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Thomas McCarthy reviews Seán Lysaght's latest book
Originally from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Thomas McCarthy now lives in Cork. He studied at UCC under the influence of Sean Lucy and John Montague; Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan were fellow students. He received the Patrick Kavangh Award in 1997 for his first book and the American-Irish Foundation's Literary Award in 1984. His work includes Mr Dineen's Careful Parade (Anvil, 1999) and Merchant Prince (Anvil, 2005). In 2009, Anvil Press published McCarthy's The Last Geraldine Officer. His historical work on the burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the rebuilding of its collections, Rising from the Ashes, appeared in 2010.
(Stonechat Editions, 2011)
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Seán Lysaght’s Spenser is an elegant and arresting publication, a poem-length biography of the poet Edmund Spenser, coloniser, courtier and romantic. It is beautifully printed on expensive paper, with poem titles in red ink, and beautifully designed endpapers. As a book it is a work of art: though I am worried, I must admit, as a lifelong admirer of Lysaght the poet, that it does not carry the Gallery Press imprint. It would be very worrying indeed if Gallery and Lysaght parted company, so I hope this is a temporary situation, a case of the jockey making a guest appearance for a neighbouring yard. The Gallery imprint is now a tight and impressive poetic stable: very few colts and fillies can enter into its cobbled squares. Each publishing house has its own style and it is always reassuring for the punters (the faithful readers) if a poet’s work gallops across the bookshelf in the same livery through a lifetime. That said, Stonechat Editions have made a very handsome book in Spenser; though the loveliness of design belies the toughness of this poet:
"He thought civilisation was a polite chat
In a garden over a cup of posset
About Cintio and Castiglione.
The new learning, all that humanist shit.
Spenser knew that sterner measures would be necessary
If history were to be made literate."
Spenser, at that moment described above, had consolidated both a poetic reputation and a modest fortune from all the "tedious, considered letters". But when he returns to London he creates havoc in the household by announcing his plans for the family to move. Unable to "compete with Raleigh’s monopoly" of military and literary fame, Spenser is reduced to being a brooding provincial. The scenario is brilliantly painted by Lysaght who concludes that "Orlando’s rage/ Would never be let loose on Spenser’s page". On his return to Ireland all does not go well. Escaping from the dreaded O’Neill, Spenser would go on to insert himself into a greater political narrative, a cruel thesis of final colonisation: "Next time, they would clear out all the natives, // He wrote, making a determined stand in his tract. / But he, Edmund Spenser, had no energy left. / Maybe Essex could carry out his policy // And see it through’.
Like a poet settling into the recovered Realm of Irelande, Seán Lysaght gallops along in hypnotic tercets, each lyric compressed by speed into strophes of Elizabethan biography. Few lines are flat or prosaic, though line-endings can be abrupt and arbitrary. It is impossible to sustain such an ambitious narrative without a few lyrical lacunae. But Lysaght, author of six collections, winner of the O’Shaughnessy Award and biographer of the great Robert Lloyd Praeger, is a superior poet and his serene talent is on full display in this book. Cork poets like Robert Welch have already tackled Spenser in verse and prose, in both Irish and English, but Lysaght’s achievement is to have made the narrative of Spenser new yet again. He has brought his Sheriff of Cork back into the Privy Council of contemporary verse, a place where his case will never be friendless. That merciless colonist who brought famine to Munster, that farmer-poet who saw Ireland reduced, has been brought to life by Lysaght: "Ireland is finished," as Lysaght’s Spenser says, "But Elizabeth and the boy are alright."
©2012 Thomas McCarthy
McCarthy's Rising From the Ashes
'The Poetry of Thomas McCarthy' by August Kleinzahler
Bio and poems at Poetry International Web