Bernard O'Donoghue's most recent collection Farmers Cross (Faber, 2011) was reviewed in Poetry London 70.
Reviews and Features
Bernard O'Donoghue In Our Time and In Good Heart
Black Cat Bone
Profit and Loss
Black Cat Bone has won this year's Forward and T S Eliot prizes, adding to the considerable tally of awards that John Burnside has had for his poetry and novels in the course of his extraordinarily sustained writing career over the past twenty years. 2011 saw not only Black Cat Bone but his novel A Summer of Drowning in the prize shortlists. Accomplished as he is in each genre on its own – and his oeuvre also includes two compelling and harrowing memoirs, A Lie About My Father (2007) and Waking Up in Toytown (2010) – the achievement is made even more remarkable by the coherence of Burnside's body of work, amounting almost to a sense of mission.
This is what makes him a writer of the first importance. The difficulties of his childhood, and of his first troubled attempts at grown-up life, described in the memoirs, are the backdrop to the seriousness that is the guarantee of all his work. Through this seriousness there runs an enriching vein of religious consciousness. In Waking Up in Toytown, he declares a belief in the afterlife (in some sense), drawing on such notions as grace or the Holy Ghost. The poems are far from pious in any sense, orthodox or otherwise, and Burnside's engaging writing, it must be stressed, could not be less ponderous. But this sense of operating at the edge of the numinous lends a consistent gravitas to his enterprise.
A considered design is evident in the new book's structural development. The remarkable opening poem 'The Fair Chase' is suggestive and impressionistic, from its ambiguous title onwards sending out richly associative tentacles in several directions: the medieval quest, Biblical theology, the Romantic Gothic, the psychologist's pursuit of the self. But the poem it most brings to mind is a religious masterpiece, 'The Hound of Heaven' by the late-Victorian Catholic poËte maudit Francis Thompson: 'I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years'. Thompson's Christ is the pursuer rather than, like the beast of Burnside's poem, the quarry; but in a religious context it makes no difference. Ringing the changes on Oscar Wilde, the poem declares –
the thing he kills
– or so the children whisper, when they crush
a beetle or a cranefly in the dust.
('The Fair Chase')
This powerfully sustained opening poem provides a foundation on which the graceful lyrics of the book's following three sections are securely built. The second of those sections is 'Black Cat Bone', a phrase which is glossed in the notes as 'a powerful hoodoo talisman, conferring success, invisibility and sexual power on its owner', from the same disturbing world as the huldra of A Summer of Drowning. The poems of this section illustrate where Burnside's distinctive genius is most remarkable: the images and themes which are founded in the Gothic or the apparently surreal are all evidenced in everyday anxieties and traumas: the sexual jealousy dream of 'Moon Going Down', or the accident of birth in the bleakly brilliant 'Nativity'. Occasionally there is still a surreal generalising symbolism: 'The things I love / I bury in the woods / to keep them safe' ('A Game of Marbles'). But now the urge towards some kind of transcendence seems more focused; in the end the concerns and sympathies are all with things of our world. One of the most haunting poems here, in the third section headed 'Faith', tells how the rumoured things in our world are no more or less real to us than the places where 'the souls of the dead went to dust / in a burrow of clinker' ('Hearsay').
So, despite the perspective sub specie aeternitatis in Burnside's writing, and the minatory epigraphs to the book's various sections, there is never a sense of 'the world well lost'. The memoirs show that positiveness has been hard won in his life, and here it is finally dominant in the book's jubilant closing lines:
but this is the time of year
when nothing to see
gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous
beauty of it stark against the mud
and thawglass on the track, before
it darts away, across the open fields
and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.
Leontia Flynn comes from the generation after Burnside, and from a very different tradition. Burnside belongs to a metaphysical and confessional line; Flynn, though her sparkling intelligence is evident everywhere and her poems are almost always founded on first-hand observation, manifests another kind of wit. It has not been much observed, I think, that there is a major school of recent Irish women writers who explore the serious potential of humour. Other prominent members are Julie O'Callaghan (American in origin but well established in Dublin) and Martina Evans (from County Cork but settled in London). They all make you laugh out loud, while having the capacity too to wring your heart. Their work achieves that difficult balance: to be of the present without seeming ephemeral.
The first part of Profit and Loss applies Flynn's gift with imagery to the awful comedy of student dwellings: 'the painted oven with its pull-down door / which seems to open on a greasy tomb'; the caretaker of the flat who understood:
that a breeze-block lurked at the heart of the spin-drier
which stopped it in the frenzy of its cycle
from shuffling, subtly, sideways out the door...'
It is like a less symbolic Martian poetry, crossed with the surreal comedy of Paul Durcan and a more resigned version of the secularism of Philip Larkin.
These poems occur in the book's cheerful opening section – the 'Profit' of the reckoning maybe – which is headed 'A Gothic': the everyday here is indeed familiar Gothic. You settle to enjoying the humour and style and formal accomplishment of it all, culminating in the mislaid 'Vibrator' left as a 'gift – surprise! – for next week's settling tenants': but Flynn (like O'Callaghan in No Can Do) has a devastating card to play. The same descriptive power whose exactness makes you laugh is suddenly trained on the desperation of everyday life. 'My Father's Language' evokes the tragedy of Alzheimer's as he sits in his chair 'as though he is not being lost to the drift of age'. The transition is so powerful and total that the last poem of the 'Gothic' section opens appropriately with the Agony in the Garden, and ends 'Let this cup pass' ('Room in April').
Shaken, the reader moves on to the middle section of Profit and Loss, 'Letter to Friends', a two-hundred-and-sixty-line epistolary poem for our times, written in stylishly conversational ten-line stanzas of pentameters. At first glance it is a surprising thing to find Flynn doing, given that her traditional forte is the pointed, witty lyric. Yet it makes complete sense, following a similar trajectory to the short poems of Part One. It begins again in a flat where – 'after how many moves?' – she is still sifting through boxes of old junk, and freezing. This is the central point of course: rooms – like Larkin's 'Days' – are what we live in. The narrator works through the mundane and rapid outdatings of our times: airline tickets, booked in an 'actual travel agent' with a whiff of old nicotine, and arrangements of numbers which are a puzzle:
until it dawns: there are no mobile phones –
just ancient landlines pegged along the roads,
and not a solitary email address.
You have to read the whole poem – right to the gallantly stoical end – to appreciate the unlaboured impact of the word 'solitary'; this is poetry that has the same affectionate sympathy for our times as for
the past. There's the end of the 'grim traumatic fight' of Belfast where Flynn lives, giving way to:
the fall-out from a far-off war
fought in our names (not so remote its stink
can't reach us in our hiding-places).
Next in this whistle-stop tour of political significances come the 'carbon footprint' and the question of 'women's status', before section three (like the book's opening Gothic section) returns to the brave stoicism in the description of her father's condition.
My father's wits have flown away like birds
out of that shell...
how weird it is to miss him when he is there.
The usual problem with the epistolary letter is that it is liable to obsolescence by being so entirely tied to its occasion. But when it escapes this ephemerality – as Flynn's poem unquestionably does – it meets the requirement of F R Leavis's great demand of the modern poet, that they must give evidence of having lived in our time.
If this is what poetry has to offer for our terrible times of commercial collapse and renewed imperial Crusades, it is heartening that the third book I am considering here, Close Quarters, by the Prague-based Dublin poet Justin Quinn, is so different from the other two and yet no less compelling for its time. Burnside and Flynn are both very impressive technicians within their open forms; with Quinn the formal markers are much closer to the surface. As one of the founder-editors of the journal Metre, his commitment to formality is on the record. But of course – as Seamus Heaney says – a formal decision is never only formal. Quinn's technical accomplishment is the highly effective means to an end.
The title suggests the close quarters that are scrutinized in a group of family poems – from 'Transformer Station' to 'Child' – at the heart of the book. But distance is equally crucial, to a degree that almost makes the title ironic. In Prague Quinn teaches American literature at Charles University, so it is not surprising that translation and home thoughts from abroad are prominent here. The relations between all these places and languages and cultures are deftly debated in the group of four sonnets 'On the Translator's Art', centring on encountering the production of Shakespeare in 'Athens, London or Prague':
Kings and asses, spirits at their games,
monkeys, blackamoors and villains' lies.
Quinn's genius is for leaving the foreign defamiliarized, as in a beautiful poem 'Seminar' about his Czech students:
I love the way they sit
and use their bodies to nuance what they say.
I lean forward to catch the drift of it.
When it's ended they'll switch back to Czech,
put on their coats and bags, shift wood and chrome
and ready themselves for their daily trek
across a continent and ocean home. ('Seminar')
The students returning home from English and American literature might just as well be their teacher moving, emotionally and geographically, between Prague and Dublin, as he does in a series of poems about South Dublin here, starting with the shadows seen through the glass of the porch that, in a lovely image of memory, 'turned everyone / to corrugated shadows' that brought news of the world.
Another marvellous series of sonnets of all shapes and sizes, 'The Months', draws on the corone of the early fourteenth-century sonneteer Folgore da San Gimignano, a series in relation to which their nineteenth-century translator Dante Gabrial Rossetti wrote 'much has been said, and in many ways justly, against the value of metrical translation'. Quinn's versions make an eloquent case for its value (as of course Rossetti claimed for his). Quinn is a citizen of the world. What his poetry is about is attentiveness, a point made wittily in the ambiguity of the word 'missing' in his 'Sonnet on Missing a Trip' – we must not miss what is around us. Like the other two master practitioners considered here, Quinn makes a powerful case for the present utility of poetry. It is an art in good heart in several senses of the word.