Ian Brinton reviews
edited and presented by Joan McBreen
If you are trying to encourage diners to try a newly-opened restaurant which you rate very highly then there is little point in commenting on each dish on the menu since you will end up with one, or at the most two sentences, serving a descriptive purpose that could have been put there by the restaurateur. With this in mind I have decided to give an account of this remarkably fine new anthology by concentrating upon two very different poets whose poetry and prose appears in that ‘box where sweets compacted lie’.
Geoff Ward, the Vice-Principal of Royal Holloway, London has an article in PN Review192 (March/April 2010) in which he suggests that ‘Words can describe, evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt—do all manner of things—except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer.’ These words are themselves ghosts of another article written by the same critic in 1989 where he referred to words as ‘chasing, describing, shadowing a reality’ (Archeus 2). Paul Perry’s prose contribution to this new anthology is titled ‘Ghosts’ and it follows three remarkable poems which range from ‘Dawn Sun’, a memory of a journey from Budapest to Prague, ‘Visiting Hours’, an account of his brother’s illness and hospitalization, and ‘The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance’ which recreates the long dead voice of John White, an artist friend of Sir Walter Raleigh who had attempted to found a community in North Carolina in the 1580s. As Perry puts it ‘Each poem is ghosted by another’ and he pays homage to the
poet Reginald Shepherd who died in 2008 whose work he had been reading whilst composing these three pieces. With that word ‘ghosts’ in the air it is no surprise to read Perry’s comment on his own work: New York
I want the poems to be a ‘field of action’ where a voice’s authority is refuted by the possibilities of contending inflexions and intonations and accents from other presences.
The opening of ‘The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance’ confronts us with mystery and loss:
No one was there when I returned, not a soul
though each one of the settlers’ personal effects remained:
some wrapped in dust, some overgrown with grass.
Axe, file, compass. Scuppet, dice and pipe.
Iron pots rusted. Maps and books were spoiled by rain.
Words sank into the soil never to be heard again:
words like love and peace.
The assertive opening line offers us presence: ‘No one’ was there, as though the ghosts of those now gone still linger in their belongings, the ‘personal effects’. The sense of distance grows with the reference to time passing and this itself moves from the fairly recent (‘wrapped in dust’) to the more settled and long-gone atmosphere of ‘Iron pots rusted’. As the symbols of civilization disintegrate and the words in the books and maps become spoiled the sinking of words into the ground is more than physical, it is as though they dissolve leaving only an echo of what had once been aspiration: ‘love and peace’.
‘Visiting Hours’ deals again with ghosts, the legacies of what went before in the history of a troubled Ireland as the poet’s brother remains in hospital sifting through the differences between the real and the merely imagined:
You talked about how
they kept you against your will, how they
tried to drown you. I turn the radio on,
but it serves no distraction and so I drive,
drive on with the thought that this then is the legacy
of the conflict, or one of its legacies.
That after the bombings, the shootings, the warfare
and ceasefires, after peace and reconciliation,
what we, what some of us, are left with
is a man in a hospital bed, afraid for his life.
‘Drive on’ of course because to not do so would be to immerse oneself in the indulgent world of regret that leads to the softness of tears but not the interrogation of the past with which the poem concludes. That said, the final lines tell us that ‘no matter how much we beseech you/or each other, we’ll never really know’ echoing the movement of Pound’s Canto 93:
There must be incognita
and in sea-caves
un lume pien’ di spiriti
and of memories,
Shall two know the same in their knowing?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s three poems possess a warm immediacy, a complete involvement with words making a luscious attempt to bridge that gap between abstract communication and felt experience. The removal of two letters, two symbols, from the word ‘foetal’ and the inclusion of a repeated ‘a’ leaves us with ‘fatal’: the loss of all the ‘good work’ of growth within the female body:
we are fastened to our bed
you curl to the curl of me
unshaped to a shape that fits
we sleep, curved into one
and my body begins
the slow, good work
work that weakens me,
balloons me with
both hope and dread
then, after three months,
the heartsick, two-letter slip,
from foetal to fatal
There is a remarkably direct simplicity in this evocation of growth where the ‘unshaped’ becomes form mirroring the creative act of writing a poem where the concrete and discrete is a measure of what words lose because they are not, as Geoff Ward said, the things to which they refer. That gap between perceiver and perceived, the word and the experience, is delicately woven into the fading of the experience of Narcissus as he ‘trumpets his pleasure with himself’ whilst paying homage to his own beauty. This masturbatory act is swiftly followed by the recognition of those blemishes which lie between his dream and the reality:
His image is mottled by water-scurf and flies,
like the foxing on an ancient mirror
where mercury and tin have slipped apart.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s prose accompaniment to her three poems celebrates ‘a great freedom…in talking about the body through poetry, choosing the right words and set-up to explore personal and intimate moments’ and there is a passionate sense of ‘thereness’ about her writing.
This is all just a hint of the menu of twenty-four Irish poets who were born in the last fifty years and I urge readers to taste for themselves the world of delight contained in this anthology, the title of which is taken from Derek Mahon:
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
Ian Brinton is a British critic and scholar. His recent books include Contemporary Poetry from Cambridge, and a collection of essays on JH Prynne. He reviews regularly for Eyewear.