Poetry: Carp rising up among the water lilies make for a happy ending

Maurice Riordan: the creaturely and animal poems in his fourth collection strike out in a new direction

Maurice Riordan: the creaturely and animal poems in his fourth collection strike out in a new direction


Maurice Riordan’s fourth collection, The Water Stealer (Faber, £12.99), continues to mine the rich material that was at the heart of his outstanding 2007 collection, The Holy Land. Riordan is a thoughtful, enquiring poet and an impressive storyteller. The Lull, typically, freezes the frame of a particular and disorienting moment which shatters the veneer of daily routines:

that lull [when] no one can enter the world,
or leave it; the cars stand on the motorway,
the greyhound’s legs are knotted above the track,
a missile is framed in mid-flight, no sound
can come from the child’s mouth, the open beak

Even as he conjures such a moment Riordan allows that the opposite is true, that there will be no “time out”:

[When] the punching fist can be opened, the egg slipped back
under the nesting bird, and each of us could scurry
to forestall one mischance, or undo one wrong choice
whose thorn of consequence has lodged till now,
before whatever it is keeps the world scary
and true breaks loose.

Riordan puzzles over the recurrence and significance of certain feelings and events, but he also does more than simply register what happened.

In The Water Stealer Riordan invents other possibilities in poems which bear his very particular stamp and poise, with archaic words and philosophical ruminations slipped into a more conversational idiom. The wonderful title poem recounts the overnight disappearance of a pond, its tarp ripped, its lilies “collapsed in a muddy heap” and the resident carp gone, a minor disaster that escalates via a nursery rhyme jingle into a larger meditation on the loss of “the fish that came / with the pond that came with the garden / that came with the house that came / with the care that came with the children”. As the speaker resigns himself to his fate:

lo and behold

a half-dozen or so are scooting here

and there

among those lilies (those long gone

country dancers)

the streetwise carp yea risen out

of the mud, and me in floods at the


But if The Water Stealer, in spite of its tears, resurrects the happy ending, this collection’s elegies for Riordan’s contemporaries are more sombrely grief stricken. A freewheeling sestina, The Hip-Flask, remembers Cork poet Gregory O’Donoghue and there is a lovely, haunting sighting of the Liverpool poet Michael Murphy as St Brendan: ‘Wasn’t he very brave, Brendan! she shouted, / Brendan the Navigator – to go out on that / without map or guide in his scrap of a currach’ (The Navigator), while Tralee-born Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy is glimpsed in The Cuckoo Clock: “glad / in your heart as you eyed up the sky, quickened / your step of a sudden and gave me the slip.”

The Water Stealer strikes out in a new direction in its creaturely animal poems, jumbling up myths and close observation of various cohabiting menageries: faun and blackbird in one poem, “cat, hedgehog and – our summer interloper – the tortoise” in another, while The Water Spider is “a bauble of mercury, / shimmering like a fish lure / and at risk from the carp / until she reaches a tangle of weeds, where she’s hung her silken tent.” The allusion to Robert Frost’s great sonnet The Silken Tent makes the spider’s unlikely pocket of air a delicate sort of sanctuary, a representative image for many of this fine book’s poems. The closing poem, The Face, is a headlong rush as it imagines the poet and his poems as a “canny impostor” but also “how I will look on the kerb / on the slab empty of lifeblood,” albeit “meanwhile I’m full of noises gifted / with muscular utterance I yield / to the yawn sneezing the giggles”.

Dubliner Tara Bergin’s first collection, This is Yarrow (Carcanet, £9.95), includes a shortened gloss on Ferenc Juhasz’s Hungarian poem, The Boy Changed into a Stag, which has also been extensively (and brilliantly) translated by Riordan in his 2000 collection, Floods. Bergin’s Stag-Boy transfers Juhasz’s poem to a modern stag party:

He’s banging his hooves in the indus

trial air,

he’s galloping through the city


and drinking from a vandalised

spring –

And still his mother walks through

the house,

crying Stag-boy, oh stag-boy come


The poem’s dramatic conflict is typical as are its speech tags (“And still”) and its strong, slightly dissonant rhymes and assonance (“air”/“squares”; those repeated “ing”s): the detail of the images can seem perfunctory (the city is too typically “industrial” and “vandalised”), but here and elsewhere Bergin succeeds in creating a clear voice and a dramatic situation.

This is Yarrow is primarily a book of monologues, establishing voices whose skewed attitudes invite an engaged critical response from the reader. The monologues are sometimes reminiscent of Paul Durcan and at other times Sylvia Plath and they can be very cutting and funny at the expense of their speakers, one of whom declares:

I detest it of course – the work.

I simply can’t stand the academic

realism of the whole endeavour.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth some


On the contrary.

(Looking at Lucy’s painting of the Thames at low tide without Lucy being present)

There are signs too, in this forceful first collection, of Bergin’s other strengths, as in the title poem’s subtle rhymes and in the surreal, powerful lyricism of Dancing:

All the branches of the plum tree

are in flower and you are dancing

in your sleep.

Serbia is in your hair.

It is a white flower.

It is your right foot.

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