Dispatches from a delirious world show the richness of Irish poetry
POETRY: IT IS REMARKABLE, reading through Gerry Murphy’s latest collection, to note how many poems are written “after” and/or “for” other poets: more than 40 of the book’s 55, by my count. Suggesting a broad literary and cultural framework for reading My Flirtation with International Socialism(Dedalus Press, €11.99) – from Euripedes and Cicero to CP Cavafy and Octavio Paz – these epigraphic afters and fors serve various functions. Acknowledging sources and pointing to important figures in Murphy’s reading, even if they are intended to be ironic gestures, they are also distracting, and at times they seem unnecessary if not pretentious.
When Murphy is not writing “after” Yasuhiro Yotsumoto or whoever, his poems still read like postscripts to tradition, pieces occasioned by the work of those who have gone before him into the realms of love and loss. Whether these themes are explored within the intimate arena of a love affair or the broader public world of politics and work, the shades of the great and the sometimes not-so-good loom large over, and sometimes threaten to overwhelm, Murphy’s slight lyrics.
The clear reference to Dante in New Arrivals Eighth Circle, for example, seems to make perfect sense in its description of one newly arrived in hell in a “glowing Charvet shirt”, but something more than a passing reference to that iconic garment is needed to vindicate the poet’s judgment of the figure to whom it obviously refers. Murphy’s reflections on 16th-century Irish history in A Random History of the Desmond Rebellionare more interesting than his quips on contemporary politics. His elegies for Gregory O’Donoghue and Michael Davitt, however, stand out as perhaps the most memorable poems. The elegy for O’Donoghue is particularly poignant, with its closing lines summing up the Cork poet, who died in 2005, so well: “still defending the proper rigour of the canon, / still jostling fiercely in the pecking order / still falling out . . .”
SARA BERKELEY’S LATEST collection, The View from Here(the Gallery Press, €11.95), is very much about the acceptance of one’s voice as a poet. You Don’t Have to Be Mary Oliver to Write a Poem About Geesereads the title of one of her poems, and throughout this collection Berkeley speaks in tones at once affecting and clear about what the speaker of this piece calls her “poor, mud-speckled, stony-shored reservoir / of a life”. In their imagistic clarity and lyric grace Berkeley’s poems are neither too intensely autobiographical nor overly didactic in the ways that they report from the poet’s experience of living and working in rural California.
In fact, while some of her poems may appear to describe aspects of her daily life, they are as much concerned with the process of writing poems, of what it means to accept and affirm the place, and importance, of art and imagination. A Poem About Happinessis not so much about the poet’s particular experience of happiness as it is about the shape such a poem might take, given the right conditions.
Berkeley’s quiet commitment to the art of the possible – and to the possibilities of art – is celebrated throughout this book, and The View from Herecontains many haunting poems about what it means to live in the presence of poetry. That is the “Here” and “Now” described at the end of Boathouse, the book’s closing poem.
Although it is tempting to read her as one of the most compelling poets of the contemporary Irish poetic diaspora, she is also an artist whose work resists, in a very fundamental way, categorisations based on local knowledge of biography or place.
GREG DELANTY’S Collected Poemswas published in 2006, but readers interested in reading a selection of his work – readers who are also bibliophiles, perhaps – might want to pick up a copy of The New Citizen Army($20), which came out at the end of last year with the Combat Paper Press in Vermont, where he has lived and worked for a number of years.
The covers of the book are made of recycled military uniforms which “carry a lineage of over one hundred military service members, serving from WWII to the current and ongoing conflict”. There is something deeply disturbing about this, and the selection of poems in the book is perhaps predictably weighted towards Delanty’s pieces about war and environmental concern. Having said that, these concerns are rarely far from the poet’s mind, and even in poems of moving personal intensity, such as Mother, he is keen to take in a broader world view, or “worldscope”, as he terms it. In his poem Reading with Delanty(“after Wordsworth”, alas) Gerry Murphy writes of the two Cork poets existing in a “delirious world of poetry”.
Taken together these three books – with so many others published in 2010 and to look forward to in 2011 – attest to the richness of contemporary Irish poetic production, from the ways individual writers go about making their poems to the possibilities that now exist for publication and book design. Poetry persists. As Sara Berkeley puts it in The Angel of Poetry: “It is he / who with his cold white wings makes the ice sing”.
Philip Coleman is a lecturer in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin