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Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Guest Review: Wilkinson on Smith and Johnston

Ben Wilkinson reviews
Kairos by Barbara Smith
&
The Oracle Room by Fred Johnston

In recent years, perhaps unsurprisingly, many new Irish and northern Irish poets have started to emerge: Colette Bryce, Nick Laird, Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis, Justin Quinn, Caitriona O'Reilly, and Kevin Higgins, to name but a few prominent examples. The next generation, then, seem naturally intent on setting about developing from and upon the work of their much lauded precursors, including such luminous talents at Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon, and of course, Seamus Heaney. But for a new poet, is such a rich heritage both a blessing and a curse? For while on the one hand it may be encouraging to have such a stock of successful work, predecessors and able contemporaries to draw upon, on the other, does it not make the challenge of claiming a poetic terrain and originality of one's own all the more difficult?

Kairos, Barbara Smith's first full collection, is a quiet sort of book, focusing as it does on the everyday, the familial and the domestic. Early on, the sonnet "Roosters" sets a recurrent scene with its nostalgic memories of the poet's grandmother preparing potatoes, describing how she "used to soak the spuds / making it easy to peel them later […] / humming all the while / a medley of Moore's Almanac Songs." Here, the turn in the sonnet (revealing a close understanding and deft use of the form) brings the scene to the present: the poet, now "steeping [his or her] potatoes", describes the Irish Roosters as "scaly and red", as opposed to the grandmother's "soft Queens", as he or she "split[s] them with a long, broad knife, / rins[ing] them down and leav[ing] them by for dinner."

While the poem may be quiet and unassuming at first, then, seeming to offer little more than a pleasant domestic scene, Smith works in well-crafted images to mark a tension and a distance between narrator and grandmother: the latter is mute apart from her reserved "humming", and the former can only recall her through a quiet domestic chore. Was the relationship between the two a happy one or not? The suggestions are subtle: the "long scars" of the Roosters, the "broad knife", the red Irish potatoes as opposed to the soft, English Queens. There is a division: perhaps personal, perhaps generational, perhaps partisan, but the poem seems reluctant to reveal it and, quite rewardingly, the reader must work for it.

"Roosters" is the strongest of a number of poems that take cooking and domestic chores as starting points from which to explore wider and weightier personal and emotional issues. "Watery Prophecy'' and ''Mrs Mop Sings the Blues'', for example, are similar poems which work well as songs of domestic tension and extended metaphors for rebirth and renewal, as in the latter's ''things that I no longer need, or those that went astray – / largely like the thoughts in my own mind.'' But unfortunately, pieces such as ''Sang Réal'' and ''The Garden of Earthly Delights'' carry themselves off with less imaginative flair.

In fact, it must be said that Kairos is a slightly baggy collection: there are a rich variety of poems within its pages, but like too many cooks spoiling the broth, a small number of weaker poems could have been axed by a less compromising and more demanding editor, making for a more honed and impressive end result. ''S.O.S'' would definitely remain a keeper: a succinct, rhythmical and well-executed weighing up of the virtual against the genuine that ends with the resonant consolations of the ''valid, sticky'' world we inhabit.

So too with ''Namesake'', where a touching poem about pregnancy and childbirth is delivered with an impressive economy of sentiment. Religion is also approached with craft, care and intelligence: ''Jesus!'' is a bold and imaginative poem that shocks with its stark, electrified images. Overall, then, Smith is a talented poet, and Kairos lives up to its ancient Greek title, delivering poems that exploit seemingly ordinary and everyday moments for all of their emotional, social, and often near-magical complexities. Her future work will definitely be worth looking out for.

And so from an emerging Irish poet to a somewhat more established one.

Fred Johnston's new collection, The Oracle Room, is the latest publication in a prolific writing career, what with four novels and eight previous poetry collections behind him. Beautifully produced by Wales-based Cinnamon Press and comprising of nearly 100 pages of varied and abundant writing, it's not bad value either. The collection opens with the impressive ''Love in Those Days'', a short poem which seems to offer a lament for the present, and a yearning for an older, more innocent era that has come to pass: ''Before the coming of the condom, / When sex was being careful''. Here is a world, and perhaps in particular, an Ireland, where ''an Indian restaurant was a new thing'', with ''decent mad cafés where / […] Gays held hands under tables.'' But then in these quiet images, and in the ''decent[ness]'' of ''sex being careful'', the poet also subtly and carefully reveals a certain ''mad[ness]'': a world where abuse and suffering are masked and silenced.

Yes, the contemporary world has its flaws and imperfections, the poem seems to say, but we can at least take solace in our freedoms: a society in which we are not afraid to ''call [something] beautiful'', even (with its potent metaphorical implications) ''as a lick of candelight shape[s] / a flawless icon''.

But while Johnston may often offer the reader such ambiguous readings of contemporary society and culture, he is also a poet very much dedicated to tackling political issues head-on. ''Today's Mystery Voice'', for example, makes for a haunting and paranoiac exploration of personal identity, adopting the seemingly harmless subject of a call-in radio competition and investing it with a sinister undertone.

''Lines Written after a Poetry Festival'' is also arresting, less for any ominous tones and more for its being a sort of indignant cri de coeur, criticising contemporary poets who refuse to engage with the politics of the era: ''Bomb them back to the stone age, / It's all the same to us'', writes Johnston of the Iraq war, ''The wretched don't read poetry / So what's the bloody fuss?''

Unfortunately, this isn't one of Johnston better poems. In fact, like most poets writing a ''political poem'' (of course, there's a whole other discussion bubbling under the surface here as to whether any poem can avoid its being political in at least some way, but that aside) he tends to work better when he deals with such issues in a more oblique fashion, letting the reader reach their own conclusions.

After all, the good political poem is more to do with making the reader think than with telling them what to think. And lines such as ''My middle name is Silence, / Now that the boozing's done, / The screwing and back-slapping, / The harmless poetical fun'' aren't going to achieve that, being less thought-provoking than they are needlessly grim and embittered. Much better when, as in the affecting ''Protest'', Johnston successfully veils such political implications and agendas with an everydayness, an ordinariness, or better still, something beyond the divisions and factions of the political arena: ''A refugee in his own heart: they smoked, / Tired, stocked the blackening branches, / He waited for her to wage love, not war.''

Politics aside, however, and there are many other notable highlights in The Oracle Room. Gerry McDonnell's back cover blurb endorsement, describing Johnston's poetry as ''magical, honed [and] imaginative'', rings true in ''To Winter'' and ''Looking Out'', with the former's vivid imagery and subtle nod to Robert Frost (a not-new gesture for Irish poets, it must be said), and the latter's descriptions of ''the sea / Ag[ing] like any man'' as the poet muses over his vocation, the masterly control of the poem's rhyme scheme serving to enhance its quietly dramatic scenes.

Furthermore, ''Rendition'', perhaps the strongest poem in the collection, is a strange yet illuminating love poem, finding as it does a strained intimacy in an unlikely sort of place: the narrator's wife ''bend[ing] to fix [her] shoe / [as her] spine cracks, […] something slips, / [her] face […] scrutinising [his] for a flicker / Of light, a sign that [he] is some sort of loving man.'' It is in these moments, then, that Johnston's poetry is most fully realised: subtle, sensitive, carefully crafted and succinctly delivered, often meriting repeated further readings. In fact, it would seem that, like Smith, Johnston is most impressive when investing the ordinary and the everyday with a startling significance and luminosity, a longstanding and rewarding tradition evident in much, perhaps most, contemporary Irish poetry.

He certainly leaves the reader with a great deal to muse over, and while Nessa O'Mahony's statement that Johnston's work ''constantly challenges our cosy assumptions about what poetry is'' may be a tad hyperbolic, he is nonetheless a talented poet in pursuit of new ideas and subject matters, and for that reason, well worth reading.

Ben Wilkinson's poems have appeared in publications including Poetry Review, Orbis, The Frogmore Papers, Magma and the TLS. His reviews have appeared on Eyewear previously, as well as on The Poem and in The Stinging Fly, and he has begun writing critical perspectives of contemporary poets for the British Council's Contemporary Writers website. His first pamphlet of poems will be published by Tall-Lighthouse in November, 2008.
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