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.
In the beautiful closing lines of Bitter, we read how “If there are victims, the victims are hard to distinguish / as taste from the tongue, the fist from the blow, or hands from the body”. “I would not dare console you if I could,” as Larkin wrote in Deceptions. The dead of our futile conflicts deserve our tributes, but who would dare suggest that our elegiac efforts are equal to the tragic burden of history?
With Pastorals (2004) comes a new authority again, as manifest in the ambitious sequence The Victory Weekend, the painful family memories of Two Memorials at Gilnahirk and the rich musicality of Two Trees. This last quality is worth insisting on. McDonald is a prolific and trenchant critic, a fact that might be recruited to bolster hostile perceptions of him as a dry or academic poet. Yet while his work shows ample evidence of scholarship (he translates from both Latin and Greek), he is hardly an academic poet in the sense of one whose work meets or courts current academic trends.
Much of his work, in fact, is entirely in keeping with Milton’s enjoinder that poetry be “simple, sensuous and passionate”. McDonald’s musicality is not just rich but endlessly varied and subtle. He moves easily between formal and free verse. The Bees adapts a passage from Virgil’s Georgics, and is beautifully unobtrusive in its tetrameter rhymes. The Pieces, by contrast, from the same collection (The House of Clay, 2007), is a sequence of almost throwaway poems on feathers, flies and fluff that captures perfectly the ephemeral moment, “And then the minute after and the minute after the minute after”, to quote MacNeice.
Nevertheless, the ground bass of childhood memory continues to rumble away ominously beneath much of McDonald’s best writing, including The Overcoat, Quis Separabit and Childhood Memories from his most recent collection, Torchlight (2011). These are poems with their “particulars glaring”: “the fall of a sparrow; / the bringing together of a technique and sorrow”.
In an overquoted soundbite, Derek Mahon once declared that the time was coming when the question of whether so-and-so was an Irish writer would clear a room in seconds. As Mahon’s own career amply demonstrates, this question is harder to shake off than one might think. Although I have suggested that McDonald has been somewhat underappreciated in Ireland (certainly south of the Border), his Irishness is among the least urgent of reasons for saluting this marvellous book.
McDonald’s work embodies the values of accuracy, conscience and restraint but with no skimping of intensity or ferocity. These are poems that amplify our collective imaginative freedom, that, like the escaped balloon of the final poem here, The Cheetah, leave us with a tantalising after-image of “a lost shape in some open place / high up: and that’s the whole idea”.