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Virtual Tides & Fisher Cats:

Róisín Kelly reviews new poetry collections from Paul Casey & Afric McGlinchey.

 

 

Roisin Kelly

Roisin Kelly was born in Belfast and raised in Co. Leitrim. After a year as a handweaver on an island in Mayo, and an MA in Writing at the National University of Ireland, Galway, she found her way to Cork City where she currently lives and writes. Her poems have appeared in Poetry ChicagoThe Timberline ReviewThe Irish Literary ReviewSynaesthesiaAestheticaThe Penny DreadfulBare FictionThe Baltimore ReviewBansheeThe Butcher’s DogPoethead, and Best New British and Irish Poets (Eyewear 2016). In 2016 she was selected along with eleven other poets for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series, and will appear as the featured poet in The Stinging Fly’s Summer 2016 issue. Follow her on Twitter @RoisinKelly24

 

 

 

 

Virtual Tides

Virtual Tides

Paul Casey

(Salmon Poetry, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-38-9

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

 

 

Ghost of the Fisher Cat

Ghost of the Fisher Cat

Afric McGlinchey

(Salmon Poetry, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-910669-39-6

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

 

 

 

It’s impressive that Paul Casey has found time, despite his tireless work on behalf of Cork’s poetry scene – most notably, his running of the much-loved Ó Bhéal poetry nights in the Long Valley Bar – to write and put out Virtual Tides, his second collection. The title, which marries a force of the natural world with an element of what might be called civilization, indicates something about what kind of poems will follow. Casey is fascinated with both nature and the place of twenty-first technology in our lives. While finding the pull of such technology irresistible, he cannot help but question what its hold over the modern world will mean for nature, for humans, and for himself.

            ‘Quiet Calf’ is written from the perspective of a piece of vellum. This is an appropriate persona for Casey to take on, given his desire to explore how humans have taken advantage of nature in the name of knowledge and art. Such an example can be seen in an artefact more than a thousand years old, the calfskin Book of Kells with its colourful, elaborate illustrations. If Casey’s poem isn’t explicitly about the Book of Kells, it is about something very like it.

            But here we find no condemnation of civilisation’s triumph over nature, the destruction of something beautiful (an animal) to produce a beautiful object. Rather, this is a quietly joyful celebration of this old order of things, and the calfskin’s voice rises in proclamation of it: “Carry the jasmines, the saffrons of our time, calcite prophecies”. The calfskin welcomes its own fate, inviting us to scrape it down “lunellum-thin as the wide moon blade”. The tender affinity Casey perceives between civilization and nature is further reflected in a line that declares calligraphy to be “the true consort of vellum”.

            From vellum to smartphones: Casey pens an ode to his phone with warmth and humour. Just because a calfskin book is old does not necessarily make it a more valuable human creation than a modern tool that is too often dismissed as superficial and heralded as the downfall of society. What else, Casey reminds us, is at once a “backup brain”, a “personal typist”, a “namer of stars”? And his imagination takes off among the stars in the poem ‘a small measure’, in which he informs us there are more stars than grains of sand on earth. “70 thousand million, / million, million stars”, in fact—a bare, scientific truth, but in its rhythm and imagery it’s pure poetry.

            This number also happens to be how many molecules there are in ten drops of water, the poet goes on to inform us. So if one were to shed eleven teardrops, this equates to the creation of more worlds than there are stars in the known universe. It’s a sign of Casey’s skill to so quickly and wonderfully sketch out a comparison of human tears to the amount of stars and sand grains. We begin to understand that the poet’s mind takes him out among the stars, but equally it thrives down on earth among human life and experience. How else could he make us believe in such aching beauty in a universal signifier of emotion as ordinary as tears?

            I have to confess to a strong affection I hold for that most controversial of structures: Cork’s Elysian tower, enduring monument to Celtic Tiger madness. But I like crossing the footbridge over the South Link at night and looking over at its neon-lit spire, the several occupied apartments shining sadly above the city. Casey’s poem about the Elysian, ‘For Pointing at the Sun’, displays an ambiguity about the building that’s fitting for a structure that has proved so divisive.

            There’s no denying the stupidity inherent in ever constructing it in the first place, but Casey draws out the beauty in such folly: those unoccupied apartments are “a thousand silent lightboxes empty as lives en suite”. And again we see the poet’s preoccupation with human life’s sometimes-uneasy coexistence with the natural world:

 

There’s sand from the rock of Barra in the concrete

from Ballingeary, Inniscarra, Atlantic in the glass

 

In building the Elysian, we might have aspired to touch the sky, brush its clouds—or tried to give the impression that the sky aspires to come down to our level: Casey describes the tower as a “sky splinter” that has fallen to “puncture the floodplain”. But nature has existed long before we did and most likely will continue after we are gone, and the Lee’s waters, on whose banks the Elysian was built, will merely “laugh into history’s estuary”.

            I have written before about my dislike for nearly all Celtic Tiger-themed poems that writers’ are so fond of these days. Usually they are unsubtle and preachy. Not so with Casey’s version, with his focus on the imagery of reflections, mirrors, illusions – shimmering like the tower’s glass walls – and the wry humour inherent in his passing reference to “fulacht-fiadh inspired Jacuzzis”. We have come a long way from our pagan, Bronze Age beginnings. But some things never change: in the river waters that lie darkly alongside our lit-up city, nature is always with us—the communing of and interdependence between sky, earth and city is painted for us in the poem’s closing line, in which “[a] moon frogleaps across a seal’s back into the neon subconscious”.

            One of the most famous metaphors for the Irish subconscious is encapsulated by Heaney’s bog poems, which describe a land where every unearthed layer “seems camped on before”. Happily, the poetic conversation about the powerful meaning symbolised by the bog and its black, sinister pools didn’t come to an end with Heaney. Casey continues the tradition with ‘Boghole’, in which a man almost drowns in one such pool but for “the tight wrists of ‘Fionnan’”, who is sharply invoked with the italicized “oh purple god of moor-grass”.

            No one heard the man’s calls for help on the day day he almost drowned in the bogpool. “Bogholes in the city are invisible,” the poet goes on to reflect, but despite the people around you, still no one will notice if you’re about to drown in one: “eyes everywhere, and so few hands”. It’s a poem that again draws on the poet’s main concerns, those being the differences and similarities between country and city; the complicated relationship between man and nature. After all, nature nearly killed the poem’s character, yet he describes himself as being rescued by a manifestation of the bog itself.

            There are some fine relationship poems included in this collection, which also take their inspiration from the natural world. ‘Inside the Bonsai’ opens with an intriguing, lovely little image:

 

You visit me inside the bonsai

together we can hear the secateurs

clipping around and around us precisely

 

There is so much evoked here in so few lines: imminent danger, shared comfort; and the idea of someone visiting the narrator in a bonsai tree is so wonderful that I wish I’d thought of it. And the rhythm of that line “clipping around and around us precisely” is subtly masterful—we, too, hear the secateurs getting closer, and can feel the comfort of that other presence as danger approaches. Danger and love are also intertwined in ‘Last Wildflower’ in which the poet imagines walking the Cliffs of Moher, naming his a long-held fear of falling over the edge. He is not only afraid of falling, he is afraid of his fear of falling, so much so that he has pictured already his tumble backwards, still “clutching burren blossoms […] picked for you”.

 

But writing as I walk now

should this ledge crumble

please know you were

the last wildflower

on my mind

 

Out of fear comes love. Out of suffering comes art. The poem reminds us of both of these universal truths in a display of skill that is evident throughout the whole of Virtual Tides. In this way Casey makes good on the calfskin’s prayer near the start of the book to “deliver whole / these few sweet heartbeats, these glimpses of humanity”.

 

            Also from Salmon Poetry comes another accomplished writer’s second collection: Ghost of the Fisher Cat by Afric McGlinchey, following The Lucky Star of Hidden Things. McGlinchey’s titles instantly catch the eye as well as hook the corner of the mind that wants to know more about the fisher cat or a star that signals the coming of an African spring with its appearance in the night sky. McGlinchey’s first collection took much of its inspiration from the poet’s upbringing in Africa, while Ghost of the Fisher Cat is, its blurb states, interested in exploring the tenuous boundary “between the fantastical and the real”.

            ‘Cat Music’ is a startling, effective poem to open with. It consists of two-line stanzas, but the entire poem is composed of one run-on sentence that describes how a drowned cat is deftly skinned and crafted into strings for an instrument. From the very first stanza, McGlinchey’s confidence with language and line breaks is acutely displayed:

 

A drownling is lifted

from a rain barrel,

 

dark as a slick of oil;

stripped with a blade

 

Despite the somewhat gruesome scene being described, the vowel sounds are delicious. This handling and moulding of language that turns something brutal into something beautiful – so similar to Casey’s ‘Quiet Calf’ – is crystallised in the poem’s last lines, wherein the catgut instrument makes music that is “so intricate / and astonishing, / you would think / the animal had arisen”.

             For someone (me) who would love to write a Paris poem (to write one well, that is), ‘Souvenir’ is a joy. Here is a city where one can “let fingers trail” along railings hung with love-padlocks on the Pont des Artes; here is the delicate “crêpe de sucre de citron”. This simple sequence of French words to describe what is basically a pancake suddenly seems as delicious as the thing itself. Likewise, the sound of what is probably an ordinary street, the “Rue de Chat qui Pêche”, is somehow mysterious and wonderful in this poet’s hands.

            A little internet research reveals that this street is the scene of the myth from which Ghost of the Fisher Cat derives its title. The Rue de Chat qui Pêche is the narrowest street in Paris (maybe so not so ordinary, then) that leads down to the Seine. In the fifteenth century, some students were convinced that the apothecary’s enormous cat that fished expertly with one paw was the devil, and killed it—but the cat’s ghost returned to continue fishing from the riverbank.          

            In ‘Familiar’, a poem that expands further on the myth of the fisher cat, the narrator expresses fear and disgust towards Dom Perlet, the apothecary, and the cat that follows him like a familiar. The voice could be from any era in human history: it’s of one who fears the unknown, who would rather burn something strange than try to understand it. But McGlinchey can’t resist slipping some gorgeous language into the narrator’s description of the cat:

 

Look how the feline curves its ears backward,

scooping sound from behind it—is it listening?

 

One of the things I enjoy most in poetry is when myths or stories are used as the writer’s starting point and then, through language and craft, become something unique that is entirely the poet’s own. McGlinchey performs this task with understated skill. And many poets have described many places, but it’s not often that on reading them I feel such a desire to visit these locations. Now I long to go to the Rue de Chat qui Pêche and see for myself its mural of a man and his black cat, which also provides the background for the book’s cover. (Sadly, a paragraph at the back of the book explains that the mural no longer exists.)

            McGlinchey knows how to present images as a gift to the reader. Cats “compose the dark”; her lover “becomes a lion under the glassy moon”. ‘Confluence’ describes the nature of a distant relationship between two people in stark but beautiful images, recalling the works of Hammershøi. We can almost see the man against “the window’s blazing snap of light”, or the delicate hollow of the woman’s clavicle, like a wishbone, that “gives luck / only when broken”.

            ‘On Receiving a Letter from a Soldier after his Death’ convinced me that McGlinchey is as much a painter as a poet—it just so happens that her medium is words. There’s more than a hint of Vermeer in these lines: “Every window shows a body / moving. A man pours from a jug”. In this particular painting-poem, the colour of leaves on the street’s trees are the ‘milk-green’ of a corpse. The domesticity of “milk-green” recalls the “butter-yellow” of Eavan Boland’s kitchen window lighting up a suburban dusk in ‘This Moment’. Boland’s child running to its mother arms is also recalled in McGlinchey’s woman “[hastening] in the half-light / to a capsized child / beneath a swing”. And, like Boland, McGlinchey is reveals to us these bittersweet currents that run like a river “rushing into trees” below every step we take in this world of dead soldiers and dead plants on a city balcony.

            Any poem that takes its starting point from a quote of Homer Simpson’s is okay by me. “Young lady, in this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!” he shouts at Lisa when she invents a perpetual motion machine. That line will never fail to make me laugh. But then it’s a pleasure to read on to the love poem that the quote inspired—an outcome that that particular Simpsons episode’s writer surely never envisaged. As the narrator goes forward “into the big bang / of first love”, she finds that love is like landing “soft as a cat, / on a red-brick ledge, / among African violets”. The narrator’s breasts, in the hands of her lover, are “newly-found / planets”; the touch of him is enough to ensure that she burns “for decades”. What a simple, astonishing little piece.   

            McGlinchey knows both how to open a poem with lines that make you thirsty for more (“If I follow footprints to a future memory, / I find you”) as well as how to create a last verse that demands several re-readings, existing as it does both as an end to a poem and in its own luminous bubble. This is evident in the closing stanza of ‘Fin de Siecle’:

 

As for this downpour of starfish

in your wheelbarrow, plant them

in red waterbeds, before the director cuts

to a grenade on the porch.

 

If I don’t quite know what these lines mean, their perfection is unimpeded. The imagery is surreal, the rhythm confidently measured; and the fact that these lines are used to end a poem that is called ‘Fin de Siecle' (End of the Century), hints at some significance beyond themselves—and what’s more, persuades the reader of the existence of that deeper meaning.

            Towards the end of the collection, the titular poem provides something of an explanation of why McGlinchey writes, as well as how. A silver fish in the gutter may or may not be proof of the existence of the ghost of the fisher cat, but what matters is the way in which you decide to perceive it.

 

Like fauna between glacial layers,

twilight need offer nothing

more than the power

 

of imagination

 

The narrator urges the reader to “observe / for yourself” the proof, the dead fish—and there! The cat itself is disappearing swiftly into the shadows. If we didn’t see it, that’s to be expected because “[it] requires a certain leap of your own / to jump out of one world / and into another”. In other words, for those who turned around too late to see the elusive fisher cat, a writer like McGlinchey is there to describe such a thing on our behalf, and to offer us a glimpse into the strange, wonderful world she inhabits.

 

©2016 Róisín Kelly

 

 

Author Links

 

Róisín Kelly poems at Poethead

Work by Róisín Kelly at Poetry Foundation

Poems by Róisín Kelly in the Harpoon Review

More work by Róisín Kelly in Southword

 

 

 

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