Locating the muse
POETRY:TO STAY OR TO GO: the decision is familiar, and sometimes desperate. But there’s also a literary version of staying or going.
Contemporary Irish verse often celebrates what’s to be gained by staying. Partly, this is a reclamation of important territories: the local, familial, rural and quotidian. An international audience has been forced to pay attention to what Seamus Heaney called the personal helicon. Poets who leave, on the other hand, must find new forms for their characteristic ear and eye.
So here are two important poets, one of whom chose to stay and one to go. This isn’t really a matter of geography: Gerald Dawe was born in Belfast but has spent his adult life at Trinity College Dublin; Greg Delanty was born in Cork and, though he works in Vermont, spends several months of every year in Co Kerry. But it is does have to do with literary orientation, and these volumes, which offer overviews of the poets’ work, let us see the poetic consequences of that choice.
Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems (Gallery Books, €18.50) is a generous compendium of generous verse. Not that the individual poems are particularly long; on the contrary, they’re characterised by a modesty of scale and content. There’s no bombast here. Kristallnacht, 1938 opens: “Observe the distracted faces of these men / who are Jews, attempting to march and look casual.” The poet doesn’t try to appropriate or diminish their tragedy but simply lets it stand. A similar self-effacement is at work in poems such as Little Palaces: “Everything / is right with the world; / even the kerbstones are painted.” Dawe may observe the limits of suburbia, but he doesn’t mock them.
Which is not to say that there’s nothing emotional in this essentially decent, warm-hearted verse. In Solstice there are these lines, for the birth of a daughter:
You arrived that bad winter
when I was like a man
walking in a circle no one else was near.
Longing, or at least nostalgia, characterises several poems, from the love scene of Text Messages to evocations of childhood and youth (Note on the Text, Laughter and Forgetting). Dawe belongs to the tradition that hears the authentic lyric note in a poem’s aptness for a heightened truth-telling. For some this means a display of wisdom; for others – among them, curiously, English poets such as Thomas Hardy and his successors – the poem earns its status through this kind of emotional intelligence.
Selected Poems also displays Dawe’s musical touch with diction. Strict form is a self-effacing ghost yet is lightly and beautifully present. The three metrical quatrains of Moving each contain one rhyming couplet, placed differently in each. Repetition and coalescing rhyme give The Lady of the House a medieval music. Particularly audible is a characteristic mobility – long flowing sentences move across many lines – and a euphonious homogeneity: “Here and there a light goes on or off / in a landing, a hallway.” The book’s arrangement is thematic rather than chronological, and Dawe acknowledges that he has revised some of the poems. The effect is of extraordinary consistency; a tone world and sensibility sustained with absolute integrity.
GREG DELANTYlocates his integrity not necessarily in the poems themselves but in their publication. The title of Loosestrife (Fomite, $15) says it all, compressing revolutionary invocation and the wild flower in a single gesture “bearing witness to war and destruction of the planet’s flora and fauna”.
He has drawn poems from his Collected Poems 1986-2006 and adapted the limited edition The New Citizen Army to create this volume for a small, independent American press specialising in publications that “explore the human condition”.
This is not creatively extraneous: it frees the poet from the temptation to incorporate polemic into his verse. In this context, environmental and war poems, and poems that work as prayers, make the consistency and seriousness of his project newly clear. Loosestrife provides not only a guide to reading Delanty but also a reminder of how little of the political, and especially ecological, poetry written today is understood as such by critics or journalists. One need not produce bald polemic to be a political writer.
And Delanty writes with exquisite care. Loosestrife opens with his version of The Wanderer, the Anglo-Saxon lament for a lost order around which he and Michael Matto built their recent anthology, The Word Exchange. Delanty’s version is faithful yet full of character: “how abruptly they quit the halls, / those bold young ones”. This characterising voice can be heard in all these poems, both the classical pastiche and the contemporary free verse. It has just that hair’s breath of archaism, that slight refusal of glibness, which makes the verse stick:
Today on Mallet’s Bay Avenue I am undone
by the redivivus of wonder
and not simply by the winter-blade sun
stirring up the snow’s
phosphorescence . . .
This opening of For the Record has a piece of metaphorical conjuring too: “phosphorescence” doesn’t just name the shine of the snow but conjures up the way snow can make us feel strangely at sea.
One definition of ecological awareness might be paying attention to the world around us. But the rhythmically nimble Delanty has much more in his armoury than just description. International Call riffs on what’s happening when “A hand holds a receiver out a top-storey window / in a darkening city”; speculation lifts off into fantasy when the “replaced phone”, “ear to the cradle / listens for something approaching from far off”. It’s a gift for synthesis and transformation apparent in his faux-Greek-anthology homages to friends, and in his ability to symbolise emotion and circumstance – deftly, quickly – so that worry becomes white noise, while life is “the storm of being here”.
Emotional intelligence will always distinguish the truly important poets. And here, writing in very different ways, are two of them.