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New poetry collections by Edward O'Dwyer

& Tim Cunningham:

reviewed by Róisín Kelly

 

 

 

Roisin Kelly

Roisin Kelly was born in Northern Ireland but has mostly lived south of the border. After completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway, she moved to Cork City where she currently lives and writes. Previous and upcoming publications that feature her work include the Bohemyth, Wordlegs, Mslexia, HARK Magazine, the Stinging Fly and the Interpreter's House. In 2014 she was placed second in the Dromineer Literary Festival poetry competition, and third in the Red Line Book Festival poetry festival.

 

 

 

 

The Rain on Cruise's Street

The Rain on Cruise's Street

Edward O'Dwyer

(Salmon Poetry, 2014)

ISBN: 978-1-908836-81-6

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

Almost Memories

Almost Memories

Tim Cunningham

(Revival Press, 2014)

ISBN: 9780992862558

€12 paperback

Buy from O'Mahony's

 

 

 

 

“I can write a poem, yes, / but it's not the same as playing guitar.” It's rare to find such a straightforwardly youthful sentiment expressed in a poetry collection, but then again Edward O'Dwyer, born in 1984, is a relatively young poet; and what young person, despite their talent, has never longed to be anything other than what they are? The difference between being a writer and being a musician is examined in the poem 'Playing Guitar', which is pretty much the difference between which one will attract the attention of whispering girls who agree that “guys who play guitar are so sexy”. Meanwhile, 'The One Worry' also deals with an issue that might be particularly troublesome for a younger writer: the revelation to parents that their son has had sex—and moreover, written about it. “Yes, lust soaks these pages,” O'Dwyer declares in the collection's second poem, “will drip out of them.” But despite the promise of sexy times to follow, most of these poems aren't exactly a scandalous depiction of the writer's sex life, but are rather a thoughtful examination of the self, building to a solid personal mythology in which every moment in this writer's life has been crucial in bringing the writer and his work to this point.

            O'Dwyer's debut collection, The Rain on Cruise's Street, thus has a powerful beginning poem in 'Just By Chance', in which two lovers are brought together apparently by coincidence, but with the suggestion that something closer to fate might be at play:

 

            Then, surely, it was just by chance of the way of the tide

            that a pair of swans came floating out from the bridge's far side

 

            towards us, and so I learned that swans mate for life

            just by chance you'd read it somewhere once, but couldn't remember where.

 

Its exploration of a relationship's origins is also an appropriate beginning to the collection, as many of the poems that follow are, in one way or another, love poems, whether dealing with the eventual disintegration of relationships or the narrator's unrequited yearning for one of his elusive female muses. 'Library Girl' skilfully develops the metaphor of the poet wishing himself one of the old books decaying on the shelf in his local library – “a yellow fever slowly gripping me all over” – so that the girl he longs for might go through him “page by page”. Conversely, 'We'll Always Have Paris' is an anti-love poem full of sad humour about the things we hold onto after a break-up to convince ourselves of their worth, despite their having come to nothing. “[M]y darling, aren't you glad / we'll always have Paris, / always for one thing, that really glorious kiss— / was it Arc de Triomphe or La Tour Eiffel?”

            The poet's idolisation of women can wear a bit thin at times, a perhaps-misplaced awe that's summed up in the image of girls “each beneath / their own personal spotlight / of sunshine.” In 'Visit from a Poem in a Dream', a beautiful woman is the embodiment of a poem “never meant to be written.” Herein lies the problem with O'Dwyer's muses: they usually exist only for the poet, within the bounds of the poems they inspire, but never with an agency of their own (similar to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope of TV and film that in recent years has been criticised for its depiction of a female character who exists solely to teach a male character something about himself). Happily, there are a few moments in this collection when the poet fades into the background to give more prominence to women's personalities and stories. 'Rock Chick' delves into a young woman's own fantasies and desires, and the assigning of a personal mythology to someone who is not the poet/narrator – more significantly, to someone of the opposite sex – is a relief after so many poems whose women are mysterious, unfathomable, unreachable. 'Paradise' also addresses a woman:

 

            You might have been Eve today

            as you stood there, cream-skinned naked

            something of Eden about you.

 

But this woman is compared to Eve not for the poet's sake but for her own: portraying her against a landscape of blossoming flowers, rivers and fields that he is largely absent from, he acknowledges that she is “being [herself], no more” in her “remaking Paradise / intact again as an unbitten apple.” The poem is a delicately-explored example of how writers have the ability to find significance not only in the events of their own lives, but also in those of the people they interact with.

            Unsurprisingly for a first collection, there are a few missteps. There were one too many poems about trees, leaves and the changing of seasons, and I was reminded of a wry tweet from the News for Poets account: “Poet refuses to see fall leaves as anything other than extraordinary.” Another minor but jarring detail is the word 'suddenly' appearing in three poems in a row. And there's a bit too much poet self-consciousness that I disliked, with a slightly unhealthy the ratio of poems about writing poems to poems that are not about writing poems. However, it's a brave soul who writes about a rejection from a literary journal and includes the editor's note: “thoughtful and intriguing / but in need of a little more craft.” No doubt O'Dwyer has come a long way since then, as his poems are meaningful and heartfelt. Yet his second collection will be telling—of whether he continues to work on his craft, as all writers should no matter their age, and urges his poems further into the realm of poetic sensibility, ambiguity, surprising imagery, and language that has been crafted and recrafted until it seduces the reader as easily as O'Dwyer is enraptured by one of his muses.

            Although The Rain on Cruise's Street takes its title from a poem set on the eponymous Limerick street, most of its poems are not noticeably grounded in any particular time or place. In contrast, Almost Memories by Tim Cunningham is unmistakably informed by the poet's desire to examine what might tentatively be identified as 'Irish' preoccupations and themes, including, according to Richard W. Halperin's blurb, “Catholic liturgy at its most damaging and at its most consoling; Limerick under the fists of the British, then the fists of Irish politicians and bankers.” It sounds like heavy going, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Cunningham's best poems are often those about the Irish countryside. Although it's at first glance nothing we haven't seen before in the context of Irish writing, the poet manages to peel back the layers of countryside living to reveal it to us in new and intriguing ways.

            'Seven Wonders of the Parish' is a fine example of Cunningham's control of language, and of how he uses it to make us feel that we are reading about conventional topics for the first time. The poem consists of seven stanzas of three lines each, and each stanza is given over to one countryside image, so that our impressions of the place are fleeting but memorable. Thus a vixen and her cubs 'ignite the broken wall' and the traces of a sparrow in snow are written in 'fluent Japanese.' The poem's subtle beauty lies in not ascribing any meaning to the landscape, but are mere descriptions of a scene—similar to the haiku tradition, hence the Japanese reference—and all that is necessary to give the poem resonance is the language Cunningham chooses to paint the scene in our minds.

            A grandmother's cottage appears again and again in these poems, clearly a place of deep personal significance to the poet, and with it the collection's title is assuredly earned. These poems invoke a world informed by “almost memories” —half-formed things echoed by a cottage's sealed half-door, like “some pharaoh's tomb” where a woman watches her young grandson play as she watched her now-dead son play many years before. 'In My Father's House' contains the striking detail of its narrator visualising “a path of fairy tale stepping stones” to his grandmother's cottage, and the poem is like part of that path itself, leading the reader back to a disappeared world that is vivid in its re-imagining. Of course, the vanishing of a simple, rural way of life such as that which is described here is a well-trodden theme in Irish writing, but it's a testament to Cunningham's skill and his unmistakably tender treatment of the subject that allows us a glimpse of that time with a fresh perspective.

 

            Night too was the haunt of Jack O'Lantern

            Leading astray those already shawled in darkness

            Unless they turned their jackets inside out

            But who wore coats in summer?

 

An absent father is  a topic that repeatedly appears in this collection, as are the almost-memories that take root in the gap between what a child remembers and what he thinks he remembers. The collection takes its title from the opening poem, in which the narrator sifts through not-quite memories of his father “like searching for the ball / in the tall grass and thistles.” Meanwhile, 'Ghost Ship' displays an astonishing grasp of language and of the extended metaphor of a father symbolised by a ship in a bottle, which gives rise to other metaphors that are deftly woven into the overarching narrative: “My mother kept his memory bottled up / As if it were a vintage for herself / Alone.” Later, the wedding rings that belonged to the narrators' parents are described as “[s]ymbols of a lasting love cut short / By the ring on a World War Two grenade'”

            Cunningham is at his best with solid imagery and restrained emotion, as when in 'Taking Down the Decorations' an older woman putting away Christmas decorations is reminded of how a now-absent male figure “brought / each bauble home, each paper bell” and the packed-away decorations are movingly described as “the glittering strata of a life.” But he has a tendency to stray into overly-obvious sentiment. 'Losing His Grip' in which the subject imagines a dying person trying to hold onto his hand as she dangles from a cliff, is let down by its clichéd ending:

 

            Nothing hurts more

            Than this holding on,

            Nothing, except the letting go.

 

I was much more attracted to the poems with a personal aspect than to those with more political overtones, such as 'A Candle in the Window' – which has Ireland's history of famine and emigration at its core – or 'Proclamations, 1916', which pretty much does what it says on the tin without bringing any real new perspective to the days leading up to the Easter Rising. But this is a subjective opinion within the infamously subjective sphere of poetry, and Cunningham, who has already published four collections previous to this one, has produced an undeniably accomplished book in which virtually any lover of poetry will find something that appeals. And I predict that not many could fail to be moved by 'Jigsaw Man', which examines the life of a man and the pieces that are missing, such as an absent son and daughter. Cunningham gently reminds us that no life is ever entirely complete, and that it is ostensibly insignificant pieces that can turn out to be the most important: “the fireside / songs and stories, those riverside walks.” With its tributes to loss, to the countryside and to love, Almost Memories is itself a quietly triumphant celebration of such pieces of a life.

 

 

©2015 Róisín Kelly

 

 

Author Links

 

Prizewinning poem by Róisín Kelly in the Dromineer Poetry Competition

'Otter': poem by Roisin Kelly in the Bohemyth

More work by Róisín Kelly in Southword

 

 

 

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