Life's meaning in the moment
POETRY:Three poets with different preoccupations share a willingness to challenge the reader
EAMON GRENNAN’S new collection, But the Body (Gallery Press, 57pp, €11.95), “speaks a truth almost abstract”: the natural world around us is unashamedly alive and indifferent to us. However, it is also full of wonder and mystery that, when listened to, can give us a “glimpse of something that quickens away from language”.
Grennan invites the reader to look at “the world as is: things in their exquisite, absolute, inexpressible balance”. As his new volume’s title attests, nothing gives answers but the body – the truth of life is within living, and within being able to matter within the moment.
Matter and moment are in fact central idioms of the collection, which attempts to create poetry out of things and beings as they are captured within the moment.
This is nature poetry with a difference, for the environment appears not for its aesthetic beauty or ecological urgency but as a metaphysical participant in the dialogue about life’s meaning. The Horse at Hand, for example, describes a Connemara mare with its foal as a metaphor for the shared wisdom of living:
The pair of them stand still, then, confronting me with silence sea-deep, a part of speech with no translation, simply the conjugation of patience, knowledge, their brand of understanding – in which our common world is for the moment happening.
The consciousness of the poet communicates with a charged environment where “matter and idea exchanging their absolutes”. Seabirds, trees, horses or clouds and rain are depicted with simple yet dynamic language that describes “the sharpness of life happening”.
Nature does not allow the mind to succumb to melancholy, grief or loneliness, because in Grennan’s poetry it keeps “making the terrible world, against all odds, musical”.
But the Body is a beautifully written, thoughtful collection that challenges the reader to remain intellectually alert and emotionally sensitised to our lived environment.
TOM PAULIN’S CONVERSATIONAL tone in Love’s Bonfire (Faber and Faber, 52pp, £12.99) jolts us into a different, private world where the poet’s characteristic Ulster voice whispers stories, innuendoes and absurdities in our ears, sometimes within the same poem:
Our aim – no mine –
was to slash the badger
(that’s such bad language)
but we hit a real one
on the road to Drumquin
– too late
I saw his eyes greeny red
in the headlights
(couldn’t – didn’t – stop)
as the heavy chump confirmed
Drumquin’s maybe dodgy name
These poems seem to write themselves, giving the impression of a casualness and improvisation that are in sharp contrast to the measured control of poetic form.
Paulin is an erudite poet who plays with intertextuality as much as with the common tools of his trade. A Noticed Thing, for example, seems to make fun of writing about objects for a poetic purpose: here the chosen symbol of the “flaccid windsock” irreverently talks back to the author:
– let me remind you
I was your image one time
for the whole world
plus the wind rushing through it
or gulshing through it if you like
but perhaps you’ve moved on?
As you can see I’m all used up
like some friend you’ve left behind
– The world though is not conclusion
stuff that in your sock and ate it
Paulin’s spontaneity takes a tenderer form in the volume’s love poems. Although somewhat self-dramatising, Love’s Bonfire is a touching recollection of a budding liaison and marital love, which playfully describes early anxieties about the longevity of the relationship.
The rekindled embers that “glowed and began to flame / on top of their bed of defeated ash” connect beautifully to the ending of the poem that asks (intertextually via Thomas Hardy and Virgil) whether this fire is still alive or is just the vestiges of an old flame:
I think if I asked you
could you call that moment back
– a moment we’ve never spoken of
all these long years
you’d say only
veteris vestigia flammae
– though I pray that you wouldn’t.
The volume also contains translations of the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar, which, though culturally interesting and politically poignant, lose Paulin’s spontaneity while maintaining his pervasive conversational tone. However, Love’s Bonfire as a whole is a witty and ostensibly impulsive collection that entertains the reader with its quick thematic changes and performative pitch.
STEPHEN MURRAY’S debut collection, House of Bees (Salmon Poetry, 99pp, €12), deals with the pain and fear of abandonment and invites the reader into a theatre filled with inner demons. The “claustrophobic, violent beauty” of the poems becomes manifest in their naked honesty.
Sewn-up, torn-out and scrubbed-out eyes populate these lines that recall physical abuse, addiction and destroyed mental health:
For tonight is the night the puppets
without strings or storyline.
The band shall play in motionless silence
to an entourage of raggy dolls who sit
violently still with their eyes torn out.
In this world of nightmares the powerlessness of the child is further emphasised by the childlike language and nursery rhyme-like rhythm of the poems. There is an argument that this work would be better suited to spoken poetry, and the haphazard use of apostrophes throughout the book, for example, is somewhat disconcerting.
All in all, House of Bees is not a pleasant universe – the “menagerie of deformity” and “swollen murkiness” abound, and it is a relief when the “curtains close” at the end of the book.
This truly feels like a visit to a bee’s nest, where the reader feels stung but also somewhat responsible for the dying bees.
Borbála Faragó is a Marie Curie intra-European fellow and editor, with Eva Bourke, of Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland