GREEK: A review by Dave Lordan
Dave Lordan was born in Derby, England, in 1975, and grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. In 2004 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary and in 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. His collections are The Boy in the Ring (Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish writer and was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize; and Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010). Eigse Riada theatre company produced his first play, Jo Bangles, at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in 2010. He has lived in Holland, Greece and Italy, and now resides in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
(Dedalus Press, 2009)
ISBN: 978 1 906614 17 1
Buy from Dedalus
Taking inspiration from its Homeric codex Theo Dorgan's Greek engages with many of the major cyclical themes of western literature. The transition from childhood to adulthood, erotic love and companionship, journeys literal and symbolic, old-age and decay, laughter as antidote, death-in-life and the approach of and preparation for the death of the individual all intertwine here in a series of brief but often dense poetic versions, vignettes and still lifes. The larger theme grounding these forays into familiar, though apparently inexhaustible, culture memes – Greek’s theme of themes – is the metaphysical idea of correspondences. Dorgan maps aspects of the Homeric mythos onto his representations of the contemporary Greek Islands in which he has spent so much time travelling and reflecting, attempting to frame his adult experiences in terms of the myths that set sail in his youth. In so doing Dorgan raises the question of whether myth contains the key to the meaning of our lives as we live them in history.
Dorgan, though he is not a modernist in any technical sense, may well argue that if Joyce and Pound can talk through myth then why can’t I? As with James and Ezra, the tension between mythopoetic and historical conceptions and representations of human experience is a generative friction which spurs our interest in the work. He avoids the charge of literary pretentiousness by not straying too far from a colloquial and conversational register in most of the poems. This is friendly and hospitable writing. Greek is an easily read book, but not so easy to understand perhaps. The words often bear a number of over-layered and even contradictory meanings. Close and attentive reading is needed to follow the subtle shifts in mood and address which dramatise the above named tension between what is and was, and what we long for and imagine there to be. The poems often enact the opposite of what are their implied surface intentions. What is denoted is destabilised by what is connoted. This is all as it should be—Greek is not prose memoir after all, but poetry. The poems’ semantic insecurity opens them to the imaginative engagement of intelligent readers willing to push the words as far as they will go, to break through the calm reflecting surfaces and swim around the troubled depths beneath, finding or chancing upon treasure, or monsters.
‘Visitors’ is a good example of a poem that refuses to contain itself within the prison of closed statement, which is what it appears to be at first glance. Dorgan’s moody ‘I’ ropes up a docking vessel, which is flying the Irish tricolour. A couple, presumably Irish, are “on the rail”.
I make them fast, toss back the end of the line.
He has come forward, stands there,
a hand on her waist, quizzical.
I jerk my chin at the tricolour
snug to the spreader. No need to say more.
Like myself, they are on a break from history....
Of course, one cannot fly the tricolour and at the same time take a break from history. What is more historical than a national flag? Also, small Irish boats running up and down indented coastlines have most interesting histories attached to them, as well as futures. The turning away of the sailing Irish couple from the surprise of the grey-haired Irishman on the tiny foreign pier is, one suspects, grounded in distrusts that are entirely historical.
Significantly, there is no attempt at mythical overwriting in the poem ‘Survivor’ which tells of a conversation with a victim of torture under the fascist regime of the Colonels.
The subject is civil war; we have been talking
about my poor country, he asks me to explain
'affable irregular' when, in a lucid lurch of trust,
I ask how it was here, under the Colonels?
He holds my eyes with his, he makes a fist.
Veteran and stern, the ring finger missing.
Without a doubt, the only real break this survivor will ever get from history is the eternal one.
However Greek is not just about politics and history, or the various ways we have of have of pretending to ourselves to have escaped from politics and history. It is not ultimately concerned with myths or so-called eternal verities either. It is finally about the poet being involved in the trauma and the slippage of the here and now, about the shock of his sudden aging, and about the doom which surrounds and waits to absorb him. Dorgan is following DH Lawrence’s ritual injunction to throw all our psychic and creative energies into building our “Ship of Death”, before it is too late. Death shadows every poem in the book, inflecting nearly every line and image with an enormous power and urgency.
In the title of the opening poem ‘Begin, Begin Again’ Dorgan references the classic poem of invocation and resurrection by Brendan Kennelly, another Munster poet whose late imagination is bound up with myth, and with an incarnate, looming oblivion. We learn that adventures of Homer’s proto-imperialist heroes, the “Argives” in their “triremes” opened the young and impoverished poet’s mind to horizons beyond the tedious slums of post-war Cork, whetting his appetite to travel in mind, body and spirit with a “dream of otherwhere”. But the trireme, a war and looting ship, carries a multiplicity of deaths in its hold. Oblivion is its cargo. One death, many years later, is bound to be Dorgan’s.
Each journey in this book, whether by bus, plane, or ferry echoes the ultimate crossing of the Styx. In ‘Cross Country Bus’ we find ourselves “... conscious of bodies,/ rosaries banging against the windscreen,/ meat in the driver's arms as he wrestled the wheel”. The driver, of course, can be none other than meaty ould Charon.
In Greek the sphere of love, precisely where we are most brought home to the sensual reality of our bodily existences, is also the sphere of decay, as it has been in the work so many poets and other artists over the centuries. Death’s head grimaces shockingly, “so very white”, through the smilingly open mouth of the lover in ‘Honey Yoghurt’.
One could read The Odyssey, through Freud, as a case history of narcissistic paranoia, an account of the hero’s belief, based on his gigantically inflated ego, that everything, including the weather, which he names Poseidon, is out to get him. This is how it must seem to any being that is dying, the whole universe and all it contains conspiring towards your obliteration. And if we take that we are dying from the moment we are born, and that we are more and more belonged to death as we age along, we can allow ourselves to identity with Dorgan when in ‘Inland’ he finds 'a bend in the road/ ....the perfect place for grief/ to lie coiled in ambush” or when a shower of rain “scythed through by light” strikes him with a “fear so immediate, striking deep” in ‘A Farm on the Edge of Ocean’.
In ‘Return to Hania’ the poet finds himself “suddenly, full of years” and asks us “Am I a ghost in this evening air?” We might reply that if everything is always-already contained inside the Homeric telos, if all human identities are already written down in myth – beliefs implied in the poem 'Spirits' when a waitress suffers the indignity of being conflated into Artemis – then our physical existence is merely a kind of puppetry. We are all mere ghosts, mere enactments, mere iterations of a tyrannical ubertext from which, mirroring the history it seeks to usher offstage, there is no exit.
Poets must be one of the categories of person least likely to accept pre-destination. This is so even with poets such as that great Satanist and executioner Milton, who subscribed to a religion of pre-destination. The most interesting and most liberating poetry in Greek takes place when Dorgan stages confrontations with myth, in the spot-the-difference renderings of both ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Eurydice’, and in the lengthier ‘Sappho’s Daughter’, deconstructing these shimmering aboriginals by means of what he ingeniously describes as the “slant freedom of our craft”. This practice of reinterpretation and reshaping highlights the human ability to change the order of words, and maybe even things, to suit our own evolving needs. In these centrally important poems, Dorgan comes down clearly on the side of the angel of history, the side of change and difference and possibility. Greek finishes by hymning contingency with the line "Nobody knows what may happen in this life" (Epilogos).
Beyond history and all of the myths it engenders lies what is truly incomprehensible and inexpressible, except by way of negation—nihil, death, oblivion, nothingness, the void. When Dorgan visits Ithaca in the bleakly but brilliantly disappointing ‘Journey’s End’, he finds no trace of Odysseus or of the spiritual “home” that the Greek myths held up to him as a child as the object of his life’s journey. There is only “waist high grass, dust,/ goat droppings, leaves./ ....This empty place.” All there belongs to nothingness, to the “house of the winds”. This oscillating line puts us straight through to King Lear who, in an insane nihilistic tantrum, commanded the weather to:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
(King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2)
Both the steeples of myth and cocks of temporality are for the void wind’s swallowing. The presiding ghost of this collection is not home-bound King Odysseus, but cliff-bound King Lear, not the spirit returning to a place of comfort and plenty and, crucially, affirmation, but the homeless and rootless spirit expelled into the void. That “house of the winds”, our true destiny, is where everything falls and blows away discretely, where being and meaning, myth and history, text and flesh no longer exist, where there are no events and no relations, and nothing corresponds.
©2010 Dave Lordan
Lordan page at Salmon Publishing
Three poems by Lordan at Blackmail Press
Entry at Irish Writers Online