Geography of ruin that resonates across centuries
Ireland's most neglected poet?: Peter McDonald
Collected Poems. By Peter McDonald. Carcanet, 244pp, £18.95
Peter McDonald’s first collection, Biting the Wax, appeared in 1989. Emerging between an older generation of writers that included Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Frank Ormsby, and the younger crop that followed closer to century’s end and beyond (Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis), McDonald belongs to a moment in Northern Irish poetry that has not, perhaps, received its full critical due. Other poets who began to publish during these years (Martin Mooney, Sam Gardiner, Andrew Elliott) also produced interesting work, deserving of a larger audience than it has yet achieved. But if Poetry Ireland Review were to revisit today the feature it once carried on “Ireland’s most neglected poet”, the answer might well be Peter McDonald. Gathering his five slim volumes to date, this Collected Poems amply demonstrates why.
A gnomon is, among other things, a parallelogram with a corner missing. Mentioned in the opening story of Joyce’s Dubliners, it has long struck critics as symbolic of that volume’s oppressive atmosphere of disappointment and incompletion.
No less revealing is the dog “with one leg missing” in the opening poem of Biting the Wax, a horrifying poem about violence on one’s literal doorstep, with the dog’s deformity mirrored at the death by “a helicopter with one blade missing”. Early McDonald shows, as who could not in the 1980s, trace elements of Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon, notably in a penchant for unlikely escape acts (a flit to the Falkland Islands in The South) and a way with classical myth (Galatea) and popular culture (Count Dracula Entertains) as foils for the raw horror of sectarian conflict.
The eponymous Adam of McDonald’s second collection, Adam’s Dream, is the Scottish architect Robert Adam. Juxtaposing classical order and the traumatic Lisbon earthquake of 1755, McDonald finds a fitting emblem of adversity in the very precariousness of art in The Glass Harmonica. McDonald’s impersonal style commands an allegorical register to delicate effect: there is never any doubt as to what McDonald is talking about, yet the need for explicitness is deftly sidestepped. As in the Shakespeare tragedy that stalks that other great poem of the Troubles, Carson’s Hamlet, the time is out of joint in McDonald’s About Lisbon: “Is it perhaps because / that morning has yet to come, or because / the catastrophe has been too long forgotten / that nobody speaks, that there is nobody to speak?”
Adam is much concerned with Piranesi, and the dungeons conjured by the Italian’s name are reminiscent of the Belfast labyrinths we also find in Carson. It is hugely impressive, though, that McDonald succeeds in sketching “an entire geography of ruin” so clearly his own, and capable of resonating across centuries, from the Scottish Enlightenment and the Northern Irish Troubles, or giving Pentecostal tongue to the lostness of the past in the demolition of a London cinema in the 1930s.