Anne Stewart reviews
The Year of Not Dancing by CL Dallat
& Long-distance Swimmer by Dorothy Molloy
The Year of Not Dancing is in hardback with 63 pages of very engaging and memorable poetry and a rather elegant and sophisticated dust jacket which gives an added incentive to keep the book to hand at all times.
Dallat’s dedication of this, his second collection, is in memoriam to his mother, who died when he was eleven. The dust-cover tells us that ‘Her death becomes the focus for a poignant but unsentimental exploration of family relationships and legacies across three generations...’
There is an extensive cast-list. Some are identified as family or extended family members, others are unidentified but clearly significant ‘you’s, ‘he’s and ‘she’s: “including those second cousins / – teenagers with fringes and EPs – ”, 'Dance Lessons'; “to the farm of my once-removed – / source of our one personalised / season’s greeting”, 'County Down'; “First he taught us to step off / the back of a moving CIÉ bus,” 'Lido Café'.
Apparently un-family-associated poems are also well-represented, as are love poems – I particularly like 'South', in which “Once, he took the wheel and she was / deep beside him under a jacket /... / ‘Mullingar’, she whispered...”, and, in the next and final stanza
And once, in a broad, unhurried street
when she pinpointed a second-floor sash
he could see a ribboned child look down
and behind, her young father in soft shirtsleeves
telling her not to lean against the glass.
Dallat’s poetry brings together several strands of ideas and weaves them until they are what I can only describe as emotionally infectious. His poems are soft-spoken, tender and insightful, complex and intriguing. They are delicate without being overly fragile or sentimental. 'Love on a Rock', for example, begins
Who could tell them now – out in the world,
its plethorae of arc-lights, halogens, discos –
those lighthouse children with listening eyes
offers up their childhood entertainments – “sucked HB stubs at poise to take down / wireless PO boxes” – and tells us that we’ll know them because
they’ll have preset
the Xerox’s counter right up to the thousand,
lid-up and nothing on the glass, eyelids
numb on the margin of sleep as the phasings
of light take them home to the beam-room again.
The poems directly to or about his mother and father and those who cared for him after his mother’s death are particularly touching. 'Sentence': “but I knew there was no plea bargain / for remission the day / the same men in uniforms / came up our staircase / and into my mother’s room”; and this, about a well-wishing neighbour, is from 'After Days in Blind-Drawn Rooms': “... you saw her ... / ... / kneeling at home by the brother who died / ... / a brother she’d never stopped thinking of since but / hadn’t had much cause to mention, no need until now.”
I did occasionally find some of the more densely-constructed parts of poems quite difficult to unravel – none of these sections are quoted from here but, as an example, in a poem called 'Pavlova’s Dogs', which I like very much and I think I’ve identified the important emotive message in, I couldn’t connect the metaphoric activity with the ‘other person’ referred to but not identified in the poem. It is however, the complexity, the bringing together of several streams of idea or activity, that makes Dallat’s poetry so powerful and so compelling to return to.
Molloy’s Long-distance Swimmer, a paperback with 46 pages of poetry and, again, a rather nice wrap-around cover illustration, is a second and final posthumous collection compiled by Andrew Carpenter, the first posthumous collection having been published by Faber & Faber in 2006.
Carpenter tells us in his preface that her papers contained many poems that were ‘complete or nearly complete’ but there is no indication of whether, or to what extent, he has made editorial changes, so it must be borne in mind that we cannot know whether the poet herself would have approved every element of these final versions.
We are told that ‘this is a strange and moving book inspired by the experiences of Dorothy’s life in Spain and Ireland’ and that the collection contains ‘many remarkable and passionate poems’.
Molloy is not a soft-spoken poet. Her voice is strong and assertive, admirably demonstrated in the title poem, 'Long-distance Swimmer':
Hungry for water she lowers herself
She stares at her face in the mere.
Bare but for Speedos and membrane-like cap,
where to go by a trembling of hands,
.../ / She hangs Holy Marys on bushes,
she wades through the slobs, descends the dank steps
to the well.
Cheered on by St. Gobnait and nine grazing
deer, a badger, an otter, a fox and a
In 'Mother’s kitchen', there is a line “the Aga throbs with heat”. This is the way I would describe Molloy’s poetry. I defy anyone to read these poems and not feel their sap rise.
The emotional urgency in the poems is not, however, at the expense of lyricism. In 'Fledgling', which begins with the metaphor of a caged bird for a woman of 80:
She gives them a peek at her treasures,
gold sovereigns, carbuncles and rings;
the knick-knacks he gave her, the way
he enslaved her, the rubies
he slung round her neck. What the heck.
She kohls her frail eyelids...
Rhyme, less restrained in these lines to give the necessary defiant lift to the character’s behaviour, is skilfully handled in this poem. There are poems where rhyme is used to more Lear-like effect, as in 'Carlitos González Martínez makes / a desperate bid for freedom', in which ‘led him away to the sea’ is the basis of an end-of-stanza repeat line:
His three-year-old face was yoghurt and milk.
His little heart beat
like a drum in my fist when he took his first steps
from Tamarit Street. Not a minute too soon
I led him away to the sea.
This poet is not averse to a full-on subversive ‘telling it like it is’: “Lurching on the see-saw of marriage, / the hard plank under your bottom, / you gasp at the repeated jolts / that shiver your timbers.” ('The see-saw'), nor to demonstrating what I suspect was a wicked sense of humour: “... Gargoyles / monkey about. Troglodyte / angels clank by.” ('Sipping vodka'), nor to sexual reference: “Terrified of sex and sin, the swelling purple / aubergine...” ('Forbidden fruit, part 3') and in 'Quadruped with my quadruped's, where, after “waiting for you to come home”,
I tighten my claws
on your nape, nip
at your ear.
You prise me off gently,
unfurl me in the long grass.
Soon we are out of sight:
she-cat in season, howling,
receiving her mate.
There are also some poems using the style of myth or fantasy. One definitely to be looked at, and which should probably be anthologised, is the final poem in the collection, 'The crossing', in which what turns out to be the Christ child has tricked an unidentified carrier into taking him ‘across the flood’ on their shoulders. He begins ‘feather light’, takes on ‘sudden monstrous weight’, is pitched into the water when the carrier stumbles, pulled out by a ‘gilly-dog’ and given the kiss of life (by the carrier, not the dog), and finishes (as I now do) with:
... My gilly-dog bowed low
before his lord. I barely bent my knee
till I looked up and saw the child
nailed to a bloody tree.