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on The Yellow House:

Matthew Geden reviews

 

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Matthew Geden ...............

 

 

eThe Yellow House

William Wall
Salmon Poetry, 2017
€12

ISBN: 9781910669877

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The yellow house of the title of William Wall’s latest collection refers partly to the famous house in Arles where Vincent van Gogh and, for a short time, also Paul Gauguin lived in 1888. Van Gogh’s painting of it is on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but the house itself was demolished after being severely damaged in an Allied bombing raid during the Second World War. More personally, the yellow house refers to Wall’s own former residence in Whitegate, Cork which was also destroyed, due to a gas explosion in 2008. These two houses bookend the collection which contains elegies on the themes of loss and displacement amongst others.

 

Wall is a highly accomplished poet, novelist and short story writer, excelling at all three disciplines which is a rare feat for any writer. His numerous awards include the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Sean O’Faoláin Prize and the Virginia Faulkner Award whilst he has been longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize. He has translated from the Italian and maintains a specific interest in Italy, attending festivals and giving readings there. Furthermore, at the beginning of 2017 he became the first European to win the Drue Heinz Literature Prize issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press for a book of short stories.

 

The Yellow House then is an offering from a writer who is at the top of his game and this is evident from the confidence of the writing. Wall’s poetry is an impressionistic style of free verse which moves swiftly through time and place. There is no punctuation, allowing the poems a free flow so that they seem to run into each other as the book becomes one long meditation. There are plenty of rhymes including a nice pairing of “aplomb” and “boom” in the opening poem, “The Yellow House”. The overall effect is to link the past and the present as well as the private and public worlds.

 

The first poem begins and ends with the explosion of the house where Wall grew up. This event elicits a combination of memories which are occasionally thrown into contrast by the modern world. The year 2008 was not only the year of the house being blown up, but also marked the time when the Celtic Tiger came crashing down. This latter event is not explicitly mentioned here, but it remains at the edges of the poem and in remarks such as , “where the house should be / a development opportunity” and “today is for the kindness of markets / regrets and dividends”. The past is romanticised as a time of “love” and “all that stuff about our fellow man”, but as the poem progresses this idea is undercut by “pain”, “crying” and the deaths of the poet’s parents. The past is, as Wall puts it in a reference back to the destruction of his childhood home: a bomb in the best of places a mine in the heart “The Yellow House”

 

The funereal tone of this poem continues in five elegies for friends and family including the Cork poet Patrick Galvin and the American poet Amiri Baraka. The sense of loss is not restricted to individuals but also encompasses ways of life as is evident in “In the Greek Theatre”, the first section draws parallels between Syracuse in Sicily and Donegal, “all the abandoned villages / hillsides lined by the plough”. Sicily is also the site of a new emigration disaster as it is a landing point for many refugees travelling from various parts of Africa.

 

Wall is not afraid to tackle big political issues and at the heart of this new collection are concerns with displacement and the modern refugee crisis. He is, however, aware of the disparity between poetry and the real life suffering going on. In “The Ballad of Lampedusa” he writes:

 

and I sit by a window translating a poem about people drowning half-way to Africa almost in Tunisia in Lampedusa

 

“The Ballad of Lampedusa”

 

Meanwhile, “the dead came ashore like drowned birds”. This is very much a collection for our times, a meditation on the destruction of the past and the way the same problems nevertheless return on a cyclical basis. Yet, there is hope in the love poems towards the end of the book and also in the act of writing itself. As Wall says in “The Ship of Theseus”, “I remake myself / in every new phrase”.

 

 

©2018 Frank Golden

 

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