Guest Review: Begnal On McLoughlin

Michael S. Begnal reviews
by Nigel McLoughlin

Dissonances is the fourth collection from the Irish poet Nigel McLoughlin, of County Fermanagh. As in the work of many Irish poets, land and place figure large here. But McLoughlin is not content to endlessly reiterate the standard rural pieties that we are now all so familiar with. There is a sort of a discontent running through this collection - indeed a kind of dissonance.

One of the first poems is "Chorus", which recalls Wordsworth's sonnet "Composed on Westminster Bridge", and like Wordsworth finds a surprising beauty in the morning of the city while (almost ironically) employing the language of the pastoral. Thus begins the section entitled "Tales from the Long Acre", the most lyrical of the four sections in this collection. "After Rain" demonstrates McLoughlin's imagist skills with passages like, "A car pinks by,/ the exhaust stutters/ a plume of smoke,/ thunder coloured..." This juxtaposition of the rural and the urban is a current running throughout the book, and indeed throughout much contemporary Irish poetry.

McLoughlin certainly does not let his pastoral impulses go unquestioned. In fact he often subverts them, albeit with a kind of regret, the sadness of having to overcome something you have loved and still love. The second section is called "The Science of Signs", implying a concern with language. No, McLoughlin doesn't suddenly begin to write "Language" poetry, but he does convey a certain awareness of the theories of Saussure and Barthes.

Like a former religious believer who has begun to have doubts, a degree of skepticism about the ability of language to directly represent the world has irretrievably crept in. Using the metaphor of a tree - thus still anchoring himself to the natural world even as he moves into more philosophic territory - McLoughlin writes, "I hear the trees ramify,/ sway unstruck, enact the oscillations/between the sign of themselves/ and what it is they signify". Did I say metaphor? Yes, and so does McLoughlin, very loudly. He is careful not to completely let go his deep lyric concerns.

Lyric poetry is clearly his prime element, and he uses it to express abstract ideas about language in "Night Fire", where the speaker and his children come up with surprisingly different names for such concepts as "sky" and "star". While there is plenty of dissonance to be found here, the one certainty in the collection is the family (the book is even dedicated "for all my family"), and in this regard Dissonances is a misnomer.

Ezra Pound wrote that "a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms". By the third section of Dissonances, "Shrapnel", McLoughlin has no choice but to allow his form to reflect his thinking. The words and lines now become strewn across the page in a manner recalling Pound's colleague William CarlosWilliams, and later "postmodern" poets.

In "Sand", McLoughlin notes that "a word/ slips/ like meaning/slips", and embraces a Heraclitean sense of flux. "Glenshane" is jagged and brilliant: "coming across/out/ of the fracturing/ night/day/ border/ the last/shards/ of dark..." The speaker here wishes to cling to "home" though he is also aware that we "cross/never the same line/ twice". Fermanagh is a border county, and McLoughlin sometimes writes of the conflict in the North and of the dispossession of the native Irish - so the idea of home must always be insome way tenuous. The current conflict in the Middle East comes into it too, in the poem "Joke". There is always that engagement with the world and all its trouble, both past and present; never does the author of Dissonances, in the words of T. E. Hulme (another of Pound's colleagues), "fly away into the circumambient gas".

There is further "dissonance" in the form of translations, mostly from the Irish - a minority language under threat from the violent forces of homogenisation. Máirtín Ó Díreáin's "Uprooted" is simultaneously a kick against the pricks and a vicious counter-attack on the Irish system: "But we too will be remembered:/ in some state office a stack of files/will be turning to dust along with us". McLoughlin, though, will certainly avoid a fate of dusty decay.

Dissonances is such a transitional collection that one would think he's capable of virtually anything in the future. With this collection he has set down a challenge for himself. He has extended himself beyond the English lyric, yet neither has he completely rejected it. So will his dissonance pull him into a permanent state of fragmentation, or will it begin a new stage of evolution, in which labels like "lyric"and "postmodern" become irrelevant? The power and dynamism demonstrated in this book suggest the latter.

Michael S. Begnal is the author of three poetry collections: Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005), and The Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press, 2003). He is included in the essay collection, Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under "Post-" Conditions (LitterariaPragensia, 2006), and was formerly the editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine, The Burning Bush.