Poetry: A high-wire achievement that brings no cure, just peace

Women are the presiding spirits of Tom French’s new collection, which brings old stories vividly back to life

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

French plugs that silence into the new histories of recent years. And this poem, of family life, acts as a foil to the changed direction of Midnightstown. There are further forays into understanding his brother’s life and glimpses of his father, as in An Outfit:

I will find it suits me
down to the ground
when I finish weaving
my father’s shroud.

But this book’s presiding spirits are women, especially the mother whose last weeks are recounted in long sequences, 02.07.2012, In Memory and The Verge of Tears (an oncology diary), whose observations are wry and relaxed, before they remind us of why the poem is being written:

The names of the wards all start with a big C –
Cedar, Catherine, Cara, Cherry –
this is a strategy to deal with fear,
at the main door, letter by letter.

French’s book is self-conscious and at times bitterly ironic about the fact that his thoughtful art thrives and finds meaning in the darkest experiences. In Audite Omnes, French imagines Seachnall composing the first Latin poem of the Irish church, wreaking devastation on his surroundings to make the time and space he needed for his work: “Seachnall settled, took the goose pen again / in his trembling hand, and beautiful verses / occurred to him in that silence of drowned horses.”

At other times, French’s giant sentences become almost static, piling up clauses, not willing to leave the scene they describe behind until, often, a single phrase delivers on his build-up of disparate worlds. This happens in his litany of items for sale in The Southern Star (of March 13th, 1948) and in Fires, where his mother tells him, after a church fire:

She went into the dark
weeks after – steeplejacks abseiling like saints
in the air above the altar, cleaning the
ceiling
with J Cloths and squeegies to stem the soot-rain –
into the pains they took to lift the dirt and leave
the mural’s beautifully executed wounds untouched.

French’s ability, in this poem and in each of his books, is to find a way into such places, where the “beautifully executed wounds” are shown for what they are. In another poem, A Relic, he invents a formulation that also captures the high-wire achievement of this book: “It gave no cure. Its only gift was peace.”

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