Louis de Paor’s unsentimental poems lead to a fresh treatment of old material

Alan Gillis is a master of catching his reader by surprise

Louis de Paor edited Innti, the nursery of new Irish poetry, at University College Cork in the 1980s, after which he spent time in Australia before returning to direct NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies. The poems collected in The Brindled Cat and the Nightingale's Tongue: A Bilingual Edition (Bloodaxe/Cló Iar-Chonnacht, £12) are marked by each experience.

The modernity of tone and subject typical of Innti come across in the translations. His Australian poems describe that new world in Irish terms, so that they gel seamlessly with Ireland – set poems of alienation, family loss and remembering. In fact, Australia becomes a place where he can most clearly see what he misses: Phonecall finds "In the swelter of Melbourne / pipemusic drenched the room / as reels of rain / and winter tune were played / by quick fingers on ancient instruments / in the city of the goldy fish."

De Paor's unsentimental poems lead to fresh treatment of old material: Love poem begins and ends by declaring "We never stop / fighting." In the Meantime reports on the poet and his elder children missing visiting hours at the maternity ward. Stuck outside the "Royal Women's Hospital / holding my children's hands / as tight as ever I can", he discovers that "for the life of me / I can't remember // which window you're standing at / with your little bundle / of hope and shit", before ending with an image of the hectic new family with himself as "the poor fool still there at the bus stop" and the children re-named: "Yesterday still going / thirteen to the dozen, / Today bursting for the toilet, // Tomorrow, blind, / asleep in her mother's arms."

In the Meantime is one of this book's longer poems, and the translations serve the long poems' twisty narratives well. Foreign Affairs reimagines the Shannon Airport scene memorably described in Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory (2010): where Houellebecq bemusedly described the airport's gallery of portraits of visiting dignitaries as well as a US troop stopover, de Paor reads this surreal sight differently. His speaker looks up from examining a PhD on "Colonial Cartography" to see troops filing past his fellow-passengers, the Connacht rugby team and an Irish dancing school en route to Glasgow, who stand up "applauding the brave young boys and girls // who are blushing furiously / trying to pretend nothing / unusual is happening".


The Bedroom offers another dizzying re-situation of its speaker, who describes sneaking into his mother's room:

My heart was in my mouth, as swollen

as the sacred heart of Jesus

beating away in his breast

on a shelf above the nightlights.

His martyred eyes reproached us,

as let-down as a mother, or a Guard.

The poem’s brilliant ending transforms what could have been a simple and effective memory poem into something much more sinister: “I’ll never get away / my mind is stuck. // I can’t close / the door behind me. // Already I hear children whispering / out there on the landing. // I can’t move.”

Alan Gillis too is a master of catching his reader by surprise, landing them in places they wouldn't anticipate, often by way of profane description of poetry's "sacred" places. Scapegoat (Gallery, €11.95pb, €18.50hb) includes more of Gillis's characteristically rumbling love poems and wildly inventive pastorals. It is also much concerned about thinking through how poems can compete with and supplement our increasingly visual, online culture.

Instagrammatic is suitably appalled when the photo of a "glorious day" turns out to be "skew-whiff [ . . . ]we were not like ourselves. Life-/sized cardboard cut-outs of Mario and Luigi // in a shop-window display / look more true to life". Instagram's failure is the poem's opportunity, and Gillis repays its treachery by lurching into six full-rhymed stanzas of flick-book description and talky improvisation so excessive and full of vagary that no one image could do justice to it:

and your stomach is a sand dune,

your dress is a lambent field of wheat blown gently in June,

your legs are identical twins,

your chin is a dove or, at least, you have a bar of Dove soap for a chin,

and when I reach for you I press against a windowpane,

scattered, dripping, splattered drops of shivered rain

Gillis is as interested in renewing traditional forms as he is in indulging his appetite for the seemingly "non-poetic" ephemera of pop culture. The wonderful River Mouth asks why "I burst forth into song this morning in the kitchen. / There was no reason to sing. No one to listen", which extends into a meditation on why poetry might still be said to matter, a question it answers with its own copious descriptive power:

Useless to ponder where that happiness went to, where it had been:

I can’t even catch the dark-

yellow-light-brown-flecked green

while I follow the many-voiced river through downs

and drumlins, train stations at the border of town,

past warehouse, vast retail lots,


miles of suburban families detained

in dream homes. To apprehend such


of life would be to hold fresh to memory

each page of each book on a full forty-

foot shelf.

Scapegoat, like de Paor's collection, should recommend itself to any anyone interested in Irish writing now. Gillis's fellow spirits also include Pat McCabe, Kevin Barry, Paul Durcan and Rita Ann Higgins, whose ability to take a hammer to polite pieties does not involve sacrificing the ability to write affectingly about how we live now.

John McAuliffe's poetry collections include Of All Places.