Grieving losses private, public, real and fictional
Voyager through loss: poet and novelist Dermot Bolger. photograph: brenda fitzsimons
POETRY/FICTION:The Venice Suite, by Dermot Bolger, New Island, 42pp, €12.99; The Fall of Ireland, by Dermot Bolger, New Island, 113pp, €12.99
Many of the characters in Dermot Bolger’s novels and plays have an air of being bereft and forsaken. But his feel for such conditions should never have come home in the way The Venice Suite speaks of it – a book, as he says himself, “no writer would ever wish to write”, and very few do. Subtitled A Voyage Through Loss, it has as its primary concern the sudden death by an aneurysm of the author’s wife, in 2010. She was six weeks short of her 52nd birthday.
Other deaths are mourned here, too (“We . . . have carried coffins thrice in two years”), notably in the volume’s concluding poem commemorating the writer’s father; and mourning itself is the subject of the short, sharp poem Jack BYeats’s Painting ‘Grief’.
But this is not the kind of book that’s organised around a theme or indeed that seems to owe very much at all to literary artifice. (Thinking that the snowbound Dublin of Christmas Eve, 2010 is a reworking of Joyce’s The Dead misses the point of this poem’s pretext and particularity, inhibits sympathy, deadens the evocative effect of its commonplace domesticity.) Instead, this book is an intimate detailing of loss’s complicated impact, a mix of a new wound’s rawness and an old attachment’s tenderness, of the hospital corridor and the bedroom, of memory and desire.
“Grieving his wife’s death,” Bolger writes, his father became “a connoisseur of loneliness”. What the poet has become a connoisseur of, though, is the life that he has lost – which is part of himself, of course, but which is also the memory of his wife, both as his spouse and as herself, with an emphasis at least as much on personhood as on partnership. In fact, the book’s title comes from a reimagining of how his wife, as a footloose young traveller, ended up by accident in Venice, not only fulfilling a dream of hers but also, in the way it happened, expressing the kind of faith in life the quality of her own vitality gave her.
For the most part, the poems sound like conversations that the poet is having either with the departed or with himself, and the long lines in which they are typically written not only grounds them through the inclusion of a good deal of domestic detail but also gives the effect of dwelling in the house of loss, of having to spend time with what is being said as it moves with an unhurried relentlessness across the page. Thus the twin, interacting powers of the unforgettable and the inescapable are underlined. The book is prefaced by a poem by Paul Durcan, Bernie, which appears on her tombstone, a touching and forthright statement in its own right. Readers may find the meditative value of The Venice Suite enhanced by listening closely to the poets’ different voices.
That value comes across most immediately, though, through Bolger’s impassioned candour. This is a kind of unadorned speaking – or feeling – that comes from the depths of personal, private life. Yet it not only maintains the integrity of that life but also imparts a reverence and joy to it, so that the adequacy of its secular blessings are reaffirmed. It is also a reminder of things that are not often said in public, that are either thought to be unamenable to words or best secreted in the conventional good form of silence. And not only what is said in public but how enters into The Venice Suite as well. I’m not talking about content, now – although in a gesture that recalls the democratic instincts of all his work, Bolger does not forget the “thousands of people every year” who are bereaved. It’s more a matter of the directness, honesty and a capacity to declare that whatever befalls can be looked in the eye. Now that the poet and his family “are finding ourselves again”, it may be that retaining a sense of passionate connection, of loyalty and respect and all that is undying, to what has been given has helped. “I am lost, sweetheart, a satellite cruising through the debris / Of your stopped heart,” he writes, and that cannot be gainsaid. In one way, this book’s publication is a cry in the night. But in another it is a public event, a memorial service of a kind, for a life it would be senseless not to celebrate.
Beijing and Baileys
Public and private engage in a complicated interplay too in The Fall of Ireland. This novella’s protagonist is Martin, a midlevel civil servant who is on a St Patrick’s Day trip to China with a junior minister in the last government. While the official party goes on, Martin stays behind in Beijing, where exhaustion from official duties and overindulgence in Baileys has him at a low ebb. He’s the father of three teenage girls who are growing up, up and away. His marriage to menopausal, self-absorbed Rachel has entered its ice age. He takes no pride in his career as a faceless yes-man, with the collapsed state of the economy a source of further regret and demoralisation. For all his Killiney house and cushy pension package, loveless Martin has as little going for him as many another Bolger protagonist.
To clear his head, he goes for a swim in the hotel pool, on emerging from which he is hustled into hiring a masseuse. Out of his depth as this woman makes him feel, her touch is undeniably welcome, and though he tries to be sociable – well, you’ve guessed it. Playing into the masseuse’s hands, so to speak, is the last straw for Martin. One thing he has been able to pride himself on has been his fidelity to Rachel. Not that his wife has recommended it; on the contrary. But maintaining that one marriage vow has been a source of self-respect. With that gone, Martin has nothing, and now a certain amount of heavy metaphorical lifting takes place: “His fall had been as abrupt and humiliating as the fall of Ireland.” Yet the point isn’t that the country has fallen into foreign handlers so much as that the country has not kept faith with itself. Martin “had stained his own integrity, the moral codes by which he once lived”. The idea is that this is also true in the larger analysis. Such may well be the case. But The Fall of Ireland makes it clear that Martin’s “stain” is all his own work. So the title’s metaphor also points, in addition to impulses to spend, moral absentmindedness and so on, to individual actions having shameful consequences.
Dermot Bolger has told more dramatic stories than The Fall of Ireland. Still, it’s difficult to read of empty Martin and not be reminded of Linda Loman’s lament for her hapless Willy in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”