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THE THING IS: a review by Billy Ramsell



Billy Ramsell

Billy Ramsell was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC.  Complicated Pleasures, his debut collection, was published by the Dedalus Press, Dublin, in 2007. He has been shortlisted for a Strong Award and a Hennessy Award.  He lives in Cork, where he co-runs an educational publishing company.


Photo © John Minihan



The Thing Is by Peter Sirr reviewed in Southword 18The Thing Is

Peter Sirr

(Gallery Press, 2009)

ISBN: 978-1852354732



Buy The Thing Is



Peter Sirr's oeuvre to date is littered with and perhaps even defined by the sequences and series he has produced. He has described how he is attracted to serial form as a release from what he calls the ‘distraction of the individual, islanded and importantly titled poem'. The central sequence in the present volume, entitled 'The Overgrown Path' and celebrating the first few years of his daughter's life, is perhaps unusual among his output due to both the sharpness of its focus and to the 'finished' feel of its component lyrics. 


The best poems in this sequence focus on domestic scenes that are both intensely touching and skilfully wrought. Sirr declares how a poem he’s writing wants “to sing / the bright music of our daughter / (this line is written in her laughter)”. ‘Riches’ tenderly describes how the daughter adds to the “usual chaos” on the author’s desk. 


The final poem in the sequence, which depicts the poet taking his daughter to school, is a powerful portrayal of childhood innocence, one subtly but unmistakably haunted by the terrors of the world beyond the domestic bliss the preceding lyrics have so artfully conjured. ‘PPS’, too, creates an atmosphere of mingled delight and dread, addressing the daughter as ‘3755547K’ and making reference to the numbers the Irish state assigns to each citizen at birth and uses to track them throughout their lives. 

Such moments of brilliance make it is easy to forgive the sequence’s occasional lurch into out-and-out sentimentality. ‘Song’, for instance, is a perhaps too-gushing account of how the daughter has somehow permeated every aspect of the poet’s house, becoming a half-ghostly presence in his computer: “Your head rests on a blinking cursor/ there’s a menu for your toes.” ‘Here You Are’, which depicts the poet’s wife and child “walking the stony road in April” is heartfelt but perhaps flirts with self-congratulation.

The other sequences in the present volume, 'Shhh', ‘Carmina’ and 'The Different Rains Come Down', are perhaps more typical of Sirr's output to date in that their constituent poems have a fragmentary if not quite unfinished quality, proceeding from one to another what can only be described as a “dream-like logic”. They bring to minds how Sirr has spoken of his interest in “clusters, in clustering poems around some sort of central, though not centralising preoccupation”.   


‘Shhh’ is a troubled sequence of brief lyrics that begins with the following memorable lines:


The counter intelligence community registers its disquiet

Too many of us now, too much getting out.


It proceeds with a strangely implacable dream logic and centres on information technology, surveillance, and vaguely defined atrocities that may be taking place far away or closer to home. An atmosphere of almost giddy paranoia animates this fine series. Almost equally impressive is 'The Different Rains Come Down', a journalistic sequence chronicling a sojourn in the country that veers seamlessly from documentary realism to the whimsically surreal.


Arguably Sirr's finest achievement to date is 'Edge Songs', the series of poems adapted from and inspired by Middle Irish that closed Nonetheless, his previous collection. 'Carmina', the final sequence in the present volume, is worthy both as successor and companion piece. This sequence is presided over by the grinning spirit of Catullus, who Sirr adapts, address, modernises and ventriloquises. By turns scabrous and elegiac, occasionally hilarious, the sequence is remarkable for its sheer energy. It is marked by a level of verve, wit and brio all too lacking in recent Irish poetry, one that Sirr seemingly effortlessly maintains across its twenty-six individual sections. 


Aingeal Clare has described Sirr as “a poet of the city, of crowds, of wanderlust” and his previous collections have indeed established him as an urban poet, a Dublin flâneur chronicling the minutiae of metropolitan life. In this regard the present book can be seen as something of a departure. True the city continues to play a role: 'I Watch You Sleep' mentions the “hardware stores / and sombre houses of Crumlin”, 'At the Intersection' captures the bustle of a Dublin morning, 'In the Beginning' tracks the development of the city from “wattle” to “bubble-wrapped / department stores”. Yet there is also a noticeable turning away from the urban carnival; toward the rural in 'The Different Rains Come Down', toward domestic interiority in 'The Overgrown Path'.


Sirr is also known as a poet of impersonality, one who in his own words avoids “poetry of the foregrounded self” and “detailed narratives of personal life”. Yet many poems in The Thing Is, though not quite confessional, adopt a personal, intimate approach and are undoubtedly among the most nakedly biographical pieces he has published to date. This new volume, then, not only plays to and consolidates Sirr's strengths but also gestures toward new ground. It represents another milestone on a unique poetic journey.



©2010 Billy Ramsell






Author Links


Poems and extended bio at Poetry International Web

Ramsell poem 'For the Bodiless' in Horizon magazine

Ramsell poem 'Breath' in the Stinging Fly







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