Deeley finds fertile ground where humans engage with nature
Micheal O’Siadhail: the apt portrait by Mick O’Dea on the cover of his new book
Patrick Deeley’s Groundswell: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus, €14.99) collects more than 30 years of work. The predecessor who haunts these poems is the father whose work in forestry is remembered in the elegy Woodman and in the matter-of-fact description of poems such as Languages: “The sawmill blade blurs as it’s speeded up. A burst of smoke / rises from the revved tractor’s exhaust pipe. / I sit in the tin seat, watching the distended 8 of the leather belt / smoothly recycled between pulleys. You align / the ash log for splitting.”
Time and again, when describing his own work, Deeley draws on the example of his father’s work with phrasing that is idiomatic and springy. Fealty to childhood, and to a localised pastoral, marks the work of many Irish writers, but Deeley makes universal claims for his work’s applicability. The “hidden village” to which his work returns is christened “Turane”, an anagram of Nature, and it is there he finds a place for poetry, in “the need to sit loose-legged / amid your canopy, crowned by sun, holding / the imprimatur of a clear sky in my hand. Below, / the villagers move by earthly weights and measures” (To the Dryad).
A more recent poem, Fear Bréige, imagines a scarecrow in the city and, from below, takes a caustic look up at the Celtic Tiger with “entrepreneurs / the new stars whirling their helicopters / above the heads of commoners”. Here, though, and in some of the pastoral poems, Deeley’s imagination can appear too binary and static, with urban modernity opposed to a more ancient engagement with the natural world.
Such oppositions, though, are absent from his best work, which is alive to the edgelands where human endeavour engages with rather than overwhelms the natural world, as in the sawmill of Languages or in his Ranelagh Pastoral. And Deeley’s fluent, lyrical touch is used to different, loving effect in the book’s closing meditation on marriage, Last Night a Starling, which imagines an afterlife “long after our lives have happened to us – subliminal, given to blending / with ornate wallpaper patterns or able to hide in hazes / of lamplight”.
Micheal O’Siadhail’s Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, £20) sets its face against the specificity and locatedness that may be said to define the work of Deeley and, indeed, most of his contemporaries. This huge book has an impressive and apt portrait by Mick O’Dea on the cover, with the poet’s size itself exaggerated by the elevation of his chair on a coffee table.
O’Siadhail’s style remains fairly uniform across the 828 pages of Collected Poems. He consistently uses a regular line and stanza length, and the poems reiterate key terms such as “city”, “fragile”, “jazz”, “gene”, “blur”, “dust” and “stranger”. Rather than bedding his poems down with specific images or references to particular places and sounds, O’Siadhail produces work that is, as that vocabulary implies, more discursive and abstract than most contemporary poetry. The Chosen Garden, for instance, recounts the poet’s time at a boarding school but reaches for archetypal experiences rather than dwelling on any particular moment or place. A parental visit is described: “We are visitors for each other. / Unwittingly those weeks of initiation leave / a baffle between us. Our words fall short. / I am learning another language, another lore” (Visit).
O’Siadhail’s books in turn report and discuss his experiences, of school, a long marriage and, latterly, his responses to the Holocaust, globalisation and other languages. Those last two subjects are the starting points for his most recent collections, Globe (2007) and Tongues (2010), which are admirably interested in trying out new kinds of line and form as they jam together his disorienting sense of a changing world with his memories of what has disappeared:
“Into the blue of other flights and offbeat
Loop the loops to retrieve out of the lurch
Of fashion things we thought we’d
Out of date jingles on a mobile telephone
Where we just scroll quickly down to search
Our main menu’s options and thumb delete.”
Thomas Kinsella’s five most recent Dedalus/Peppercanister pamphlets, some of them already reviewed individually in these pages, have been republished now as Late Poems (Carcanet, £9.95) and deserve repeated if brief mention here. Reading these pamphlets together, Kinsella’s writing remains as clear and compelling as ever, moving easily between ordinary speech and striking coinages: his inventive power (“Gaspbegotten. In shockfuss. Out of nowhere. / Bent in blind sleep / over a closed book” begins Marcus Aurelius) and the flexibility of his recurring motifs of appetite, waste and order are always evident.
This late work has a tireless curiosity and is equally at home with learned precedents, glancing autobiography and the novelties of the 21st century: the “findings” in these recent poems are located, variously, in the presence of a cathedral organ known as the Fat Master, in war poems that move from an “insect analogue” to the realm of The Iliad, in casual meetings in hospitals and supermarkets, and in a dispassionate but moving account of a long enmity that began with encounters as junior civil servants and is now conducted in grimmer circumstances: “Standing, watching, on opposite sides of the grave, / we exchanged nods in old dislike” (The Affair).
John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. His third book, Of All Places (Gallery), was a Poetry Book Society recommendation.