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Róisín Kelly reviews John Liddy's newest poetry collection,
and débuts from George Harding, Colm Scully & Adam White.
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 Secret Heart of Things
(Revival Press, 2014)
Buy from O'Mahony's
My Stolen City
(Revival Press, 2011)
€12 paperback + €2 p&p
Buy from Revival Press
What News, Centurions?
(New Binary Press, 2015)
Buy from New Binary Press
(Doire Press, 2015)
Buy from Doire Press
The first thing that struck me about John Liddy’s ninth collection of poetry, The Secret Heart of Things,was its intriguing title. It suggests a desire on the poet’s part to dig down ever deeper into what lies at the core of his work, and intimates that the reader will be part of this journey. The poem from which the collection takes its title encapsulates this theme, in which the central place the Sacred Heart traditionally holds in Irish households is addressed; it’s never referred to as the "Sacred Brain", the poet muses, reminding us that despite this symbol of unquestioning faith in the home, always there is a desire to bypass these wholly mortal belief systems and to learn scientifically about the world and our selves. In fact, Liddy makes a curious and appealing distinction between the external, represented heart (i.e. the Sacred Heart, which supplies no answers and allows no questions) and what he names the "soul", or the secret heart of things, as it were. In ‘Storyboards’ the poet traces the evolution of art, music and activism enabled by prominent figures in history – from T.S. Eliot to Martin Luther King, and even Muhammad Ali, a "floating butterfly in the ring" – and expresses his gratitude that we can trace these paths back to their origins, as if by doing so we can also find a path to some inner core of the self, or to what it means to be human. Liddy uses the striking image of these progressions in art forms and so on as "light [streaming] through the jails", suggesting that the unconscious is a kind of prison from which only the pursuit and development of something older and bigger than ourselves will set us free, allowing us to reach the hallowed "inner ground".
Yet Liddy doesn’t shy away from allowing a sense of the seemingly small to mingle with loftier ideas. ‘The Year of One’s Birth’ was inspired by the revelation that the poet was born on what, according to the internet, was the "most boring day of the 20th century". A lovely sense of locality is interspersed with the grander scheme of things in the world, like an episode of RTÉ’s Reeling in the Years in poem form. The last man to be executed in Mountjoy is hanged as On the Waterfront is released. Cork is victorious against Tipperary in the Munster final as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio say their vows. Indeed, Liddy is at his most skillful in his celebration of the everyday alongside the bigger, universal themes with which it is intertwined. ‘Pattern Day’ describes the annual pilgrimage to Cathair, a small uninhabited island in Clew Bay, where the "cathedral cliffs" are no more or less important than the "half-eaten carcass" of a sheep. Although a religious journey is ostensibly the reason for the poet’s being there, some deeper meaning of the pilgrimage, beyond the religious, is implied in the communal nature of the day. We can almost see the mainlanders and islanders of Inishturk sharing out a meal of crab claws in the boat together, and during the priest’s service on Cathair, voices raised together are described as "tribal", reminding us that our pagan origins are never as far from us as we might imagine.
At the same time, though, Ireland has arrived at the future and Liddy demonstrates a real talent for evoking a sense of loss that is a consequence of the modern world. The past vanished so rapidly that a time when hunters sought out snipe in the environs of Limerick City still exists in the memory of the poet’s father; now a fox darting through traffic is the only remnant of when one could "see the river beyond through gaps / In the city landscape". But although the fox must make its way across what "was once a flowing meadow", it is still evidence of a vanished world that manages to survive alongside human life. This theme is also found in "The Beaten Track", with a perhaps overly-obvious sentiment as regards the building of destructive new roads that "mutilate animals / and people, facilitate death". However, it’s redeemed – as perhaps we ourselves, inhabitants of this modern world, are – by its last beautiful, clear-cut image of nature continuing to thrive despite human incursions, in which "the smallest wren [declares] itself king" near a "fawn beside doe, time stopped still".
George Harding’s My Stolen City displays a similar concern with the Ireland of today and the cost of having arrived at where we are. The beginning poem (also the title poem) is a dystopian vision of his home city, in which
The Poets’ place near the madhouse
is enveloped with weeds
and the madwoman still searches
for a home, still hungry.
This world is one in which we have lost our language, in which money is king, and where someday someone will examine old maps and say, “Trees were there”—a poignant reminder of losses inflicted by the modern world. The last stanza of this five-page poem moves into surrealism, with a mounting feeling of dread and inevitability, when the poet dreams of "fruit flies / dead birds flying / strange animals from Africa / dying of thirst". It’s a shame that the clever, imaginative images here are nowhere to be seen in the subsequent poem, ‘The Cranes are Up’ a piece of satire that compares boom-time construction cranes to the species of bird. "What long legs they had! / What long necks!" The Celtic Tiger theme is becoming a little too well-worn in Irish literature for me, as I can’t see what more needs to be said about that era, or how it can be said in ways that are new and surprising. What poetic language or metaphor can subtly describe the brown envelope years, the rise of new buildings, in a way we have genuinely never seen before? But that is only my opinion, and I appreciate that at least someone is doing something to try and address that bizarre period of Irish history.
More appealing to me was Harding’s nature poetry; there’s a hint of Martin Dyar in a reference to silage bales being like "big black balls of plastic" that "edge out" traditional hay stacks, and the past along with them. The poet smelling the future "in the trickling of the black" is startling and visceral; we too can almost smell the sweet rot of silage, the smell of the future. In ‘Old Sores’, the poet is as comfortable referencing the myth of Troy (in describing an older, weeping woman as "Priam-like") as he is in using such a colloquial term as "blackas" to describe blackberries. It’s a graphic and tender tribute poem, in which the poet remembers himself and his loved one tearing their skin picking the fruit, later followed by "the blood-letting of the tart".
This intertwining of the sweet and bitter is also reflected in ‘September’, in which the "honeysuckle binds the bramble": always, there is an insistence in seeing the beautiful alongside the painful. ‘Silence in the Garden’ is a subtle and effective description of a marriage between the poet’s parents that says a lot without saying very much at all, in the way of all good poetry. In the poem, husband and wife are each given over to their own worlds and pursuits, and there seems to be little connection between them. On the surface, it’s a sad portrait of a relationship between two people, yet our world is a complicated one and the poem reflects that complexity, with its two subjects each finding a form of happiness in his or her own solitary pursuits, whether that be reading the newspapers or gardening. Meanwhile, ‘Furze’ lays out brief and beautiful images that portray the transition into summer time in the countryside, painting that sense of calm stillness when it seems as though a moment can last forever. In a field, a cow "is motionless" while a goldfinch "rainbows by". Yet the poet reminds us, as night draws near, how brief this time is – with all the implications of our own mortality – in the image of bats swooping out into evening in search of sustenance. "[T]heir suppertime is short."
Accurate Measurements by Adam White is unusual in that it is a poetic celebration of the world of manual labour, of craftsmanship and doing things in the right way. There is something very slow and considered about the pace of the poems; we are right there with the poet as he reaches carefully for the next word or image to describe his work in a specific way, as he might reach hand over hand for the rungs of a ladder. His rhythm and line breaks are astonishingly assured for a debut collection, as demonstrated with these lines from ‘In June’, in which he describes "my sister stabbing / with belief down into the guts / of the black garden". At times, it was difficult to connect to the poet’s marvel at how things are made as it is not something I can easily relate to; yet it’s a testament to his skill that I found so much in this collection to be absorbed by. In ‘Roofing’, a roofer is portrayed as someone so engrossed in the quiet solitude of his task that his work is raised above the level of mere craftsmanship – "lean rafters, like joined hands, are / raised in reverence to Pythagoras, / who was one of us" – as indeed the roofer is raised above the men working on the building’s structure, both physically and metaphorically. Unseen and high above the others, the roofer is hidden from their world and the "dumb harmony" of their tools. His work is altogether more remote, more lonely, more delicate—but just as essential.
White urges us to see the beauty in his world, using words like "ceremony" to elevate these tasks above the everyday and ordinary, transforming something as simple as hanging a door to a ritual with its own processes that becomes almost sacred:
No one ever got the hanging of a door right
first time round. That’s what makes it beautiful
to go back to time and again.
At times it can be hard to follow the processes described, with lines like "shooting two hundred and twenty volts / of hot augured steel, whining and thrashing, / into the stile, the stile hocking up lumps / of itself in the rout" yet despite the technical language, there is much to find that is new in this collection. ‘Turbine’ does what the best poetry does: brings the everyday into the realm of the significant wherein every detail is loaded with meaning, while the poet’s casual skill in revealing these significances makes us wonder why we wouldn’t have thought before how, at a wind turbine, air is coming to "sweet-talk batting blades". And no sooner has a higher level, some consciousness of nature, been hinted at, than the poet brings us back to earth by reminding us of the purpose these turbines serve, with two lovely little lines on ordinary human existence, where the electricity generated is "lighting up bedroom desks for / homework, heating the evening soups".
The second half of the collection moves towards the realm of nature poetry, which is a little disappointing, because White’s poems about construction and the love and effort that goes into buildings are really something new and remarkable. Still, even in his nature poems there are moments of language and imagery that are a genuine pleasure, as with lines like "[t]he sea’s feasting on a croissant of sand, / then gasping for it again". The poet’s love of fishing comes into more than a few poems, which is tempered by his respect and almost tender feelings for creatures whose eyes "flashed once into the heart / of the Atlantic and back". The poem ‘New Year’s Day’, in which the poet and a companion work quickly to remove a felled tree from the road before the sun sets and it becomes a danger to neighbours driving home, could be seen as the poet reflecting on his own work—not the craftsmanship of manual labour this time, but on this work, the work of writing. The narrator muses on how he could be less careful in his sawing of the tree into piles for his woodstove, focusing only on removing the tree from the road, but he is determined to "start this year as I intend to end it: / by not returning to old tasks half-done / when fresh ones claim attention easier". If White continues his poetic career in the way he has begun it, then it seems safe to say he is well on the way to becoming a writer to be reckoned with.
Colm Scully’s debut collection, What News, Centurions? also promises to bring us poetry from a unique viewpoint due to the poet’s experience and area of specialty, this time chemical engineering. Again, poetry becomes the door to places I previously had no comprehension of. Here is an abandoned pharmaceutical plant that is rich with the history of the human lives that were played out within its boundaries: "[t]he shifts that never spoke for years over a stolen sandwich", "the operator caught fishing off the pier, naked". Scully’s knowledge of science seems to also have provided fertile ground for the poet’s imagining of distant, dystopian futures in which all humans have died – wiped out by a virus of their own creation – and nature again begins to reclaim the earth. Whereas in John Liddy’s ‘The Beaten Track’, jewel-like remnants of nature in a modernised world are only glimpsed here and there, in Scully’s ‘Ten Tomorrows: number 9’, it is the opposite. Nature flourishes, with the only reminders of human life bobbing sadly along the surface of things, like the moored boats that still "lifted / and dropped with the ebb and flow", unaware of the cataclysmic changes around them that mean they will never again be put to use by human hands. Meanwhile, in ‘Life on Mars’ the dying relationship between two aliens is depicted as being not particularly different from how love can end between humans; looking towards Earth, the narrator muses on the things that could have been done differently, but in the end, love can, after all, "die anywhere".
The title poem, ‘What News, Centurions?’ is not dissimilar to George Harding’s bleak vision of his home town in ‘My Stolen City’. Scully paints for us a picture of present-day Cork City, in which "shambled skylines" vie with "[a]spiring towers" that amid older structures don’t "know their place". At the same time, though, the poem is half-celebration, half-examination of the Irish character – or maybe more specifically, the Cork character – and of how the city has changed or not changed; what there is still to love, and what to find fault with. Even as crowds happily celebrate football wins on the streets of Cork, they leave the way behind them "strewn with detritus". It’s an oddly objective poem, which is refreshing in its way.
Combined with this objectivity is a playful quality which surfaces a few times in this collection. A humorous irreverence comes to the fore in the poem ‘Culture Night’, in which the poet assumes a salty Cork persona and kicks off with the disdainful line "[c]ulture me arse". This playfulness is also evident in the poem ‘Jesus goes on Facebook’, a decision narrated by the son of God himself. In fact the poet successfully takes on a number of personas and guises throughout the collection – not least the already mentioned Martian lover – which is rare enough in poetry these days, which is a shame; so much material can be found in the practice of looking at the world through the eyes of others. Another rich source of inspiration comes through in how the poet skillfully imbues an inanimate object with emotion and history in ‘Large Pillar Candle’. The subject of the poem is a candle with seventy hours’ burn time, kept tucked in a corner of a beach-house when it’s not in use, only lit during summer nights when it is brought out onto the patio. The candle is addressed in the most compassionate of terms, the sensuality of it captured for us in lines such as "your wick massaged up". On an evening of a power cut, the candle is touchingly described as "[k]ing for a night"; later, the final waxy remnant of it is placed by its kind owner outside so it can "hear the sea" one last time.
But Scully is also willing to explore the realm of the personal in his poetry. "There are no war crimes in this memory" is a dreamlike exploration of a locality that the poet is intimately familiar with, the ordinary lanes and houses solidifying to a firm personal mythology from which the poet can draw inspiration. Such is the level of detail of the paths the poet walks that it reads like an origins poem; that here is where poetry began for him, although it is not explicit. ‘In a May Garden’ is a personal and touching account of the poet catching sight of himself in a window and thinking for a moment that it is his late father’s reflection. The way in which the poet combines the personal with the philosophical in this collection means that the final poem is particularly appropriate, culminating in the moving image of someone watching footage from a long-gone Earth, in which a child is "plucking soldiers from a hedge, / meadowsweet in the air, / going nowhere".
©2015 Róisín Kelly
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