From grassroots demonstrations to a bloodshot bullfinch
John McAuliffe reviews new poetry from Greg Delanty, Matthew Sweeney, Martin Dyar and Rebecca O’Connor
Alternative universe: handwritten poetry by Matthew Sweeney in The Great Book of Ireland
Four new poetry collections imagine very different relationships between writers and a larger community. Greg Delanty’s The Greek Anthology Book XVII (Carcanet, £12.95) is both a tribute to his friends and an elaborate and sustained in-joke. Delanty’s poems are presented as translations from the Greek, although the Irish-sounding names of many of the Greek poets give the game away. “Gregory of Corkus” and other names act as a transparent screen for what is, mostly, a book of dedicatory addresses to Delanty’s friends, editors and peers. Delanty’s Greek heteronyms do not change his idiosyncratic style, which uses archaic diction, alliteration and a chatty, personable tone that comes alive with surprising images, as in The Green Line , by “Sirrios”: “the type we love the most are roadlings / off the beaten track with grass breaking through / the tarred centre, a green line [. . .]The grass is a sign, a grassroots demonstration / led by Gaia or Dana declaring ‘We shall overcome’ or / some such cliché.”
Peter Sirr (“Sirrios”), John Montague (“Montagus”), his editor Michael Schmidt (“Mihailis the Smithy”), Gerry Murphy (“Geryon Morfi”), Seamus Heaney (“Heanius”) and many other poets and teachers are fondly paraphrased in poems that are all cheery bonhomie and networking as they defend the art of poetry.
Others, though, are piercingly critical of their writerly subjects “scratching one another’s backs with awards” (“Arrogantus”). Capacious and contradictory, Delanty has “Clara Kritikos” warn against “standing on the soapbox of the daily news”’ before “Danichorus” reports on the actual “Seleucid Empire” and then invents an emperor resembling George Bush (named “Hegorgebus”), a “shortsighted perverse numbskull . . . squandering revenue on the military / while folk starved, the infirm left without care”.
If Delanty is eager to connect his writing to the larger literary and political world, Matthew Sweeney’s Horse Music (Bloodaxe, £9.95) offers a more terrifying prospect, an alternative universe whose existence seems entirely convincing. The midnight world of the opening poem, The Emperor’s Dwarves , has as much in common with Game of Thrones as it does with Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium or an Irish literary festival: “The Emperor’s dwarves are not abed. / Someone should take the schnapps off them, / open the window, fling it down Schlossberg / to smash against a yellow-flowering tree.” By the end of the poem, “The painted eggs are flying through the air. / The Pekinese howls as the clock chimes one”. The dwarves recur across the collection, as do images of crows, scarecrows, glass and, oddly, John Coltrane and hammocks.
In The Blue Hammock , the speaker looks up and sees “the silver birch with my initials stretched / upward to its far-off father, the moon”, an image that hooks the poem, and the hammock, to two unlikely tethering points, the birch and the moon. The poems move adeptly across such strange hybrid landscapes as fantastical inventions are superimposed on to domestic realities: A History of Glassblowing tells us that “on Hokkaido, in 1846, a blind / monk blew his own Buddha to pray to, / and the next day he was able to see”; The Glass Chess Set imagines just that “the board, / the pieces, half of these clear, / half opaque, as were the alternating / squares” and, then, an “invisible opponent”. Often funny and occasionally bewildering, Horse Music also includes touching and unusual poems, such as Haiku for My Father : “Who’s cutting his hair / down there in the freezing dark / without any air?”
Martin Dyar’s debut, Maiden Names (Arlen House, €12), is as interested in dramatic monologues as Sweeney’s collection, but Dyar’s work is intent on clearing a space for himself around the kinds of totemic Irish material that Sweeney uses only glancingly, if at all. In Local Knowledge , the speaker, like Kavanagh’s Patrick Maguire, is a “solitary farmer, a loveless man who had only / his mother and all his faceless sisters dead in Leeds” and who knows that “in town they’ll describe me as mad in the head”. The poem ends as he addresses the tourist “rooting for your camera / convinced my face, like nothing else, bespeaks / old Mayo”.
Other poems also imagine clashes between agents of the modernising state and failing rural communities, sometimes from one side, sometimes the other: the local authority’s man introducing a group scheme, a dying nurse who can predict the weather, the man sent to close the post office. Occasionally poems flag (and rig) their sympathies too clearly, but Dyar’s longer poems create unusual and complex perspectives as their stories emerge.
Rebecca O’Connor’s We’ll Sing Blackbird (The Moth Editions, €10) reflects on a recognisable world even as her short, conversational lyrics pleasingly skew our view of that world. Artful and wry, these fresh poems surprise by making a big picture out of miniatures: in Domestic Bliss , “By day it’s Mr Men, Mad Men by night, // your father and I wishing we could be so bold. / You have no such wants, though sometimes I wonder // as you try to peer into Jack and Jill’s well”). O’Connor has an eye for what Elizabeth Bishop called the “always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life”, and she makes carefully observed images resonate in Dear Taxidermist , a signature poem set in a taxidermist’s room, populated by “fish heads”, “a two-headed lamb . . . brought in by a vet” and other creatures. The speaker says “If I had two heads I’d give one to you to mould and make good again” but instead brings
bloodshot on the glass pane of the conservatory
where it mistook the reflection of the rowan tree for the real thing.
It’s a wedding present. Strange, you say,
but beautiful all the same, as my second head would be,
given the right hands.
John McAuliffe’s third collection is Of All Places , published by Gallery Press. He co-directs the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, where he also co-edits the Manchester Review .