What did we do about it?

       This answerless question, and what did we do about it, is even more resonant within the poems about depression and suicide in The Boy in the Ring. In the relentless ‘Mail for a dead guide’ the author examines control, repression and powerlessness as a cause of suicide:

      

I do believe

it was because

you wouldn’t harden to their mould

      

that you went out

that January day

deep

into the forest’s changeling ground

so nakedly

 

‘Cureheads’ and ‘Dying for Ireland’ are also profoundly moving and crucially unromantic. Depression is something often unfathomable to those who don’t suffer from it, and work like this could go a long way in helping people understand those of us who do live with it, chronically:

 

       big bully shame had me under the blankets,

bully boy shame had me pinned to the mattress,

and no-one would call to my door for fear of infection,

for fear I would lead them down tunnels and wells,

for fear I would lead them to forests of wolves.

 

Lordan’s poetry is very real. This is how it is.

       The author looks beyond the personal as well, moving into global and political violence. He is known as an activist, and poetry is an extension of his efforts. Political poetry is hard to write well, but Lordan manages to employ restraint and doesn’t abandon the craft of poetry to diatribe. Particularly effective is ‘Explanations of War’. In the hands of another poet, this poem could have been lazy or cheesy. Instead he ‘makes strange’ the violence, allowing the images to pass by our preconceived filters:

 

     And the high fires that climb above the rooftops—

     These are the rejoicing souls of our city flying to heaven.

     And the black clouds of smoke blotting the beautiful woman

     of the moon—

     These are our dark acts evaporating.

      

       The Boy in the Ring moves Irish poetry forward, looking at modern realities rather than the Platonic ideals many poets are still relying on. Beyond his thematic choices, this collection is worth buying for its craft alone. His poems are built using startling images, expert restraint and energetic lines. They wake you up, shake you, insist you pay attention.  

         

©2009 Jennifer Matthews

 

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Links

 

Salmon Poetry- Publishers of The Boy in the Ring

Interviews by Matthews with various poets through Ó Bhéal

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog by Matthews)

 

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