Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: John Murphy

Five Poems              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

 

John Murphy’s debut collection, The Book of Water, was published in 2012 by Salmon Poetry. The Language Hospital, his multiple prize winning second collection, was published by Salmon in 2016. He has been four times shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (Prizewinner 2013), and three times shortlisted for the Hennessy Cognac/Irish Times Writing Prize. In 2015 he won the Strokestown International Poetry Prize. He was a finalist in UK National Poetry competition in 2016. He won the Strokestown International Prize for an unprecedented second time in 2016. his poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, Southword, Ambit, Mimesis, and the Stony Thursday Book. He is a computer scientist, and in his professional life has worked in industry (consultant, IBM) and academia (senior lecturer, DCU).

Books

Reviews and articles

John Murphy: Five Poems

Biographical Note              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

The Nod
For Living Things Are Revived By Food, And Clocks,
…………By Lapse Of Time, Become Slower, Never Faster.

As If She Were Close
Threnody Of The Campion Flowers For Paul Celan
The Fish
– Note due to length of some of the lines in these poems, and the limits of html, there may be some forced line breaks on some devices/displays.

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The Nod

Tonight the lights of new bungalows dance in the level water of the lake, and shadows
………….from Jimmy the Hay’s
shack and your grandparents’ derelict house squat behind the wall of shoreline trees
………….where Mick Casserly’s boat
has collapsed in the bones of its timbers. For years now the fishing has been poor –
………….the brown trout almost gone,
driven out, your cousin says, by pike introduced by coarsemen with no patience for
………….fly-fishing and famine days
when every fly is the wrong fly and teasing rudd jump clear of the water, throwing sprays
………….of diamonds off their backs.

The lake water is ice cold,  the shock of it enough to stall the heart of a sick man, though
………….when I was younger
I often swam in it, catching crayfish in a clear jar for our children, or wading out to watch
………….voracious shrimp
feed among the reeds, and afterwards, drying off in minutes in the windless heat
………….of an August afternoon.
I’ll never swim again, never run as I once did at full tilt across an open field, unafraid
………….of the limits
of my endurance, and I’ll never again stand for profligate hours, mindless in the heaven
………….of the passing world around me.

What was that world? A dust-lit kitchen twenty five years ago with a range and a wooden
………….table on which
two pears touch, end to end, in a semblance of homely infinity; a bakelite telephone
………….encrusted with peat
motes from the range where each night your grandmother heats iron blocks and wraps
………….them in a blanket
to warm the bed we sleep in; a two-station TV to watch news and weather bulletins
………….twice a day;
and the only comfortable chairs in the house, each side of the range: one for your grandfather,
………….the other for guests.

A few months before he dies in his chair, Mick scrapes out his pipe and fills it – there is
………….little or no talk
while the women are abroad in the town. Outside the window the lake is frosted silver
………….by multitudes of small,
pointed waves; a crow on the roof coughs a raucous vowel. We settle down and for two hours
………….no car passes;
the only sound is our breathing and a popping noise when Mick draws on his pipe.
………….Are you shaving yet? is the sum of his talk.
I am twenty-six years old, a father myself, though to your grandfather I am still a child.
………….I am, I answer, the remainder unsaid.

A postoffice van glides by on the road, breaching the air as if its engine were dead;
………….the wireless,
turned low all morning, crackles a line from a sean-nós song; the fridge shivers in a vain
………….attempt to keep
week old milk from taint; tappets yammer in the back field where a tractor idles in neutral;
………….the clock in the hall
ticks and chirps like a broken banjo; steps on the gravel; voices at the door; coming and going,
………….a notion to go up
to the bedroom and look out at the lake field where the malt bull sleeps—  five full minutes pass
………….before he gives me the nod.

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For Living Things Are Revived By Food, And Clocks,
…………By Lapse Of Time, Become Slower, Never Faster.

Let us savour our sprung minutes of verge and foliot,
…………stackfreed and hammered coil, all of unclustered
…………
time brass-burst
in mechanisms prone to damp, rust, dust, weakening
…………
because it is an inanimate thing subject to great stress.
…………
And where would we be
were  it not for Alexander’s war machines, sprung beams,
…………
starved women’s plaits, sinew skeins, the windlass gear
…………
that spared the Macedonian
arms at Tyre, miniaturised in the first fusees? Remembering,
…………
too, the clock smugglers: A great number of rascals
…………
and pedlars and juellers, who brought
divers merchandise unacustomed, all under the colour
…………
of the Trussery of the ambassadours.
…………
Nor should we forget Dallam’s organ clock,

gifted by Elizabeth to the Sultan for safe passage of
…………
the English fleet. Four times a day it played
…………
with majestic stiffness and jigged
its racks of dancing automata: In the tope of the orgon, being
…………
16 foute hie, did stande a holly bushe full of black
…………
birds and thrushis, which at the end
of the musick did singe and shake their wynges. Dallam
…………
kept his head and cranked out his repertoire of
…………
Elizabethan tunes: And suche thinge
as I coulde until the cloke strucke, and then boued my
…………
head as low as I coulde, and wente from him
…………
with my backe towardes him. Which brings us
to Parliament and the Astronomer Royal who welched on
…………
the untrained master carpenter, Harrison, denying him
…………
his deserved prize for three decades

spent perfecting his clock, a sea-going masterpiece with a
…………rate undreamt of by Leibniz, Newton, Halley,
…………
Huygens, or Hooke:   . . . If it so please
Almighty God, to continue my life and health a little longer,
…………
they the Professors (or Priests) shall not hinder
…………
me of my pleasure,
as from my last drawing, viz, of bringing my watch to a
…………
second in a fortnight . . . And so, as I do not now
…………
mind the money (as not having occasion
to do so, and withal as being weary of that) the Devil may
…………
take the priests . . .  We praise and glorify him,
…………
our patron saint of accuracy,
and with him Larcum Kendall, whose Harrison replicas
…………
navigated Cooke to Antarctica, and Bligh to Pitcairn
…………
and an infamous mutiny.

And lastly, before we rise, let us praise and remember
…………one John Arnold, inventor of a mode of
…………
escapement of such a nature that friction is utterly
excluded from it; and in consequence, the use of oil,
…………
that bane to equality of motion, is rendered wholly
…………
unnecessary: and whether the material be
a diamond, steel, brass, or piece of wood, is perfectly
…………
indifferent, as they are all equally proper for the
…………
purpose. And whatever our measured moments
may or may not be, let us say amen to the fact that we can
…………
dally here at liberty, contemplating scaled shadows
…………
and strontium clocks rated to one second in five
billion years, oblivious to the lash of time quirting through
…………
the pulsing bacilli of a bedside radio clock,
…………
without escapement, stackfreed, or fusee.   

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As If She Were Close

My mother is chasing me. All over the house.
No, this is not a nightmare. It happened,
thirty or so years ago. She is waving an
empty cigarette packet I’d neatly opened
to expose a writing surface. This is where
I wrote my first poem. A knot of gritty phrases
about a battle in Vietnam or Iwo Jima.
I can’t remember where, but I’d dropped it
or thrown it away and forgotten about it:
my spider pencil crawl of a treatment.
A Sunday afternooner, a black and whiter.
The kind my mother liked, as long as Garfield
or Cagney starred. But my poem has no stars.
Just a bloodless jungle of men killing each other
in childish, thrilling ways. She finally catches
me, arms crossed like a corpse under her bed.
John! It’s very good! You wrote a poem!

I’m seven or eight years old, and I know
whatever the thing I’ve done, it has a power
to frighten, a frightening power. One to shunt
aside until years after she’s dead. Where I find
myself in the departure lounge at Heathrow,
waiting to connect as my American bosses say.
My slim ticket ready in my hand, and hours
to kill before boarding. And it begins again.
A full thirty years since I nipped it in the bud.
As if she were close. I’m writing a poem about
my mother in the space on the back of the card.
Something very simple about us walking along
the quays on the long way home from the auction
she used to love. It’s straightforward, honest, plain.
But there’s a powerful feeling, too. Like my heart
is physically moving to the wrong side of my chest
where it should not be. And the bloody thing makes
me cry. God damn it, but I can’t stop writing it now.
I keep going on with it, on and on. What else can I do?

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Threnody Of The Campion Flowers For Paul Celan

Far-off threnody, you are a liquid command to a me,
listener inactively.
………….Your oar vestiges thread waters none
and no one walks for lack of faith,
and the near docks

plagued by clouds flash redly below the timber pilings.

Far-off threnody, you lament a he that cannot sing
without the him that makes him half a whole again,

the place of burial where none and no one finds a self,
the unfinishable image of death.

Threnody, your deep oar stroke pulls a lock of water,
opens a wave over the fish pulse where hope
lives in stone shallows.

In your hollow stands an almond where stands nothing
of oar vestiges and the marked songs of water,

of deepest water where low clouds cannot swim
or redly flash an ion sea.

The ion nothing stands where nothing is the king of almonds,
and the almoner summons a threnody

whose vestiges mark the fingerless waves

with the ring of death.

Far-off threnody, you refrain almonds to a king,

to one who walks upside down on clouds
tinged with dugouts of blood,

the sundered edges of grave pilings.

Came, came a song, you came as a threnody over deep waters
and your oar vestiges thread the living roots of souls

through eye-prayers of nothing and no one
and none.

Came as a threnody when the pilings sank in annihilations of light
as no salvation, sank softly under the threads of a brighter sun

and the incoming waves of the campion flowers
in verses of gorse-light.

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The Fish

I was gutting fish and my hands were gloved
in scales. I held them to the light
and primed a momentary rainbow
from the shadeless bulb.

One hand gripped the colours and the other
worked the knife with a skill that was never mine.
When the skin of light was peeled away,
a woman looked at me from the flags.

She opened her arms, and I was naked,
already in her. She caressed me and I saw
the raw hulk of myself in her seal eyes.
I loved her with a lust that was never mine.

Her face, not young, was the face
of a woman I had loved. She turned,
and her body washed over me like a wave.
Scales fell across my eyes and I saw

old selves retreat in the rising spume.
The flags were hard and cold beneath us,
and when she stood me up
I knew her with an understanding

that was never mine. She laid me across
the boards and brought her face close,
her pupils now silver, now manganese.
Her low voice was the voice of the sea.

She whispered incantations she said
she’d learned from Poseidon himself.
Bright handfuls of scales fell over my face.
I responded in tongues that were never mine.

When she was finished, I was scaled
and simplified. She dropped me to the floor,
opened me from belly to neck, and slipped inside.
I slept for years, dreaming of fish

I would feed on with a hunger
that was never mine, and the sea,
how I found it, how I parted the air
with silver hands and walked into it.

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A Wonderful Variety of Tone and Theme: Melinda Smith launches ‘The Loyalty of Chickens’ by Jenny Blackford

The Loyalty of Chickens by Jenny Blackford, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Press Book House on 8 April as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

Welcome everyone. What a privilege it is to be launching the first full-length collection of this prize winning and widely anthologised poet.

I was very pleased when Jenny asked me to be her launcher because there is something about the sensibility in her poems I have always enjoyed. The way they connect everyday life with dreams, nightmares, myths and the mystical, while maintaining a light touch and a sense of fun. Also, cats. And palaeontology. And geekdom – there is at least one Star Trek and one Lord of the Rings reference – I’ll leave you to find those on your own.

The book also contains more serious pieces: meditations on history and mortality, and the stories families tell – and don’t tell – each other. All in all a wonderful variety of tone and theme is on offer here.

As always Pitt St Poetry have made a beautiful container for Jenny’s words, and I should also mention the fabulous illustration by Gwynne McGinley of the loyal chickens themselves.

Animals + Birds

The first thing I noticed about this collection is it is teeming with animal life. Not only cats, but dogs too, and dozens and dozens of birds, starting of course with loyal chickens! But there is a huge variety, from penguins to gulls to butcherbirds to noisy miners to lorikeets and cockatoos to all sorts of waterfowl. They are all beautifully observed. In one poem a cormorant is ‘drying dark silk wings’. And you can both see and hear the birds in this one if you listen closely:

‘Magpies | glossy as glass-dipped demons | chortle on the lawn | like church organs | dreaming’

Nature descriptions

Jenny also excels at beautiful descriptions of natural scenes more generally. Here are some of my favourites:

  • ‘The weed’s thick-layered onto the water, slathered by the sky’s bright knife.’ in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’.
  • In ‘the sun’s bright crayons’ she describes rays of light in sea water as ‘lines | that cross-criss-cross || a fishing net of light | to catch moon-jellies | fallen from the blue above,| and tiny salty stars’
  • And finally, in ‘Road Trip’, ‘Autumn poplars shine cold yellow candles, lighting dry fields.’

Deep Time

Something I have always appreciated about Jenny’s work is her awareness of deep time, the long long planetary past of geological eras, on the scale of which the whole of our civilisation is a tiny blip.

In ‘the wide dark’: there is ‘a creek which has carved cliffs from an ancient plain’ singing ‘of the wide dark between the stars | before our earth was brown and green and blue’.

This awareness of what for want of a better expression I’ll call the long context is reflexive and permeates everywhere. Plesiosaurs and shallow ancient seas appear in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’. Gulls become Pterodactyls; Tree ferns have ‘silver-green lacework older than most dinosaurs’; the blue-tongue lizard has a ‘Pre-Jurassic brain’, while crocodiles claim their place as the older siblings of the dinosaurs in ‘Masters of the mud’.

The long context also shapes her poetry at the metaphorical level: one of my favourites, ‘An afterlife of Stone’ imagines an eminence beside the Hume highway as an enormous petrified mammoth.

She also engages with the prehistoric human past, exploring for example the incredible usefulness of the mussel shell as a tool before metal and plastic – ‘a Swiss Army Knife free from the sea’.

Classics

Moving from pre-history to ancient history, Jenny’s training as a classicist is much in evidence in this book – but she wears her learning lightly and it always serves the poem.

In ‘Pleiades’ (‘the seven sisters’), there is this gorgeous line, about the elusive 7th sister: ‘Some say | they’ve danced with her | high in the blue. | Clouds of shy stars | drift in their eyes.’

Demeter appears multiple times, and we also meet with Poseidon, Aphrodite, Herakles / Hercules and the Graiae – the sisters of the Gorgons. There are allusions to the Iliad and the Elysian Fields. ‘The gods’ in a more general sense misbehave in ‘Driving through smoke’, her poem on the ‘Black Saturday’ fires.

There are even memories of her old classics professor Godfrey-Tanner in ‘The beast in socks and sandals’.

We get a sprinkling of characters from non-Greek mythologies too – including a fair wodge of old Norse material with a mention of Fimbulwinter (the great winter), Yggdrasil (the world tree) and the Midgard serpent – the serpent that circles the world (disguised as a cat – as it once appeared to Thor). The semi-mythological also features: Boudicca makes an appearance, and that ancient weapon of mass destruction, ‘Greek fire’.

And Jenny makes her own myths too, as in the haunting ‘Aluminium apples of the moon’ that gives its title to the last section of the book.

Relationships and history

In ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ Yeats wrote of the necessity, eventually, to understand that myth is only part of the picture. ‘…Now that my ladder’s gone /I must lie down where all the ladders start / in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I’m not saying the results are foul in Jenny’s case, but in this collection she does turn her gaze to humanity’s recent, yet-to-be mythologised past, and also to the sometimes perplexing mythmaking of her own family.

She considers the refugee experience in the moving ‘Polenta memories’.

In ‘The Interchange’ she delves into the myth and truth of her great grandfather Charles Clements’ life and death.

‘The patriarch’s lurid past’ explores poverty and the misdemeanours it compels.

‘Full of church’ is a meditation on different seasons of womanhood in the family.

She has also written some heart-wrenching poems for her mother at the end of her life, ‘Dipping into that lake’ and ‘Beloved impostor’.

I have great pleasure in declaring The Loyalty of Chickens officially launched!

 – Melinda Smith

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Melinda Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her fifth, Goodbye, Cruel, is out now. She is based in the ACT and is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times.

The Loyalty of Chickens is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Filíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Poems              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

is a bilingual writer working both in Irish and English. Among her awards are the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Michael Hartnett Prize, and the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary. Her most recent book is Oighear (Coiscéim, 2017) www.doireannnighriofa.com

Books:

 

Articles:

Doireann Ní Ghríofa interviewed by Tristan Rosenstock on the arts show Imeall, broadcast on TG4 in 2016 (subtitles are available by clicking on the icon in the bottom right hand corner)

Doireann Ní Ghríofa Filíocht

Doireann Ní Ghríofa Poetry

Biographical Note              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

marginalia (foraois nach féidir)
marginalia (an impossible forest)

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marginalia (foraois nach féidir)

ní fheiceann
tusa anseo

ach seomra
folamh,

ach
in adhmad

an chláir sciorta,
feicimse foraois

faoi dhraíocht,
foraois nach féidir

dul tríthi,
agus ar ghéag

ann, tá
ulchabhán

aonair
faoi cheilt

a ghob
cuartha

ciúnaithe,
faoi gheasa,

a shúile
bioracha

duaithnithe –
dhá shnaidhm

dhonna
sa chlár,

sa choill
sin, agus

a amharc
uasal orm,

a deir
Feicim

cad é atá fút
fút, fút

fút. Feicim
cad é atá fút.

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marginalia (an impossible forest)

you see nothing
here, only

an empty
room

but in
the timber

of that baseboard
I see a forest

bewitched, an impossible
forest that cannot exist,

so we could never
plot a crossing

through it,
and on a branch

there, a single
owl hides,

his curved
beak

silenced,
spellbound,

shrill
eyes

disguised
as twin brown

knots
in the wood,

in the woods,
and

his gaze,
gallant, smooth,

that seems to say
I see

what lurks under you,
yes you, yes you.

I see what’s under
you.

‘marginalia’ appeared in Oighear (Coiscéim, 2017). Translations by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

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Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Photo by Bríd O’Donovan, 2016

A Question at the Shoreline: Noel Duffy launches ‘All the Barbaric Glass’ by David Butler

All the Barbaric Glass by David Butler, Doire Press, was launched by Noel Duffy at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin, on 23rd March 2017

The opening lines of the first poem, ‘Breaking’, of David Butler’s second collection, All the Barbaric Glass, acts as a statement of intent for the work, one which he steadfastly adheres to throughout:

There are times you need
to step outside of colloquy;
to mute the looping newsfeed,
the tinnitus of the immediate.

This is a collection that consciously steps beyond ‘the newsfeed’, the constant information thrown at us both in daily life and in the online sphere. That world occasional encroaches on this mission in certain stray moments, but David resolutely stays the course to give us something beyond mere reportage or internet chatter.

The striking imagery of the collection reminds us that this work exists at a boundary, most obviously, that of the physical landscape of the shoreline, the place between land and sea. The shoreline is a very real and concrete location throughout the poems, but subtly reaches the level of metaphor also, representing as it does so the space between life and death, loss and love found, the solid ground of the present and the less certain waters of past and future.

This notion of the blurring of boundaries is heightened also by the fact that many poems take place in the gloaming, the dusk-light, that liminal space between day and night, becoming the shadowland of the poets inner, self-questioning thoughts. The passage of time is marked out through these scenes as when a young child finds a dogfish washed up on the beach and the poet observes:

…………………………….. …Small wonder
the child with bucket stands and stares
and starts to hear the song of sand;
the whisper in the hourglass.

Such philosophical preoccupations are threaded throughout the work but there are also more emotionally direct pieces, most particularly those about his father and late mother, such as ‘Death Watch’, ‘Watcher’, and ‘Family Album’. His father’s descent into Alzheimer’s is not just observed, but observed closely and felt to the core. In the poem ‘Father’, David takes us far beyond cold statistics or even, indeed, the powerful testimony of loved ones seen on a segment on the TV news, to a fully articulated statement that captures the heart-breaking reality of the condition as experienced by both the father suffering it and the son’s efforts to try to understand it:

What unsigned city is it you wake in,
featureless, or with such altered features
the streets are not familiar, or if, with
shifting familiarity, like dreamscapes
you wake from?

The autumnal/wintry setting that pervades the collection also seems to suggest that the work exists in the wake of such loss and questioning, where we view the shoreline differently again – not just as haunting but as one now ‘haunted’ by personal grief.

It should be obvious by now how beautifully written these poems are. However, this isn’t achieved through a relaxed, easy lyricism but rather a starkly elegant one. There is an exactness and precision to these poems, an angular beauty, we might say, somewhat reminiscent of the that most descriptively rigorous of Irish poets, Thomas Kinsella. Take these lines from ‘Correspondence’:

………………….There are more
tongues here than in a metropolis
gorse and cowslip and insect
all flash their intimate semaphore;
a corncrake croaks Morse; while a skylark
hoisted high as radio-mast,
is twittering its incessant machine-code

There is a sense of rigour in this which offers a controlled, formal elegance to the language, the observational accuracy perhaps reflecting David’s studies in engineering at university. There is an eye to detail, as ‘Correspondence’ shows, that other writers may well miss.

However, there are also moments of counterpoint placed in the lattice of such a grief-work, where splashes of colour interrupt the wintry shoreline scenes and present their own vivid reality. In ‘Grand Bizarre, Istanbul’

Suddenly the senses are ablaze: scent
has tumbled into an Aladdin’s cave
that illuminates the throve of memory…

while in ‘Mellifont Abbey’, bees

…fumble inside auricular lilies
drunk on summer’s insistent song.

At the same time, the contemporary world of the ‘looping newsfeed’ and internet babble breaks through on occasion (as it must), impinging on the other reflections of natural setting. Yet found amid this ‘tinnitus’ is more important news, news that matters and captured in the vision of “all the suitcases, empty as grief / that bob on the Aegean…” bringing us closer to the scene, however briefly, of distant calamity.

To end, I just wanted to note something I only fully appreciated on a second reading of All the Barbaric Glass and one that strikes me as important and central to this books appeal. That thing is the presence of the question mark throughout these poems. So often when poets ‘question’ (especially these days) they are questioning others in accusatory tones for their social or political ineptitude, their incompetence, faults and lack. The ‘other’, in this sense, is always an easy target for lazy vitriol.

Here, though, the questions are those asked of oneself, offering a form of self-reflection and self-questioning that, in the end, is a method of self-interrogation that leaves no place to hide for the poet in these poems. This is not, in the end, a collection that offers easy resolution or explicit consolation, though nor is it one lacking in humanity or tentative hope.

The last two poems of the book demonstrate this unerring honesty. In ‘The Injunction’, the poet remembers the Deutsche Grammophon records his father would play on the old record player in the living room when he was a child, and how: “Still it reverberates / like a paternal caveat: /the cough of the stylus defluffed; / the circuitry clearing its throat; / the expectant static…” In the beautifully strange, and slightly chilling, final poem ‘Restless’ two lovers look out onto the sea as they walk the shoreline. She imagines she spies a body bobbing in the surf, just beyond the rocks. They peer out together, more alert now. He questions her assertion, then responds:

It’s not, I say again, less sure.
Less sure of myself, too
and of us,
with the sea and wind and world enormous about us.

 – Noel Duffy

 ———————————————————————————————————–

Noel Duffy’s debut collection, In the Library of Lost Objects, appeared with Ward Wood Publishing, London, in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Shine/Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish poet. His second collection On Light & Carbon followed in 2013. His most recent collection, Summer Rain, was published in summer 2016, again with Ward Wood. His poetry has been published widely in Ireland and beyond, including in Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times and The Financial Times, and has also been broadcast on RTE Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. He lives in Dublin.

All the Barbaric Glass is available from http://www.doirepress.com/writers/a_f/david_butler/

David Butler is featured in Rocjhford Street Review‘s feature on Contemporary Irish Poetry https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2017/05/05/contemporary-irish-poetry-featured-writer-david-butler/ 

Shock Treatment: Simon Patton reviews ‘Year of the Wasp’ by Joel Deane

Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane, Hunter Publishers, 2016

In 2012, Joel Deane suffered a huge shock to the system that could have ended his life. In Year of the Wasp, he tries to come to terms with this devastating experience, attempting — by means of novel and often weird imagery — to reproduce in the reader something of the intensity and alienation he felt. But how do you convey a highly unusual life-episode without toning down its otherness? And how do you convey such otherness in a way that enables others to share in it? These are two questions that reverberate throughout Deane’s Wasp.

Be prepared for the unexpected! Deane spends little time dwelling on the medical details of his ordeal. In the third poem we are given the briefest of glimpses — “Paramedics arrive. / Give him a shot of Stemetil / [ . . .] He slurs, ‘I have to spew.’ / ‘Use the bag, champ’. / And the nurse goes, / ‘Do you know where you are?’” — but from then on in, anything like a realistic therapeutic scenario is withdrawn from the writing and is replaced by a series of idiosyncratic, imaginative responses, hallucinogenic in nature, and fringed with both strong violence and occasional eroticism. It is these ingredients which offer him a means of translating the raw data of incident into a language with enough vital texture to engage us:

The owl floats across the darkened ward;
lands on the metal bed head
with a click. Stares, does not blink
at the face shining on the pillow,
white as a pharmaceutical moon.
Asks,
……………‘Did you fall?’
And the face replies,
‘But first I flew.’
At which the owl nods,
‘That much is true.
What falls must first fly.’
Shifts, claw to claw, then decides,
‘But I have only ever flown.’
And blinks.
……………And hops onto the pillow.
Baits her beak with his lazy eye.
And the face screams.
‘Wait!’
……………How could you never fall?’
And the owl does not blink.
……………Does not speak, but claws
her answer into his skin.

There are plenty of arresting details here. A technique Deane uses frequently is the omission of the grammatical subject, and here it contributes to the spooky atmosphere and enables some very effective compression (“Shifts, claw to claw, then decides”). The precision of “click” is well judged, I think, and demonstrates a wonderful attentiveness to sound, equalled elsewhere in lines such as “walked back to the car / popped the boot”. More striking is the simile “white as a pharmaceutical moon”, an intriguing case of a kind of double simile combining “white as the moon” and “round and white like a pill”. And then there’s the understated horror of the verbal metaphor in “Baits her beak with his lazy eye”, another brilliant gesture that evokes in a sudden flash of insight the wounding point of the fish-hook. We cannot but squirm in response.

Greek mythology is another important feature. “The owl floats across the darkened ward” is one of several poems that hints at the story of Icarus, and the loss of power that comes to one who falls. The owl’s lesson on this score is not something that can be translated into clear ideas — the bird “claws her answer into his skin” — but this clawing looks very much like writing, a visceral kind of writing reminiscent of an enigmatic poetry that perhaps, at least occasionally, attains to that extraordinary still-point beyond flying and falling, that seems to last forever, in the same way as a sublime passage of music: “She says, ‘Remain perfectly still,’ / although nothing ever is. / Then Something Blue begins and he thinks, / ‘Almost nothing’.” (“The giant toad squatting”). This is the knowledge that the owl, symbol of wisdom, brings obliquely home to us.

Such pronounced weirdness in the writing can tend to obscure the human truth of the subject-matter. In “And so he wakes”, for example, a brief description of the ambulance journey ends with the lines “ . . . siren singing / as a wasp performs a pig Latin liturgy / on the tabernacle / of his tongue” is both surreal and demonic, but it is bizarre rather than apt, and veers towards absurdity. In another poem, “And on the third day”, the speaker tries to placate a seagull which has “ants for eyes” by tossing it scrabble tiles of “the most expensive kind — Q, X, Z”. This kind of blending of the far-fetched and the grotesque appears to be essential to Deane’s experience of serious illness, and it provides the reader with some insight into how the mind responds to severe stress and medication, but ultimately I found such passages unenlightening with regard to the nature — and value — of human suffering.

But there is a whimsical side to Deane that counterbalances the showy melodrama of his dominant mode:

Doors painted red,
summer night drowsy with smoke,
he walks out to the courtyard.
Says, ‘Firewords,’
……………………..instead of fireworks.
Apologises to Caligula,
the crossbred canine.
‘My mind’s not right, Cal.’
The Japanese willow,
also middle-aged, has thickened
where he has thinned, scratches
his head with a sympathetic branch.
‘Much obliged,’ he says,
Gong Xi Fa Cai.’
Apologises again.
‘You don’t speak Mandarin, do you?’
And the willow offers
not a whisper in reply,
‘Neither do I.’
……………………..More firewords.
Somewhere, somewhere close,
people are talking in a backyard.
A barbecue is burning flesh.
Cal brushes against him and
he leans hard against the willow,
where a mosquito finds him,
…………..gives him an ang pow kiss
to mark the going and the coming
of the year of the wasp.

The chatty, relaxed tone makes good sense here, because the poem is about reconnection with life in its everyday manifestations. The doors are “painted” red by New Year’s Eve fireworks, and this launches the speaker into a gentle-witty drift of associations: Caligula, the Roman emperor, a nod at Asia as a contrast to Europe, a desire for speech and physical contact as a support for powerlessness (“lean hard” indicates this), even if it comes in the form of a mild insect bite. There’s a muted hopefulness here, alongside a clear-sighted recognition that the world goes on as it always has, with the smell of “burning flesh” usually somewhere nearby.

What of the central wasp motif as an effective symbol of malevolence, of the death of desire, of anti-life? Apart from the examples we have already encountered, its major uses in the first section are as follows:

It was foolish to hope. He prayed / for rain but the heavens let fall / Tithonus instead, / whose every atom / was transfigured into a wasp. And / every wasp was born in fury / and showered down and / stung and did not slake the thirst.

A wasp is in the ward: / scrawling graffiti in negative / space: / tapping / against the windowpane / searching / for the crack / that lets in / the cold:

The wasp / that was inside / the ward / is now inside / (his head).

His head, / blunt as a bowling ball, / lies heavy [ . . . ] / and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes.

The wasp in the umbrella tree, exclamation marks / in search of an ending. / Turn people into verbs.

In my view, these wasps aren’t particularly menacing, especially when evoked in the singular, as they almost always are here. Surely a single wasp in a ward is a minor irritation in comparison with an owl! When Deane tries to invest the wasp with greater significance, he sometimes strains in the attempt. The first example makes use of another mythological reference, this time to immortal Tithonus, a figure well-known to poetry-readers thanks to Tennyson, who wrote a poem that describes his unique predicament in the following lines: “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, / And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes . . .” When this is coupled with deliberately archaic language (“and did not slake the thirst”), the effect is histrionic rather than chilling. In the third example, the image of the speaker’s damaged head as a blunt bowling ball has a certain appalling force, but to extend it by adding “and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes” requires too much negative capability on the part of the reader to achieve the desired result. But it’s true that many people associate wasps with toxic peril. Judith Beveridge, for instance, in her recent prize-winning poem “As Wasps Fly Up”, describes the insects squirting venom into the eyes of unlucky entomologist as he dangles from a tree over a Costa Rican gorge.

“Eight Views of Nowhere” is the evocative name of the book’s second section, and alludes to both mortality and nothingness. It is borrowed from the title of a series of inkjet and digital prints made by the artist Meredith Squires in 2013. Most of these feature mist-shrouded mountains with a very Chinese feel, except for the second view, which shows a waterfront cityscape reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Central District. All the views include extensive areas of blank or “negative” space, and it is this presentation of formlessness that seems to appeal to Deane, as well as the Oriental ambience.

The first poem is a long one and opens as follows:

Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
…………these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
…………delusion to allusion, god to wasp.
And the wasps, born anew
…………diurnally as deities would,
should they be reproduced to scale on
the digital archival paper that holds these views,
…………be reborn as dragons
……………………to rival Ishiro Honda’s keiju —
ink jet manifestations of the past anxieties
…………of our tokusetsu life. As for today,
fear sets me free, gives me flight,
…………transforms me from an insect
into something greater/lesser, blinding me
to the moment fast approaching when
…………these wings are no longer able to defy
gravity and I, too, shall fall
…………from the monochrome sky
and break my imagined self against
…………the footpath of a confected world . . .

Casting himself in the role of a nowhere man, Deane reads Squires’ images as a mirror in which to imagine himself as “an extinction in progress” — the fact that her eight views contain only one city-scene hints at the transience of our presence on the Earth. However, the passage is not as straightforwardly gloomy as it sounds: our ordinary life of anxieties (symbolized by the wasp) may be “transfigured” by the encounter with nothingness, and we may be able to “fly” for a while, until we “break” open our imaginary selves and become enlightened to a reality beyond that of this “confected world”. The remainder of the poem conducts a brief investigation into reality and illusion. This may be designed expressly to allow for a positive, perhaps Daoist- or Zen-inspired, interpretation of apparent nothingness (“nothing — nowhere — is as it seems”).

This poem is heavy-going in places and is made even more difficult by its use of Japanese words. Deane clearly delights in the texture and aura of foreign terms and enjoys the way they can influence the atmosphere in a text — it is part and parcel of how he relates to language. He includes a few snatches of Latin in “Old, yet always new”, and there is the Mandarin Chinese expression gongxi facai (literally “congratulations, make money”, but roughly functionally equivalent to our “Happy New Year”) in one of the poems quoted above from the first section. In this particular instance, understanding the meaning of the phrase is not strictly necessary: we are put in the position of the tree, that of course has no idea what the speaker is saying. In addition, we are told that the phrase is Chinese, and that is probably all the information we need to appreciate the text.

The meaning of non-English words may, however, be vital to our comprehension of the sense of some lines, such as in “Contemplate her eight views of nowhere”. Here, there is no real context to help us understand the meaning of keiju and tokusetsu, and yet they are not just there for the sake of mood. A translator colleague explained their significance to me: keiju (or kaijū 怪獣) means “monster” — Honda Ishirō was the director of the original Godzilla film — while tokusetsu is probably tokusatsu 特撮, a word that is the equivalent of our “special effects”. When the meaning of non-English words is vital to the sense, it would be a good idea to provide a note with a simple translation. Otherwise, the reader is deprived of access to a crucial part of the text.

A serious rival to the prominent theme of personal extinction emerges quite strongly in the second section: the theme of eros. Deane has hinted at it largely in passing in the opening part of the book — there is the television sex-scene in “His life repeats on the portable TV”, the moment when he becomes aroused as a Somali nurse “polishes and rolls him”, and the lines “Old, yet always new, / desire not departing, / appetite redoubled, became / the blood and bone of him” — and he returns to it in two poems that conclude his “Eight Views of Nowhere”. One presents the peculiar image of “origami vaginas” that dissolve into an eternity of white, while the other sings of love, that romantic, all-too-human mode of infinity:

If this star of my affection
were love enough
……………………….no darkness would you see,
but shadows of longing.
…………The negative of ardour,
hard as obsidian,
that will burn until I fade —
…………blind the eternity of midnights
with the blink of one midday.

Nevertheless, we are reminded in a roundabout way of the primacy of the death theme when we realize that these poetic “Eight Views” only include a total of six pieces.
The collection closes on a Hopkins-esque note with a further nine poems grouped under the heading “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. In it, Deane reprises elements of the previous two parts, especially the weird strain of the opening section. It begins with a brutally confronting poem about the mercy killing of a fox that has been run over, and includes a further appearance of the wasp symbol, although the phrase “in some crowded hive / a riot is awakened” blurs the entomological line between wasps (which gather in nests) and bees. Political themes, indicating a public turn in Deane’s writing, become prominent, with acerbic poems about Australian identity and refugees, “those embalmed alive / with razor wire” (“This devil’s bridge”). Significantly, the rambling final poem returns in its concluding lines to the theme of eros, and finishes with the lines “for, though we have no time to live, / we have just enough time to love”: despite the nightmarish quality of much of the poetry, something fragile but life-affirming emerges from the carnage. Coincidentally, Deane harks backs here to territory he explored in his previous book, Magisterium, when he writes “What matters most is that / we love this life we are leaving / and are unafraid of the next” (“Requiem”).

For me, an unexpected highlight of this section is the following low-key item:

Face a fist,
seven years of muscle
rising eight,
she forces me to lean hard
…………to hold her flat
on the table
as the doctor — who
insists on being called Daisy —
…………dabs liquid nitrogen
into my daughter’s sole.

I hear cold skin burning
as I tell her to be brave,
…………but the truth is
she is brave enough already.

It takes courage to be scared.

At once, all the phantasmagorical elements in Deane’s poetic repertoire fall away in the act of dealing with a child’s suffering. At once, we feel the situation with some immediacy. The metaphor “face a fist” embodies this directness, and finds support in the monosyllabic physical keenness of the simple description of the speaker leaning “hard to hold her flat on the table” (there’s a deft reference back to “he leans hard against the willow” here). We get a sense of fierce pain even before we have a clear idea about what is happening. The detail about the doctor insisting on being called Daisy (she would have to have a floral name, when the girl has been stung on the foot by a flower-feeding wasp/bee!) allows Deane to indulge his wit without straying from the facts of this mundane situation. This is turn clarifies the action and keeps it focused. Finally, the ingenious shift in the choice of preposition — not the obvious “on my daughter’s sole” but into it — proves how much more effective precise effects can be in comparison to extravagant oddity.

A striking instance of paradox closes the poem to give the reader a further jolt. However, this comes at too high a price: it distorts the meaning that the rest of the poem works towards in order to deliver another surprise. Actually, it doesn’t take bravery to be scared, but it does take courage to fully accept pain and one’s very human vulnerability to extremely unpleasant situations. There is something emblematic in this moment: throughout the collection there is a tendency to opt for exaggerated dramatic touches at the expense of absolute precision with regard to the difficult realities of pain and suffering.

Craig Sherborne has written that Deane is capable of “moody, strikingly versatile poetry” and this is certainly true of Year of the Wasp. Perhaps, though, one of the most impressive things about Deane’s poetry is his daring. At various moments in this collection, he puts himself into poetically very fraught situations, just to see what he can make of the difficulty. A memorable example of this is a short poem about desire:

And the man asked the mountain,

“How does it feel to become
something more than desire?”

And the mountain asked the man,

“Something less,
you mean?

It would feel as though

the sun stared too hard,
the sky forgot to rain,

the rivers lost their way.”

Deane sets himself the challenge here of trying to imagine how it would feel to live free of human wanting, stone-wise. There’s a welcome sense of surprise and relief in the mountain’s reply: at once, it denies the questioner’s assumption that there is anything intrinsically superior about transcending desire. But none of the images in the final three lines presents a convincing expression of what the mountain is trying to tell us about its desire-less state — a state possibly akin to the liberation from our imagined selves proposed in the second section. In this sense the promise of the poem is not fulfilled. Nevertheless, I find Deane’s willingness to take on such challenges admirable. Why shouldn’t we think of poetry in the way Simone Weil thought of philosophy, as a posing of insoluble problems, while “facing them in their insolubility, contemplating them in humility, without hope, indefinitely”?

Deane’s courage extends to his use of simile and metaphor. There are some remarkable examples of this scattered throughout the book. In “Paramedics arrive” we have “weeping trailers”, a metaphor that vividly indicate the distinct pattern of dripping that happens when boats are loaded onto them. The word “silk” is irresistibly sensuous, and Deane employs it with great effect in the lines “The way children wade over: / paint each other black / with the silk of volcanoes / that grind basalt to talcum in their sleep” (“The way the setting sun shadows”). And then elsewhere there is the dynamic “whirlpool of sparrows” contrasted with a sinister “scree of drones”.

Such boldness can create its own problems, however. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser makes some helpful remarks on the question of unwanted shades of meaning, referring to them as “noun shadows”. For instance, when Deane writes of “the polished cheek / of a floor”, the meaning of “smoothness” highlighted by “cheek” is disturbed by the unwanted association of “roundedness”. Another noun shadow also undermines the effectiveness of “metronome skyscrapers” (“He laps the oval while”): yes, the buildings may be tall and narrow like the needle of a metronome, but they are unlikely to swing rhythmically from side to side! A third example appears in this description of a dawn sky: “they wait / for the Ferris wheel of the horizon”. This effectively summons up the looming orb of the rising sun, but again the reader has to fight hard against the distracting implication of wheeling rotation.

Shock then — as novelty, or as weirdness, or as violence — can make a strong momentary impression on readers, but there is something paradoxically powerless in it, perhaps because it is essentially a superficial effect. We are unlikely to be touched deeply by it, and our ideas about the world will not be enlarged as a result. In contrast, when the surface agitation of the poetry calms, there are occasions where Deane achieves the subtler and more powerful shock of real insight, and these are the moments that linger longest with me from the writer’s harrowing year of the wasp.

 – Simon Patton

 —————————————————————————————————————

Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. He recently spent two months in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong as translator-in-residence at Lingnan University.

Year of the Wasp is available from http://hunterpublishers.com.au/books/year-of-the-wasp/

A number of poems from Year of the Wasp were published in Verity La http://verityla.com/poems-from-year-of-the-wasp-joel-deane/

Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: David Butler

David Butler Five poems          Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

David Butler

 

Author’s pagehttps://davidbutlerauthor.wordpress.com/

Books:

Reviews and articles:

 

All the Barbaric Glass by David Butler was launched by Noel Duffy on 23 March 2017 at The Irish Writers Centre, Dublin

David Butler – Five Poems

Biographical Note              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Swallows
Shaving Mirror
Glassblower
Depredation
Exodus

 .

Swallows

Scythe-wings slide from the low vaults, calling,
Fall through the line of sight, swing wide,
And, tight to the lawn, race their shadows.
Gracing an arc, a long drawn, mower’s sweep,
The lithe blades wheel and leap at once upwards, deep
Deep in the blue air.

Chatter thrown wide over unploughed winds
They gather high, then scatter in heady reels
To sow their sky-notes, peels, thin chips of sound,
Till they halt, crest, fall again low to ground
And reap the long hours that have grown there
Over the fields.

The seasons turn, the dusk-silted eaves fall dumb,
Shunned by their feints of leaving, flights in shadow.
They weave and scatter at nightfall, gather their numbers
And scything and sweeping the hollows, they harvest in
The last sheaves of light. And then they are gone,
And with them the summer.

Back to Contents

 .

Shaving Mirror

The illusion, in its concave retina, is
virtual, magnified and upright,
which shows the treachery of words.
Rather say the image exaggerates
with the precision of satire.
It is a theatre of parallax;
a moving circle, centred on the eye;
a mercurial portrait, to which
time, a third-rate artist
who can’t leave well-enough alone,
returns, morning after morning,
to rework line and hatching
with ever coarser charcoals,
until the figure is botched, once for all,
to caricature.

Back to Contents

 .

Glassblower

It is as though an incandescent swarm
has clustered, on a spindle of his breath,
to fabricate a hive
in the hot globe of amber.
The air is given hands,
cupping the molten bubble thrown out
by his steady lung, crafting
the dull red sun until it sets,
like a premonition of Winter,
into the fragile geometry of glass.

Back to Contents

 .

Depredation

The drunken wind which last night
stomped through the playground,
drove the park into a frenzy
of soughing boughs, buffeted
the houses, sputtered
down the throats of chimneys,
chased cascades of startled
leaves against the windows, has,
this morning, taken a breather.
The ground is littered with all
the detritus of late autumn,
as if a carnival has decamped;
and the trees, stripped bare
as parents when grief tears through them,
are suddenly old.

Back to Contents

 .

Exodus

What bundle has morning washed up
on the shores of the internet,
a tiny Gulliver, though silent as still-birth?
A Moses among the bull-rushes?
Pharaoh has sent his towering guard
like the giant of Gallipoli, to raise him.
Surely, among all the suitcases, empty as grief,
that bob on the Aegean, one can be found
to cradle him, float him onwards…

Back to Contents

David Butler – Photograph Doire Press

Tilting at Poetic Windmills: John Foulcher launches ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ by Melinda Smith

Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith was launched by John Foulcher on 8 April at the Civic Digest Cafe, Civic Theatre as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

I first heard Melinda read at a Canberra venue with ‘local poets’ about ten years ago. They were all good poets but Melinda stood out – this was the real deal, here was an authentic voice who knew about craft. So I bought her slim, staple-bound volume, First . . . then and found the poems were as good on the page as they were when she read them. When she sent a manuscript to Pitt Street Poetry, John asked me if I knew her and what did I think. I think I said something like ‘read the manuscript’ but I can’t really remember. Soon after, John rang me to say that, although PSP’s year was full, he’d have to fit this one in – Melinda, he suggested, was Australia’s Wendy Cope. His faith was justified when Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call beat a host of luminaries to win the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award. And it richly deserved to do so.

Command of a wide diversity of tone and subject matter, as well as consummate control of form, marked Melinda’s first PSP book, and while those qualities can again be found here, Goodbye, Cruel is a real step forward. Someone once suggested to me that, when you’ve got an achievement under your belt, you shouldn’t try to get better, you should try to get worse – by that, he meant you shouldn’t simply repeat what you know you can do, but you should try to do some things which are new territory for you, you should risk failure. I think Melinda has tried to get worse in this book, but I have to tell you she’s failed spectacularly, for every risk she seems to have taken here has worked. This is a terrific book.

Let’s start with the title: Goodbye, Cruel . . . yes, we all know what the next word is, but it’s not there. The omission is a verbal wink – there’s the hint of a sly laugh in it. ‘There are so many clichés about suicide,’ it seems to say, ‘but can we just put them aside and start again?’ The second section of the book, from which the title is lifted, does exactly that – it stares down an act which many would see as the ultimate obscenity – returning the most essential gift we’ve been given. Why would you do it? When I was a secondary school teacher (for my sins I spent forty years in the wilderness of classrooms), we weren’t allowed talk of suicide with kids. It was always rushed over, mutely hushed, avoided for fear the very acknowledgement of the act would put its seeds in other young heads. In newspaper reports, when someone suicides it’s usually not articulated; death in such cases is ‘untimely’. The absence of stated cause becomes a whisper of shock, almost embarrassment. It’s as if the perpetrator/victim shouldn’t be further humiliated by the ownership of the act.

This isn’t the approach Melinda takes. In a blisteringly good series of poems, she enters the act, she gives the voiceless voice, granting those who cross into death by their own hands a kind of dignity. This isn’t to say that she approves or affirms their decisions; she simply makes such a response irrelevant. In trademark fashion, she does this through shifts in voice and form. She moves effortlessly from the intimate and the colloquial to the formal and the elevated, allowing people to speak for themselves through time. Take, for instance, these wonderful lines from ‘A plate of biscuits’, written from the adult point of view of a child whose mother suicided when she was young. The poem addresses her mother:

That morning
you rose
iced the special biscuits
placed them on the baby-blue plate
made porridge for us
laid out clean clothes for my brother and me
combed our hair, oiled down my forehead curl
drove us to the school
dropped him at his classroom
walked me to my kindergarten class party
chatted to the teacher as she took the plate
from your pale hand
(above my head
it seemed you were passing her
a piece of the sky)
got back in the car
drove to your friend’s empty house
taped the doors and windows shut
and gassed yourself.

From the child’s perspective, an ordinary day – the list of routines which seem completely average, harmless, capped with a horrific action as if it, also, was nothing in particular. The simplicity of the language not only mimics the child’s viewpoint but it begs the question – what prompted this? Yet, as the list of daily tasks builds to its awful climax, its pounding rhythm becomes oppressive – you can hear a rising tide of frustration in it. The child may not understand this, but we who find ourselves slave to a numbing tide of routines that imperceptibly overtake and control us – we understand. Whether we’ve peered into that dark abyss or not, we get it.

How this contrasts with ‘The Undiscovered Country’, the poem which precedes ‘A plate of biscuits’. In this poem’s spare, fluid tercets, Melinda takes the voice of one of the suicides from Dante’s Inferno, condemned to exist as a gnarled, prickle-infested tree for eternity. A hatred of the body, always inferior, always inadequate, is at the heart of the woman/tree, who mutters to us:

I never once loved my body.
At first I hardly noticed it
then later – when it bled every month

when my breasts swelled. intruded themselves,
complicated my every move – it felt more
like a punishment, a humiliating

costume into which I had been sewn.
Too big, too floppy, too pale, too slow.
Sometimes I tried to take control

to starve it, cut it, knock it out with drink.
Later I simply bore it as a burden
as one does.

I’m sure the girls I taught with who had eating disorders – too many of them – would understand this as well.

Goodbye, Cruel . . . when we get to the final poem of this sequence, ‘Contemplating the Gap’, the title and its omission take on a new significance – Melinda tells me she’s going to read this poem, so I won’t ruin for you, other than to say the sequence ends on a note of strength and hope. In the end, the poem farewells cruelty itself, celebrates life in all its frailty and imperfection.

Don’t think, though, that this sequence is the extent of the book – Melinda tilts at an enormous number of poetic windmills here, from the elegant interpretations of Persian poet, Rabi’a Balkhi in the section entitled ‘Safina’ to the crisp observations of country and our own national history in the final sections, ‘Riverine’ and ‘Endtime’. The evocation of cattle in ‘A paddockful of Black Angus’ is as good as anything by our great poetic chroniclers of rural life:

So dark
the light slides off them,
they scan as silhouettes,
cave-painting cattle
radiating peace
as old as herds.
One of them arcs tail away from rump
with the suggestion of an arabesque,
makes a soft pile

podder podder
on the silent grass.

And that razor-sharp, Cope-like wit – many poems here lull you into laughter, then turn the knife. I can’t resist this delightful fantasy on a line of graffiti:

BRIAN LOVES Vicki . . .
…………I think someone should tell her
I think if she knew she would leave town
…………
I think he should arrange to meet her in real life soon
………………………..I think this is a good thing
…………I think she might not love him back
I think now would be a good time to tell her about his wife
…………I think he did before though and it didn’t end well
………………………..I think she is just trolling him
…………I think maybe this is not such a good thing
I think this is a triumph of hope over experience
…………I think he wants to give her all his money
………………………..I think he’ll change his mind when he finds out
………………………..about Trevor
I think he should stop hitting her if that’s the case

There’s a sting in the tail there that leaves you wondering if laughter was the appropriate response to anything in the poem.

When I was at university (yes, I can just about remember it), I took a course in literary craftsmanship, conducted by a really fine poet, Professor JM Couper. Ultimately, Couper told us, a poet’s worth is measured by the way he or she handles the long poem. As I’ve grown older and done a little writing poetry myself, I’ve come to doubt that. Often, I think a poet’s real talent is exemplified by the way he or she handles the short poem, the one that demands significance from a shard (think of WC Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’). As good as all Melinda’s more expansive poems are, you only need to read a few of her micro-poems to see how impressive her talent is. In this, the book’s final poem, ‘the bone tree’ is among Goodbye, Cruel’s finest:

in the bare blue air of my dream
there is a bone tree growing

it may not know where I have been
but it knows where I am going

Congratulations, Melinda. This book is a major achievement.

 ————————————————————————————————

 – John Foulcher

John Foulcher has written eleven books of poetry, most recently 101 Poems (PSP 2015), a selection from his previous books, and A Casual Penance (PSP 2017). His work has appeared in national magazines and anthologies for over thirty years. In 2010-11 he was the Literature Board’s resident at the Keesing Studio in Paris. He lives in Canberra.

For information on how to order Goodbye Cruel contact Pitt Street Poetry at http://pittstreetpoetry.com/