Conflict, resolution and the giants' passionate progress
Nick Laird: poems that travel the world from Cookstown. photograph: dara mac dónaill
PoetryNick Laird’s third collection, Go Giants (Faber, £12.99), begins with Epithalamium, a poem to celebrate a wedding, which contrasts the bride and groom’s qualities – “You’re beeswax, I’m birdshit. / I’m mostly harmless, you’re irrational”– and ends, winningly: “If I’m the rising incantation / you’re the charm. Or I am. Or you are.” This is a witty, turbocharged love poem, but it is also about difference and similarity, marrying one to another so that even the speaker can’t tell them apart. It’s a defining, happy resolution that the book would like to find for the other, social kinds of conflict and violence that are its main subject.
Go Giants makes good the achievements of Laird’s impressive second collection, On Purpose. Like that book, it features secular lyrics, tightly knit sound patterns, allusive titles and close observation of particulars. The poems travel the world but are oriented towards Northern Ireland: adult knowledge of other places – Rome, New York, London – is tested against memories of adolescence in a small Northern Irish town. But Laird is at his best when the poems carefully assemble more low-key and subdued dramas, scenes that are often whispered aftermaths to events he does not describe. Condolence sees a mother “slip the ruled sheet // behind the front page of her pad to write out in good / phrases to wives and the parents of husbands // with such slow deliberation the slack is blanched / and collapses, and the fire is consumed by its ashes”.
A sequence of six poems, The Mark, conjures up another kind of aftermath, the body of Marsyas after he was flayed. Laird’s precise images and controlled direction of his poems make us see things we might rather we hadn’t: “There was the child who thought the darkness / in the branches was some stag that had got / its horns entangled” eventually gives way to “when the rug of flies shook out / he understood that all the skin / had been torn from him by some animal”. The Mark also features a talkier, more insistent voice (“Also Apollo, the racist, cheated” and “all pain’s non-fictional, // based on the true story of pain”) before it returns to the body again with a scene whose suggestive tones and images demonstrate how cycles of violence continue: “We wrap him in the swaddling cloths / and lug him uphill to an olive grove // that someone knows and in a little clearing / stack rocks around the body, then walk back / to a houseful of the vengeful and drunk.”
Go Giants has a two-part structure, which resembles the shape of a Paul Muldoon collection, the most obvious influence on Laird’s work. Its 37 short poems are followed by Progress, a 37-part closing poem that ambitiously attempts to rework Muldoon’s signature “exploded sestina” long form (reusing a set of rhyme sounds in a particular order) and his splicing together of narrative strands. With subtitles drawn from The Pilgrim’s Progress, Laird’s poem intercuts compelling accounts of sectarian violence in his home town, Cookstown, with sections set in Rome that discuss, among other things, Galileo’s lens-grinding (Laird’s focus on Galileo’s telescopes explicitly asks us to reconsider perspective, vision and blindness), Allegri’s Miserere and Hugh O’Neill’s flight to Rome in 1607.