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FOOL FOR POETRY CHAPBOOKS:
Thomas McCarthy reviews the 2016 prizewinning collections
from Victor Tapner & Tania Hershman.
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 Kavanagh 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. A new collection, Pandemonium, is due from Carcanet Press Poetry in 2016.
Banquet in the Hall of Happiness
(Southword Editions, 2016)
Buy from Southword Editions
Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open
(Southword Editions, 2016)
Buy from Southword Editions
These two books are winners of the Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competitionand have, therefore, a mark of quality that is already guaranteed. All competitions are a kind of filter and whether we hate them or love them they call talent forward and shine a light upon it. This has to be good. Competition is neither democratic nor kind, but it does favour strong work and distinctive voices; and this is what serious readers of poetry yearn for: verbal distinctiveness and imaginative strength. Both of the poets here have strength in spades, though their sensibilities and even their poetic method couldn’t be more different. Hershman is a poet of the meditative long moment, Tapner’s thought is restless and edgy.
Victor Tapner, author of Flatlands and Waiting to Tango, is already winner of the East Anglian Book Award and the Cardiff International Poetry Prize. But he remains the poet of edges and elsewheres, of temporary stops and fleeting moments. He brings a seriousness to everything that he quickly leaves behind, in the manner of Fergus Allen or C.H. Sisson, voyaging determinedly through an inadequate world. The great danger of Western voyaging is the real imaginative danger of orientalism, a tourism of sensibility, but Tapner overcomes this danger by getting inside the described situation. The barman-narrator in ‘Dark Glasses’ or the cinema-usher in ‘Director’s Cut’ are examples of such technical successes—
“Sometimes, before I sweep
under the seats,
I sit at the back
Behind the empty rows
Reading the credits.”
This is his best point of view. The narrator is tangentially involved, the observer-poet devoid of touristic masculinities. Like the Ambassador and his wife taking tea, the back-stop of more observed Orients is “a gallery of lives / these minds inhabit,” the gallery being, in this case, photographs of Hemingway, Coward, Nehru and Mountbatten on a hotel wall. Tapner turns empire on its head by making history of its trivia. The waiter in ‘Coffee Shop’ has a real, Cavafyesque moment—
“When I lean over
with his cup
my aprons tightens,
just a touch.”
‘Business Card’ deepens this love narrative “I finger the fine italic type/ as though I’m tracing the braille/ of the shaving line/ around your mouth”. This, I think, is as good as it gets in love poetry, yet it is tentative and fleeting, a kind of unfinished dialling of a telephone number, as Tapner himself puts it, brilliantly.
As in ‘Dark Glasses,’ the world that Tapner maps is predominantly oriental. He second-guesses this world with all the confidence of a Financial Times journalist, sure of his touch, certain that he has recorded faithfully the search for happiness, or self-knowledge, in the Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) or the subject in ‘Girl with Sideburns’, one of those who hook the tourists while “hiding their bruises”. This is risky subject-matter for a white male European and Tapner seeks an imaginative redemption by alternating between an inner and outer view of this tragic life of an Asia trapped in hotel towels. The irony and cruelty of this world is not lost to him, as he says, in many ways homeward-bound at the ‘Dead Sea’—“This tideless waste,/ they’ve learnt,/ breeds neither fish nor weed,/ though the gleam can trick// migrating flocks into stopping/ for the cruellest drink.”
Tania Hershman, living in Bristol, has been published already by that mighty Shearsman crew as well as in Magma and The Stinging Fly. Her deliberate story-telling skill as well as a terrific sense of humour comes across in the very first poem here ‘And What We Know About Time’. The subject matter is her father and his clock with a failed alarm. Her father takes the clock apart and repairs it successfully: “It worked// perfectly for the next ten years, which was odd,/ given the sixteen horological components/ my father couldn’t fit back in.” The poem is a wise meditation on time, time that even when fractured is still passing. In ‘Dreams Of A Tea Seller’ she continues her lovely blackguarding, presenting us with someone who wants to exchange Oolong and Lady Grey for builder’s cement, builder’s trousers; and a hard hat where builder’s brew will be “too milky// and too sweet for you”. One can see that it’s the “you” not the tea that’s being rejected here.
In ‘The Observer Paradox’ she admits that looking is not owning, that poetic perception is not necessarily an active thing—
‘What’s a poem to a person
with a room full of boxes
and boxes of unsold
and unwanted knives?’
“imagine/ how far/ we might get” she imagines in ‘Nothing Here is Wild’ after she’s offered us a surreal journey without food, drink or taxes. Her poems are, in this true meditative sense, are a way of escape through doors of perception. There is a calm centre to her work, a meditative and mediating core, from which the poem expands outward. Parallel with this persistent sense of escape, or evisceration, is that other, harder, technical, formal ambition in the work: Hershman is not afraid to try it on, to stretch the line, to demand a visual awareness in her readers. The spacing and fracturing of phrases in ‘Jigsawed’ or ‘Insomnia’ forces us out into the open field, Black Mountain style, demanding that the weight of every phrase is felt and not rolled one into the other. Thus, the twice used ‘The astronauts can’t sleep’ and ‘in zero gravity’ forces everything else to float and weave and dip until we crash against the night perception “that the Bear” …. “is listening”.
Her prose poems ‘Hold The Baby’ and ‘Conversations With A Taxi Driver, Falmouth,’ are the least story-full in all her work, but they contain a key to her method. Is the latter poem about a father, a son, a General, a leaden mast or a taxi-driver? We must decide, but in the deciding we’ve succumbed to the inner, mystical narrative; we’ve come closer to the poetry. In the former poem, the mother of a Jenny or a James also seeks a means of escape, seeks to become detached, without wires or burdens, seeks to drop the baby: “Not hard, not on the floor, just not to hold it anymore.” Which brings us back to the start, to a clock without a functioning alarm: it’s not that things end, in Hershman’s world, it’s just that even with vital components missing, life goes on.
©2016 Thomas McCarthy
Thomas McCarthy at Carcanet Press
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