Looking back through time and memory: Celeste Augé launches ‘This Little World’ by Karen J. McDonnell

Karen J. McDonnell Biographical Note       Karen J. McDonnell Four Poems            
Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

This Little World by Karen J. McDonnell, Doire Press 2017, was launched by Celeste Augé on Saturday 17th June, 2017 at the Galway Arts Centre

Celeste Augé launching This Little World

There are books of poetry that jump out and hit you on the head with overwrought emotion, opinions or anxieties. This Little World is not one of those. It’s a book that demands a quiet space, for you to take the time to slowly read – or re-read – individual poems so that they sink in, the way a good conversation with a friend sinks in, follows you throughout the day; the way snippets of chat are later recollected and gain added meanings, maybe even a different perspective. These are poems that need time, the way a friendship needs time.

At the outset of her collection, in the poem ‘Rear View’, Karen J. McDonnell asserts: ‘I drown in other lives’. This Little World looks back through time and memory, through different perspectives, including those that flare beyond Ireland’s boundaries. From the hills of Clare to ‘Sleepless in Armagh’ to a soldier on the Somme to Limerick in 1918 to Nazi death camps through to present-day Middle East to Syria, McDonnell fashions poems out of the quiet unseen moments – the small incidents and insights – recognising that we are all human, together.

In ‘The Good Room’ – an evocative title for any Irish person of a certain age, a room we’ve been banished from or invited through depending on the circumstances – the poet looks at transgression, at spending time in spaces we’re not supposed to: ‘Tell me, child, why / do you still grasp this time-shard / when memories are lost as easily as a daisy hair clip / in a day’s rough and tumble?’ The poem asks the question within a memory, providing delicious irony. And isn’t this the role of the writer, to watch and remember and piece it together later, to illuminate context and meaning?

Another glimpse of Irish-ness is contained in the powerful poem ‘Shell Gathering’, which opens with an image that is very much located in Ireland: ‘Coming home from the funeral / we stop in the hot day / for ice-cream at Crusheen.’ This image sets the scene for shell gathering beyond these shores, creating a breathtaking twist. Well, you’ll have to read the collection to discover it.

Flashes of humour and whim combine to give us delicious lines like this one from ‘Super Moon’: ‘Optimism is no match for Burren / mists.’ That first line sucks me in, then the poem succinctly dives off into a perfect description of the life of the artist and more specifically the process of writing poetry: ‘Chasing a super moon / in cloud cover is fruitless.’ It speaks both of the challenges of life in the West of Ireland and the difficulty of writing poetry, of finding truth in the midst of our complicated world. In the playful ‘Sleepless in Armagh’, when ‘the boy racers of Armagh are at it’ – it being handbrake turns in the B&M car park – the speaker wryly speculates: ‘This was once the most militarised zone / in Europe. Where are the police? / Could we not have a bit of the tough stuff back?’ Then later in the poem, after at least one prayer, she confesses: ‘I’m an ecumenical non-believer.’ The poet’s fine sense of whimsy lights up another poem, ‘A Bad Dose’, which describes getting a writerly affliction while in A&E: ‘Worse still is the dose / I catch in there. Hospitals: / completely overrun by adverbs.’

This Little World does what good poetry should: transform the everyday and draw our attention to it. The poet takes the sense of powerlessness felt when faced with natural or man made disasters beyond our control, and from them casts images of beauty. The poem ‘In Zaraq’ features the lines: ‘On a high wire / a plastic bag hangs / like a hawk / treading stilled air.’ It brings to mind an earlier poem, ‘Swansong’, so that both images reverberate across my mind: ‘A discarded fertiliser bag. / I tried to fool myself, but the sea / slunk out, leaving behind a / desolate, soaked swan / that I couldn’t reach.’ What else can we do when faced with the impossibility of action but write, or failing that, read a poem? One of my favourite poems of the book, ‘Palmyra, 2016’ contains the striking observation: ‘Even ghosts can only bear so much suffering.’ So the collection ends, halfway across the world from County Clare, where it began.

Karen has taken the time to listen to the world, to write these poems, wrestle them together into a collection. Writing poetry is never easy in a world that rewards feeding the corporate giants. And although other people can help, ultimately the writer does it alone. In that way, writing resembles birth. To quote from one more poem: ‘Birthing. / Not always joyful. / Forceping dactyls. / Similes I’ll never like. / Elusive adjectives.’

But now comes the christening, the publication of Karen’s poems in the world, the celebration with friends and family as This Little World joins the extended family of books already published, as her new book – her first – joins the conversation between poems – and poets – across boundaries and through time, goes out to find its place in this world, independent of the poet who birthed it.

 – Celeste Augé

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Celeste Augé is the author of Skip Diving (Salmon Poetry, 2014), The Essential Guide to Flight (Salmon Poetry, 2009) and the collection of short stories Fireproof and Other Stories (Doire Press, 2012). Her poetry has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Award and in 2011 she won the Cúirt New Writing Prize for fiction. She lives in Connemara, in the West of Ireland, with her husband and son.

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

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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/