Remembering another world in powerfully vivid poems

Poetry review

Seán Lysaght: reads the natural world. Photograph: Jan von Holleben / The Gallery Press

Seán Lysaght: reads the natural world. Photograph: Jan von Holleben / The Gallery Press

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:00

Seán Lysaght’s new collection, Carnival Masks (Gallery Press, €18.50), begins with Lysaght’s speciality, lyrics that arise from close observations of a particular wild place, in this case the north Mayo landscape with which his readers will be familiar. In these new poems Lysaght presses his scenes from the natural world into service for thematic concerns: the opening poem, Skylarks in January , is exemplary in the way it notices, with typically vigorous precision, how four skylarks call “across the clouds, / still dragging a grey hawser / that ends in the sea / after weeks in the links / while the waves poured thunder”.

What Lysaght does next, though, is rope that image into a very different kind of observation, contrasting those four high-flyers with “all love wants – / there in the heather – is a nest, / a few stray notes, / a closer look at the crest”.

Lysaght reads the natural world and, in poems like this, convinces us that it speaks, indirectly but powerfully, to our concerns.

Such poems can run risks of the kind Oscar Wilde identified when he said of Wordsworth that he “found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there”. When Lysaght marks Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011, in Whimbrels , he acknowledges how hyperbolic it is to read the “strange notes and wild flutings” of these “curlew cousins with stylish crowns” as a kind of “enchantment”, but he carries on in that vein, ending by declaring the birds “exalt / the actual, like the coming of a queen. / The townland was full of wonderful noises”.

One of the sources of such boldly exaggerated writing may be Lysaght’s study of Edmund Spenser, that archetypal English-language (and Elizabethan) allegorist of Ireland. Lysaght is preoccupied by how we write and rewrite history and, like his contemporary Thomas McCarthy, has previously written a sort of historical verse fiction, in his case a biography of Spenser that he published in 2011.

Carnival Masks includes a sonnet sequence called Letters to a Tudor Poet that reclaims Spenser as he places him in his familiar historical and literary locations: Smerwick Harbour, a pastoral Italian scene, a working farm, the flooding Thames, the “walled town of Corke” and, finally, Kilcolman Castle, his “ruine of time”, where the poet raises “another ghost, / a kestrel from an arch” and hears it “calling / over lonely flats at the Awbeg’s margin”.

The backward look of those Spenser sonnets is also evident in versions of Goethe and Rilke, and in the closing set of poems that happily visit Italy and the Mediterranean, poems that are more occasional and discursive though not without the piercing glances that characterise the book’s Mayo landscapes: “My parents come to Italy now that they are dead, / still the same people travelling in my head, / but more vivid, enhanced, if they appear in a dream / like my mother’s radiant face when I arrive home.” ( Venetian Notebook ).

Tom Duddy’s name appeared over the past decade in magazines like the SHOp , the Dark Horse and Poetry Ireland Review : his poems were marked by their quietness, a thoughtful and occasionally awkward slowness, and the concentration they brought to the scenes they conjured up with such refreshing plainness. The first poem in his second collection, The Years (Happenstance Press, £12), is The Appointment ; it gives a good sense of how his poems seem to run on a little before they bring their reader up short:

Outside the window the birds

chirr, churr, chortle, cawk, bicker

and gurgle in a slow-burning

ticking over and idling

of sun-triggered energies.

This side of the window, in the light

that barely makes it into the room

around the end-folds of the dark blue

curtains, a stooping figure searches

back and forth, back and forth

in a secret drawer, scarcely

making a sound, thinking

not to wake me till it’s time.

Duddy does not range widely, but these are vivid poems: his speakers are usually solitaries, for whom noticing the world around them is often identical with remembering another world. In The Last Verse “ship-shape terraces / lying anchored in the smoke of early fires” return him to another March morning and classroom recitations of Sir Walter Scott’s Coronach until “The second verse is falling to me / but now all the lines come easily. / The hand of the reaper / Takes the ears that are hoary” before he returns to the present with a typically glowing image: “What became of Varley? Who has Kyne become? / Did none of them stand in a teeming estate, / turning a towel in a brightening cup?”

Duddy, who died prematurely in 2012, was better known as a historian of Irish philosophy (a subject he taught at NUI Galway for many years) than as a poet, but readers of The Years will discover an affecting collection whose lyrics pick out a way to register the passage of time with surprising and moving force, as when the speaker of Reading “The Dark Edge of Europe” notices “My startling hand! No longer a young man’s hand, / a slight silvering – even parching – of the skin, / a tracery that reminds me of the dried-out floor / under our apple-trees one Indian summer. / I go on reading, fingers whispering again, / more eager than ever for turns of phrase, / inklings, intimations, transient solaces.

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