Wolves and the Madhouse:
Roisin Kelly reviews new collections by Daragh Breen & Graham Allen
Roisin Kelly was born in Belfast, raised in Leitrim, and currently lives in Cork City. Her first chapbook of poetry, Rapture, was published by Southword Editions in 2016. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The Stinging Fly, Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear 2016) and in The Irish Times after it was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. https://roisinkelly.com/
Photo cred: Simon Curran
What the Wolf Heard
(Shearsman Books, 2016)
Buy from Shearsman Books
The Madhouse System
(New Binary Press, 2016)
Buy from New Binary Press
Tarbert Island; 1834, 18 metres, white light 2 seconds on,
2 seconds off, red light West over Bowline Rock;
Fort Point; 1841, 16 metres, white flash every 2 seconds;
red flashes to South East
This short paragraph is one of several that pepper the first section of Daragh Breen's new collection, each describing various lighthouses on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. These vignettes explain whether each lighthouse is active, how long each beam of light lasts, and how many seconds elapse between each flash. They are almost like poems in themselves and are a perfect starting point for Breen to write about the wild and desolate coast that the towers protect.
A familiarity with some of the locales that feature in these poems is not necessary to appreciate Breen’s transformative power with language. But readers who have passed the iconic statue of Christ facing out to sea on the road to Dun Quin in Kerry will find themselves re-confronted with the figure in all its portentous glory, godliness, and torment above a raging sea:
a white alabaster Christ crucified in the rain
overhangs a sheer cliff
with the grief of waves
keening against the cold stone face below
These lines also demonstrate Breen’s talent in describing the ocean. It has such power and symbolism, has been written about so many times—simultaneously as famililar to us as our hands and as mysterious as it ever was—that it is surely one of the most difficult things to capture in language. Yet Breen is adept at conjuring the known while also showing it to us in new ways, as with the image of seagulls lifting from the waves "like blown snow" and bringing "a blush of whiteness / to the cold dark cliff stone" where they land.
Here, too, are the boglands that have concerned so many of Ireland's writers, and it’s to Breen’s credit that he finds a new way to bring them into 21st-century literature. Do the"coffin-still" bogpools symbolise the death of a certain way of life, or the lack of further meaning to be dug from the bog, or what could still be risen from its apparent tranquillity? The next lines surely favour the last interpretation, when the colours of a bog sunset become a vivid "fall of Japanese sacred fish."
But the poet does not avoid acknowledging the human element to this landscape—in fact, he both celebrates and mourns the ways in which people have tried to survive on our wild and wind-battered coasts. The quality of light cast by storms over the Kerry coast is compared to that of the travelling cinemas that once passed through the towns nearby. It's a gentle reminder of people’s need to make their own magic wherever they are in the world, even if their daily survival is dependent on tides and winds and whether the beacons of the slim towers they construct can indeed save them.
This is a collection that reveals to us our country as pure language, as if humans had written on photographs of the sea and the land in neat black letters: we see a "murder of currachs" heaving through the waves, a low moon that is "a sea-chalked buoy waiting for the tide". And these reminders of human life are everywhere, some so ancient that they are part of the natural landscape itself, as with a hinterland "pocked with cairns / in which the winter sun sets daily." Even Fastnet lighthouse becomes organic and ancient, described as a "white marrow of bone", and carrying in its very pulse of light all the histories of the lives it has saved and failed to save:
The swinging brightness of its light contains the fossils
of all the storms that have trampled through
its breached darkness as it is carouselled
through the winds like a glinting talisman
The threat of nature is never diminished nor made light of, but summoned in all its sublime terror: the sea is "in its drowning colour" and the night "can be heard loudly calving storms in its own dark" –and it’s in this context that the recurrence of both pagan and Christian imagery and language begins to make sense. When faced with nature’s devastation and mercilessness, what else can we do but pray? A lighthouse is itself a type of prayer, with its thin beam of light striking the dark. Yet nature also has the ability to empathasise with us, as when a "wake-moon, / low, glassy and globular" comes "to sit with the drowned."
This section ends with a paragraph in tribute to high tide, which begins at the bays and the coasts of the west and minute by minute moves south, from Clifden and the Aran Islands down to raise "the dying trawlers of Castletownbere", to sweep past the "white wingless angel" of Baltimore Beacon, and finally to flood past "the industrial ghost pylons and steel ruins" of Cork Harbour. It’s unexpectedly moving, like a story about where we come from, our past and future tied together by a tide that has risen to touch us for twice a day as it has done for all of our days, and will do for all the days left to come.
After this mellow, dreamlike meditation on life at the edge come poems that are more gruesome and surreal in nature. A boy in Aberdeen is shod like a horse. Long knives are birthed "under dead milk moons / on the animal of our backs". Witch hazel grows out of a woman’s stomach and cocoons her whole body. A man returned from war wears a horse’s head in bed every night next to his wife. These unsettling visions reach their climax with the magical realism of ‘Summer Solstice’, in which a new river arrives to a town (eels having drank the old one dry) "on the back of five lorries, / cross-sectioned in five enormous wooden crates." A crow’s face is stitched onto that of a magician’s assistant, and later onto that of a piglet which is paraded down the street on a leash. Less macabre is ‘All Hallows’, which eases us over a precipice below which shoals of mackerel doze among the roots of trees and goats graze on stars.
Then there are wolves. As a dying wolf is given the last rites, her pelt is peeled back to reveal an old woman. A sky is described as "winterwolf". There is Ned Kelly, growing up in the Australian outback and never having known the country of his mother's stories:
When he was a child
his mother led him to believe
that he could hear
what the last wolf in Ireland heard;
the sound of night’s ship being launched
What really stood out for me in this collection is Breen’s obvious, unshakeable love for his homeland; for its lighthouses, its bogland, its myths. Even the colour of sunset that lights up the interior of a plane is compared to that of gorse, bringing to mind its scent of "the cheap macaroon bars that you / loved so much." This is Ireland as it has always really been: eternally at our heels, calling to our souls with its lonely lighthouse beams, and poets like Breen asking us to imagine what the last wolf in Ireland might have heard.
Graham Allen’s second collection, The Madhouse System, is also concerned with the land we call home but these poems are less romanticised. The blurb explains that the collection "radically engages with the lunacies of what it takes to be a dark hour, in the hope that poetry might still make a difference." Perfect for this darkest of political climates, which the first poem in the collection tackles head-on: "We didn’t win the day. / The heroine died." Nuclear missiles are launched and no aliens descend from the heavens to save the day.
It’s a sobering poem in the light of what changes our world has undergone in the last few months. No one can say to what extent Allen is being decidedly political, but if we listen we will surely hear how the most seemingly innocuous poems currently being written inevitably reflect the mood of the age. And this is a poem addressed to and reflective of the times we live in rather than the circus of politics inflicted on us daily. It is to such poems that we will turn for the story of ourselves. It is this poem’s final image of a man weeping ‘into a small bowl of cold soup’ that has the power to stay with us, more so than any scathing portrait of a political figure or lines bewailing the state of the nation.
Thankfully, hope prevails (albeit temporarily) in the second poem. Winter has passed, and springtime has brought with it new life. Mired as we are at the end of winter, it is natural to grasp and hold as precious the hope offered to us in this piece, much as the return of light spreads itself "like water fills a tank." We too see the "thousand things [the poet has] no words for" that are beginning to grow in the walled gardens. And who in these dark times could not agree with what seems too frightening to accept, but too truthful to deny: that "somehow, / we are going to have to start over again"?
In the collection’s titular poem, ‘The Madhouse System’, a voice warns us that "[i]f you could see what I have seen, / English Bastilles, madhouse dungeons, / you would think yourselves less secure / from the bloodied hands of evil men". It’s another timely reminder that the evils of history are never as far behind us as we think, and that the voices of those who inhabit the uneasy space between past and present are worth listening to. "Let me describe your nation." It is almost unbearable to look, but here is the uncomfortable truth of how things currently stand in our world:
Husbands incarcerate their wives,
wives in turn sell off their husbands,
hired informers cash in rumour,
while brother against brother rages
through the land, where money kills nature,
all blood bonds and justice;
vigilant, mad doctors line the horizon.
On to the ‘The Second Law’, which is an acknowledgement of the unhappy, Cassandra-esque fate that awaits poets and other such predictors of darkness: no one wants to hear "that darkness has already won / and just needs to claim its prize". Perhaps in their hearts they already know, but it is the poet’s burden to tumble down "the twisting funnel of fate" just a little ahead of everyone else, like "a school kid on a diving board showing off." He will see what lies ahead, and his warnings will go unheeded—but perhaps he can call back to us and tell us there is hope. Can there be any way back from the grim reality we have made for ourselves? We need hope more than ever, but do we deserve it?
In the very next poem, Allen informs us that he has not yet found that hope, although his belief in its existence is almost enough to sustain us. Someday, he promises, he "will open the book / that no one has yet learnt to read" and in it he will find a "promise of freedom, / equality, friendship". But first he must continue to develop his talent and wisdom to the point where has learnt "the gentle, / generous art of storytelling". It is safe to say that The Madhouse System is a fine example of such storytelling, despite Allen's admission that he feels there is still much to learn.
‘Celtic Twilight’ returns to that well-trodden poetic path through post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, a theme about which I’ve expressed my dislike in previous reviews of other poetry collections. However, this is the first time I’ve asked myself why I have such an aversion to it. I think it’s because there is nothing new to say about the boom and crash, if there ever was. It’s because you’re unlikely to find anyone to disagree that it was all a bit of a shambles and a shame. Why then write these poems in which Ireland’s "sense of responsibility / has been taken over by a European department" and has been unfriended by karma on Facebook? You may as well write into the void as address this sentiment to the only sort of people who are likely to read poetry in the first place. You’re preaching to the choir, man!
Then again, ‘The Purpose of Love Poetry in Twenty-First Century Ireland’ gives me every reason to eat my words, as this is a Celtic Tiger poem that is very good indeed. We’ve all passed by the pale shadows of ghost estates, but Allen reveals the driveway of a house in one such estate in an especially poignant fashion:
where no human eye will ever say goodbye,
where no photograph will ever be snapped
or surprise birthday party spill outside
But at the end of the poem comes that which is most elusive: hope, in the form of Japanese knotweed, which has been described as the world’s most invasive species but is still beautiful for that, and in this context symbolises a welcome triumph of nature over human folly.
Allen’s full poetic power is wielded in ‘Not You’, whose portrayal of a lonely period of life is almost too heartbreaking too read in its descriptions of other tenants in the building having a row; an unread novel; a daughter not seen in months; an outdated graduation photo of the author; and a row of fossils on the mantelpiece about which "[y]ou have forgotten everything / you ever knew."
Its quietly desperate poignancy demonstrates what a skilled writer Allen is, which is also apparent in the many beautiful ways he finds to describe and address something so innocuous as the moon. Whereas once the moon’s "violence made us seasonable, / apocalyptic coitus churning the soil", now it is "full of goodbyes, / quietly loosening the knots from its wrists." In ‘Stepping Stone’ the poet implores the setting moon, "Will you take us with you when you go?" If only. We are as powerless to leave this world as the moon is to cease returning to it.
Towards the end of the collection, an elegy for David Bowie is an unexpected delight in its portrayal of the deceased popstar as paving "our footpath with tiny pearls" and smoking "his cigarette like an ivory pen". In this poem, a manifesto of hope that might never have come finally reveals itself, fiery and unapologetic in its demand that we "[d]o everything as if the world was still fixable" and "[i]nvent a galaxy you can live in." These are the words we need to hear in times like these. I am glad that Allen has seen fit to tell us what we are in danger of forgetting.
©2017 Roisin Kelly
'Oranges' at Poetry Foundation
Poetry in The Irish Times
'Robert's Cove' in The Harpoon Review
More work by Roisin in Southword