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
In 2002, Tom French’s debut collection, Touching the Bones, was the first Irish winner of a Forward Prize. Its central long poem, Pity the Bastards, sounded like Patrick Kavanagh and Allen Ginsberg, but its tenderness and well-made stanzas gave voice to the lives of farm labourers and hired men in a way that had hardly been seen in Irish writing. It seems to emerge from the turn-of-the-century desire to recover the State’s other histories: its grief, which is not assuaged even as its causes are marked and recorded, also informs the powerful poems about his father and the elegies for his brother in that book and in its follow-up, The Fire Step (2009).
French’s new book, Midnightstown (Gallery, €11.95 pb; €18.50 hb), sustains and advances on the achievement of those two. The title comes from an old name for Ministown, in Co Meath, where he now lives and works as a librarian. Like other librarian poets Philip Larkin and Thomas McCarthy, French’s work can pluck images from the archive, bringing old stories to life, if only for a moment. Tans, in its entirety, reads:
Not one who was there forgets, nor speaks thereafter
of the four who entered, crossed the flags for water
and left without a word, or the mugs they drank from
borne outside and beaten with a hammer into powder.
The level stanzas, steady rhythms, repetitions and formal diction come into their own as French’s poems go to unsayable places. Nowhere is this clearer than in the poem titled Autumn, 1977, which begins, “I am a vault. / Not a word said here / goes outside these four walls.” Later, it continues:
In full uniform, he has taken it
into his head to take, in the sixth
month of her pregnancy, the sweeping
brush to her.
At a time when stories still emerge so slowly, when the “uniform” still offers cover, this poem tells us why this might be so.
The only one the boy who sees
can tell, as he stands with his back
to the wall with no door in it,
is him or her, and he
is miles away by now, riding
shotgun in a squad car, taking
names, checking bona fides,
keeping an eye on late houses,
houses of ill repute where callers
come and go at all hours, as she,
needing a doctor or a priest,
is getting to her feet.
Three stanzas later, the poem ends:
I will not breathe
a word to a soul.
I will keep mum.
I will be the death of him.
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
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.”