Guest Review: Chonchúir On Wells and Perry
Nuala Ní Chonchúir reviews
When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things by Grace Wells
The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance by Paul Perry
Two Dedalus Press collections under review, one a début and the other – Paul Perry’s – the poet’s third full collection. Each volume is beautifully produced and they are a credit to the publisher who has taken care with the design of the books. Books are consumer items and the reader wants to own a well-made, attractive book as much as anything else.
Grace Wells is a poet of specifics; her collection When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things is a journey from dark to bright times and, ultimately, to love; all of which is invested with concrete, engaging detail. Along the way there are poems of domestic violence and fear, loss and hope. She never shies away from the raw detail of sexual violence and, in that sense, her work is revelatory.
In the poem ‘Rescue’, the narrator returns, ghost-like, to the scene of the violent marital home she occupied, to rescue herself and her children:
‘...no sanctuary except that last crouched corner
of the house in the hole she burrows for herself
by the floor, quaking, beyond tears, her mouth,
her lungs, her penis-choked throat denied air.’
Wells is a poet in control of emotive issues like violence, parting and death. Her poem ‘The Dress’ has as skilled an ending as Heaney’s ‘Mid-term Break’. It’s a potentially hopeful poem about a poor man’s loving gift to his wife – the dress of the title – but the poet wraps it up with a shock last line that is both simply and skilfully delivered.
The natural world, particularly plant-life, is very important to this collection – it is often in nature that Grace Wells finds sanctuary and solace. Gardening and natural things soothe the poet and they provide some of her richest images. In the poem ‘My Garden and Those Who Made It’, the poet states, ‘A garden forgives everything’. This poem could be a metaphor for the entire collection – the overgrown garden that is tamed with the help of friends, and is finally free to be as good as it can be. There is an evocative clarity in many of the nature poems that speak to the growing strength of the poet as mother, partner and writer:
‘And what flows in her now
is rainwater, woodsmoke, silence reflected
on the lake surface; leaves turned,
hair snagged on briars. Stones. The small,
white feathers that line nests.
She is sung with fox bark and pheasant call.’ (‘Pioneer’)
Although this collection deals with the hard stuff of life it is a hopeful one and the reader enjoys the accumulating strength of the narrator and is glad to accompany her as she walks ‘once more into the shimmering world’. (‘Clearing’)
Paul Perry is a peripatetic poet; he travels within his poetry all around Ireland, over to Providence and Everglade City in the USA, and on to Lithuania. But his most diligent mapping is the landscape of the heart and mind – many of the poems tease at the bonds which tie people together and at the inevitability of letting go. For all Paul Perry’s wandering – because of it, maybe – his is a convincing poetry. There are colourful characters aplenty to be found, as well as insight and tenderness. As in the poem ‘Reservations’, in which the troubles of an old lover are remembered and honoured, while the narrator is haunted by the cries of foreign birds:
you can hear it
in the form
of the great blue heron.
on a body
of water, and
resigned, but appreciative
are standing by its banks.’
This simple form is typical of many, but not all, of the poems in this collection. The title poem, for example, brings to mind the triumph of the poet’s last collection, the historical narrative poem ‘The Lady with the Coronet of Jasmine’. In ‘The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance’ we get a return to this form of poetic storytelling at which Paul Perry is so accomplished.
This poem concerns the Roanoke Colony, on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina; it was an enterprise financed by Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 16th century to set up a permanent English settlement there. Several groups attempted to establish a colony but were unsuccessful; the final group of colonists disappeared and are known as ‘The Lost Colony’; their fate is still unknown.
‘The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance’ is a poem of deep loneliness and regret, evocatively given voice:
‘Iron pots rusted. Maps and books spoiled by rain.
Words sank into the soil never to be heard again:
words like love and peace. In this moon-shaken dawn
there was no evidence of a struggle, no sign of violence.’
The collection ends with a beautiful poem about a new father driving home from the hospital after the birth of his first child. The ‘hospital doors/closed’ to him and the steering-wheel of his car is ‘brittle crumbling/and disappearing’ in his hands. He arrives to an empty house ‘hungry thirsty elated and exhausted’, perfectly capturing the insane high that accompanies the birth of a child, for both parents alike.
Paul Perry’s is a ruminative collection; his poems are delicate and, one feels, very carefully constructed to achieve their directness and apparent simplicity. His gifts lie in an almost melancholic understanding of human nature and in finding pared back, beautiful ways of imparting this knowledge.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in County Galway. Her debut novel You was recently published by New Island. She was one of four winners of the 2009 Templar Poetry Pamphlet competition. Her pamphlet Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car was published November 2009; her third full collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming.