Michael O’Loughlin, Poems 1980-2015 review: Ovid of Finglas
The Dublin poet’s three-decade collection is a masterful account of exile, both metaphorical and actual
Michael O’Loughlin: the poet is a citizen of the world, and only incidentally an Irishman
Michael O’Loughlin: Poems 1980-2015
Imagine Ovid returning from Tomis on the obscure Euxine or Black Sea. Imagine him fitting in to Roman society once more, unutterably altered by his years of exile and unable ever to reset his body clock. The poet Michael O’Loughlin is a citizen of the world, and only incidentally an Irishman. Since returning from his European exile he has re-entered Irish life with a cold eye, if a warm heart. Ovid looms large behind his Latin as a Foreign Language, a lyric the equal of Auden and on a par with, if in a different gear from, Mahon’s justly famous Wexford shed:
Who among the barbarians
Would give a fart in his bearskin
For Horace or Virgil
Or any of us? All they want is enough
To haggle with a Sicilian merchant, or cheat
The Roman tax collector out of his rightful due.
WB Yeats’s hucksterish clan, in other words, the Goths of contemporary Ireland in bearskin. O’Loughlin’s subtle Beckettian echo here (“a fart in its corduroys”) is just one of numerous deft allusions beautifully crafted to a new song. These pan-European echoes from Constantine Cavafy, Paul Celan et al are one of the pleasures of reading O’Loughlin, imparting the kind of relaxed confidence in a reader’s mind that Edith Wharton associated with the best authors.
Yes, O’Loughlin knows what he’s doing, and that is by no means a given in Irish verse. He may miss the ball once or twice in an awkward deployment of the F-word, but if anyone in Irish poetics can carry that off effectively without bathos it will be O’Loughlin.
Latin as a Foreign Language, of course, is a retrofit English as a foreign language, a service that O’Loughlin, like James Joyce before him, must have executed on his European wanderings. But it is also Irish as a foreign language, a subtle comment on the state of Gaelic in a venal polity.
Don’t be put off by O’Loughlin’s put-down of his native tongue in The Irish Lesson (“I didn’t want to learn their language / It wasn’t mine”), which is in any case limited. Elsewhere in this fine volume he betrays a broken-hearted philologist’s love of the idiom: “And my favourite, the word for read: dearg / Strange and contingent as our Latvian sarkans . . .”
This latter comes from a late set of mock-ups by one Mikelis Norgelis, not only a Manganese mask for the returned exile but also a sophisticated commentary on our obliterated identity:
It was all very well for Pablo Neruda
Mayakovsky and all those comrades
To write their Odes to Labour: they had
Drivers of red tractors breaking virgin soil.
But what about me? How am I to praise
The call centre operative,
The barista in the boutique hotel,
The estate agent renting out boxes to Slovaks?
This ostblok-diaspora air sits over much of the collection, and acts as a rich metaphor for life in modern Ireland, specifically Finglas in the 1960s and 1970s. Out of this urban wasteland, which was in fact a teeming suburban ecosystem harbouring kingdoms within kingdoms, O’Loughlin came with other internal exiles like Dermot Bolger (fellow raven in the Raven Arts enterprise) and, later, Glen Hansard (who brought his guitar and outsider’s vocals to adorn O’Loughlin’s recent book launch at Poetry Ireland on Parnell Square).
This anonymous, facilityless tidal space between Victorian Dublin and ancient Éire was where modern Ireland was plotted and strategised, from Bono’s box room and a warren of similar foxholes along the windswept northern border of the city. Growing up here bred a thirst for culture like you wouldn’t believe, a hallucinogenic mirage typified in Gavin Friday’s Lypton Village visions.
Poems 1980-2015 may be a report on history from the outside world, but it is also a private diary of inner Irish feelings that have an intense air of personal performance:
I rehearse all night in the bars
I stagger and fall, declaiming
And Oh my friends
There is something rotten
In this State of ours
The carpark echoes with my voice
The streetlights blaze like footlights
And out in the darkness beyond them
I suddenly realise
There’s no audience
This lyric, Hamlet in Dublin, masterfully entraps that moment when modern Irish imagination woke up to nothingness after the nightmare of its history. And if you know Pasternak’s Zhivago-impersonation Hamlet you can appreciate O’Loughlin’s suave subversion of the entire tradition.
These poems from three and a half decades constitute European poetry in the mask of English, and they are a unique addition to the Capital of Letters.
James McCabe is a poet and scholar. In 2016 he collaborated with Gavin Friday on the Casement Sonata sonic installation at Dublin Municipal Gallery the Hugh Lane