Guest Review: Bailey On O'Donoghue

Peadar O’Donoghue
Salmon Press, 2012

I can pinpoint the moment when I knew this book and I were not aligned unusually precisely; it was when, having written a note about ‘control?’ on page 19, I turned it over to see page 21’s title: ‘This is a Controlled Poem’. And I thought well, that told me, except it doesn’t really, on reading it, as it’s not so much a poem displaying control as it is a poem dismissing it as a helplessly grey and sensible presence, “a Golden Labrador, the Sunday Times, / a bay-windowed Victorian semi, / a neatly-pressed shirt for the office on Monday.” If I tried to approach this implicit poetic as I normally read, it would be like bringing gravy to a sweet course; bear with me as I try to avoid the category error.

It’s not just an implicit poetic; I later found O’Donoghue telling Robert Frosts Banjo that:

I feel that the magic is in the rawness, a rough diamond, polished pieces are not my style. I’ve tried a few times and the whole thing falls apart. I’m not too hung up on form or style or punctuation or even spelling, within reason of course.  Some writers are alchemists, I’m just a miner, I keep digging mainly coal to keep the fires burning, but if the odd piece of gold turns up now and again then I’m happy!

So let’s trust that - is there gold? Yes, I think there is. Take, for example, the “darkling tarmac” of ‘Cardboard Kings’, the image of the improvised firing squad in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ where “those that had no guns / pointed fingers”, or, from the poem I put that original control note against, the “nothing but starfish, / starfish on the beach.” Each of those is striking and can develop in the ear, the imagination, the understanding. The opening poem makes reference to a “blandiose” refurbishment of a bar, which is an apt and expressive portmanteau.

There’s a sustained shine across poems like ‘The Summer in Siam’, which dances through the other seasons to shed light on the titular one as it is recalled by “these closed eyes under / penny weights”. That structuring suggests it’s had more polish than we’ve been led to believe; similarly the sustained anaphora in ‘This Christmas We’, which builds a happiness in the face of circumstances where the speaker must “contract, / cut-back, / shrink and save”. That’s the last poem of the book, one that ends in an acknowledgement of relative wealth in the world where “We [...] rejoice in the hope / and are glad”, which is an admirable sentiment and one you’re carried along with as a reader, making this a strong conclusion. 

Sadly, there are rather more poems where I find myself uncarried than I would like. I have tried to bring something other than gravy, but still I find some of the poems in here to be stretched jokes, others that spend their second half ensuring we understand the point of the first, and several with noticeable amounts of text that ambles along conversationally. It might be me, rather than the poet at fault here; my worries about the lines being conversational tap straight into the opening fret about control. Perhaps this is Wordsworth’s language of men talking to men brought into 21st-century web-connected speech and I am simply being a whale-boned mentat for worrying.

A test of this: when you read this last sentence of ‘Star Lovers’,

We filled the void
with the smallness of ourselves,
our closed petals daisies
were eyelids kissed,
and I said ‘I love you’
more than the average amount of times.

do you find it stumbles after its rather lovely daisies with that uncountable “amount”, rather than the countable “number”?  To me it’s a problem, and a fixable problem, that undermines the poem in its closing moments; a point where the surrendered control disconnects poem and reader. If you agree here, it won’t be the only place you feel this way.

If you disagree, though, you may side with Rachel Fenton, who asserts in an interview based around the book that “if Wordsworth could have cracked a few more jokes and let the metre run he’d have been your equal.” O’Donoghue, to his credit, laughs off that evaluation, but Ian Duhig’s positive (and more realistic) back-cover assessment may outweigh mine: for him, Jewel is “a book of joy and power”, full of energy, delight and an eye for the ridiculous. Much as I recognise those starting points, too often I find the poems let their energies dissipate under the weight of attention, just as the opening quotation fears they might from polishing. That might, of course, be just the gravy talking.

Andrew Bailey is a writer based in Sussex, with a first collection, Zeal, available from Enitharmon. He has worked with various arts and educational organisations.