Past masters and the reconstruction of lost worlds

Kerry Hardie: The Zebra Stood in the Night; Gerald Dawe: Mickey Finn’s Air; Nessa O’Mahony: Her Father’s Daughter; Theo Dorgan: Nine Bright Shiners; Jessica Traynor: Liffey Swim

 

In The Conjurer, one of the poem-essays that marks The Zebra Stood in the Night (Bloodaxe, £9.95), Kerry Hardie writes, “I was tired of poems – their carefulness, their form and rhyme and crafted double meanings.”

The book is Hardie’s response to that challenge, a renewal of the poem as a meaningful place of transformation as she comes to terms with the loss of friends, peers and, in the book’s closing sequence, her youngest brother, the film-maker Paddy Jolley.

If The Conjurer stresses poetry’s insufficiency, Hardie makes poems that understand and somehow assuage the grief the work admits. In Aftermath another bereaved woman tells her “that fifty years ago she’d have slipped a black armband onto her sleeve every morning for a year before she left the house” so that people would know, “Look out. Here comes grief”.

Hardie’s poems, like that armband, connect with the departed, seeing life in the traces they left behind, preserving, as she puts it in Watching the Fire Take Your Body, “the shock still live and scorching through my flesh”.

Conditioning asserts, “The future waits out there, pitch-black, unknown / beyond the knife-edge of the precinct lights”, and, while Hardie is clear that the poems must not offer any false consolation, this is powerful, typically clear-eyed and consoling work.

Gerald Dawe’s Mickey Finn’s Air (Gallery, €11.95 paperback; €18.50 hardback) is likewise elegiac, but, where Hardie wrings poems from a paradoxical sense of the impossibility and necessity of writing about loss, Dawe’s poems are more confident in their reconstruction of lost worlds.

In Déjà Vu a sociable Belfast youth is spun across four pages of enjoyably unstoppable-feeling eight-line stanzas; Peacetime remembers the morning after a visiting carnival and picks out the “watchman” as a figure for the poet, “walking through the fair in broad daylight / with a hammer or monkey wrench in his hand // [ . . . ] knowing what’s what by the looks of him.”

Short Cuts offers another autobiography, in quatrains, initially naming gig venues, “Ginger Baker at the Ulster Hall / followed by Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton”, then place names “heading over the Salmon Weir Bridge / and gawping at the Cathedral”, then feelings, “the tumult in the heart that keeps / asking questions,” before naming another fixture of Dawe’s imagination, the books and albums whose publication are woven into his life, “the things you miss, the sea in winter, / the gorse fires, the field work, the night crossings, // the harvest moon, the shape I’m in, / the sense of movement, the fighting terms” and so on for stanza after stanza in what is a short, masterful collection.

In Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon, €12) Nessa O’Mahony describes a family history set off by her talent for finishing poems with a surprising turn. The domestic scene of After Noon moves from concrete description to a more suggestive note:

And I watch the sky

cloudless for once

in this Irish summer,

and think that

for the first time in a while,

I know how this could be

even more

perfect.

O’Mahony is sure-footed too in a longer narrative sequence about her grandfather, even if its closing motif, of a walking stick being handed on from one generation to another, seems to elide some of the more difficult aspects of family inheritances.

Like Hardie, she can be suspicious of her own facility, and Portrait of the Artist’s Father is usefully self-conscious: “My words were cool, disapproving: / those tidy coal-strokes of the dead. // Now what else can I do / as I sit and watch you sleep / one of your countless / dress rehearsals?”

Unfashionably poetic

In the elegiac title sequence of Theo Dorgan’s Nine Bright Shiners (Dedalus, €12.99), readers will hear an echo of No Second Troy: “we who stood wounded, / taken aback, what was our fault? He feared to freeze when faced / with fire, the long climb back to zero if he should fail. / We should have known, no man will face Calvary again.”

Dorgan’s voice, unfashionably poetic, omits the observational detail common in contemporary poetry, preferring a Yeatsian loftiness and the alliterative patterning usually associated now with song lyrics.

A song lyric’s timeless voice can seem ungrounded or rhetorical without its setting, although Dorgan’s sincerity comes across, as in the affecting elegy, Going to the Chateau: “Take my hand, be shy again with me, be strong, / now more than ever, and I will carry your look / with me to the door.” The Angel of History, echoing Bob Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat, effectively imagines a verdict on the Dáil: “Senators, Deputies, Ministers. One after another the names // dissolved on the page, a scant dozen remaining. I watched him / ink a question mark after each of these, neat and precise.”

Although Jessica Traynor’s first collection, Liffey Swim (Dedalus, €11.50), is not grounded in elegy, one of its successes is the surreal reversal of (the bravely titled) The Dead, whose deathbed scene is clamorous with ghosts: “I didn’t want to leave her with them, / so I stayed and promised to behave – / though they were already into the whiskey. / In the small hours she called for them / and, when her life escaped here, // it shook out its legs like a newborn foal.”

The book shows her care with form as she negotiates public and private spaces: eBay, street scenes, the Liffey swim of its title, an archaeological dig. Others imagine an animal world clearly, as when Egrets in the Tolka “becomes an aerial show // by a bird that looks through me, / seeking only the shadows / of slow-moving fish.”

John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the University of Manchester

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