Poetry: ‘Pandemonium’ is full of urgent, involving and rewarding poems
Thomas McCarthy’s latest work uses elemental vocabulary to explore the boom and its aftermath
Poet Thomas McCarthy. His is a style which does not easily declare itself, cautiously feeling its way along the currents it describes
Intimate, occasionally rhymed and then, suddenly, a little obscure. The distinctiveness of Thomas McCarthy’s poems is most evident, strangely, in those obscure details, which are often bracingly unintimate, hard and unfriendly as an X-ray, or a diagnosis.
Delayed while his long-time publisher, Anvil, buckled under Arts Council cuts, McCarthy’s new collection, Pandemonium (Carcanet, £9.99), feels both overdue and timely.
The first thing to strike readers will be its use of a more elemental vocabulary than appears in any of his seven previous collections. Sea tides and their aftermath are not just the settings but the entire expressive vocabulary of poems. Rhetorical effects are flourished dramatically. An example of this, from a series of prose poems, is They Have Left, which begins with a loaded personification: “The sea recedes yet again with its fabulous ingratitude”.
When he situates that poem further McCarthy exerts a more precise, historical counterpoint. “We are as witless as spindly sandpipers dancing on the keyboards of the tides”, he continues, using an image not too far removed from Aodhagán Ó Rathaille’s despairing laments for the sorry state of Munster during its plantation. But the poem really gets to work when he introduces the jarringly memorable language of recent political discourse: did the sea have a good time while we hammered and traded on the shore?:
Even dolphins swam inland at the port of Cork to see what we were partying for. They have erred on the side of caution.
The wise dolphins are not the only ones abandoning ship. In Grunewald, an elegy for the late politician Brian Lenihan, the shorebound speaker can make out, from his abandoned island, a figure at sea:
The pilot boat
With all its unused life belts,
Has a black stain on the prow where you
Were pushed, Brian. Black gulls return
To their roosting grounds, Brussels, Berlin.
Many of these poems present conventional-enough landscapes and seascapes that are, just as quickly, turned to account for postcrash life. In The Land Is Not Settled “Little did they know in our autonomous / Region all the gold was gorse, / And all investment was storytelling”; in Shaken to Pieces “Bear with us, April,” he writes, “as we turn from the sickening years”.
McCarthy’s book also offers a long history for the boom and its aftermath, seeing the nation’s origin in cataclysms that predate the foundation of the State, with a particular emphasis on the Famine and on the island’s being perpetually buffeted by global historical forces: “Out of our mist, it is always famine ships, // Forebears, archipelagos. The wreck of our ship / Is the birth of economies” (Lisbon Treaty Referendum 2008) and, more affectingly and wildly, in Slow Food, “I would like to feed this child who is dying with slow food, / So that time might stand still for him, so that a grandfather / Clock might not fall apart in his arms.”
McCarthy’s style does not just apply historical insights and visions to familiar landscapes; his is a style that does not easily declare itself, cautiously feeling its way along the currents it describes, and occasionally editing in details that give away the vulnerability and safety the poems seem to desire in the world: “Like us, the tide is seeking a cove / Where it doesn’t need to be obliging,” begins Become Water, a poem that seems almost utopian in comparison with the book’s other scenes. It also shows McCarthy’s skills in its precise verbs, ear for a phrase and mysteriously rhetorical ending:
It is clear the sky has taken pains
To shoo such clouds as might
Freckle the foreshore from a great height.
The tide’s scandalous incompetence
Is complete: the sea runs out of patience
With every form of rock and pool –
This tide of love has never bent to any school
But ebbs in its own petulant way:
The way art or water does, you say;
The way all things that are fought for
Settle in a hidden cove and accept water.
McCarthy’s imagining of other places – Venice and Rome, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Jerusalem – is framed in the same singular style. Jerusalem pits the prism of art (“Here is an absence peopled with references from books”; “the silence of a steel engraving”) against religious dogmatism (“let us not perish / In the bitter pandemonium of those who fall in / With God.”).
Biographical poems, a form borrowed from Lowell and Mahon, feature in each of McCarthy’s books. Here the more realist accounts of his contemporaries are doubtful affairs, especially when he reaches for characteristically risky comparisons. (Readers will have to buy the book to discover which poet is described as “Highly educated, he has poetic nerve; / And, like Rory McIlroy, he has Ulster style” (Three Books on the Ballyferriter Sand).
But there are notable successes in this mode too. The best of the sketches are the comic fantasia Elegy for a Munster Poet (“Now the art dealers are crowding your marble foyer”) and the elegy for a late friend and exact contemporary, Between Trains, a poem that assumes his subject’s ironic, telling style:
Thank you for your recent letter, Dennis O’Driscoll.
This is just a brief note before all the others rush in,
Rush in with their first response to the bleak quotation
You offered us on Christmas Eve.
Praising O’Driscoll’s independence, he could be describing the informing spirit of his own work: “you were too smart to take mere dedication / In any departure lounge or railway station”. Pandemonium’s urgent, involving and rewarding poems make us question where we have come from and look again at where we are going.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery Press). He teaches at the University of Manchester’s centre for new writing