Peter Fallon finds beauty in a broken world: Strong, My Love
Review: Generally recognised as the foremost Irish publisher of poetry, Fallon’s latest collection reminds us that he is also one of the foremost practitioners
“Care, company and community”: Peter Fallon, with Moses Hill, in Loughcrew. Photograph: Suella Holland/The Gallery Press. Photograph: Suella Holland/Gallery Press
Strong, My Love
978 1 85235 594 4
The Gallery Press
Peter Fallon’s new book takes its title from A Family Tie, the last of the shorter poems in Part One, which urges “Be strong, my love, / in the broken places”. It expresses the mixed spirit of this powerful and often elegiac collection with great aptness: the world the book represents is in many ways broken, but a redeeming positive force – love is a good word for it – is never far away in its pages. If, like Fallon’s previous books, the subject is pastoral and the setting is invariably rural, it is a view of the agricultural world that represents the verities and politics of the wider world. It has been true since the Classics, especially for Virgil, whose Georgics Fallon translated to such acclaim, that the associations of the term “pastoral” can be misleading: the rural subjects have always reserved the right to carry public implications far beyond their setting.
This is most striking in the 13-page sequence Thorn Wire which is the book’s centre, both literally and imaginatively. The first section describes with exactness the brutality of the “devil’s rope” (“barbed wire” in England; “thorny wire” in North Cork) as it tears the farmer’s hands: “you’re stretching a single strand when it unleashes its attack – a coiled cobra springs, snags and rips raw lumps from the back of your bare hand”.
This section sets the scene powerfully for a sequence on the barbarous history of this “metal briar”, from the “depth of the trenches / of a continent / at war / with itself”, to a wounded “deer ground to a stand- / still, the insult / branded on its eyes / as the single strand / of rust / applied / its hurt and harm”, to the “cage / of razor wire, electrified” where the “impresarios / of torture strode” in Buchenwald.
This despairing poem asks in its fifth section: “Was there ever a moment the fist of the age wasn’t raised and ready to strike?”, and ends with the device of “a chaplet curled / like a crown of thorns / around the temple / of the world”.
The thorn wire is a fitting running image in a book: the grim poem Law recalls “the childhood shock and awe” at the legally required dehorning of cattle (“Cut horns amassed / like battle trophies in the slush”) which is brought back to the poet’s mind by “the latest slaughter / in Iraq” with a photograph of “a boy the age that I was then with half / a head, whose skull was shorn below the ear, / straight through bone”.
Despair-inducingYet, angry and despair-inducing as this sequence is, it is not the unvarying sentiment that the book leaves us with. The family ties of the title-poem are at the heart of it, with (as the cover-note says) “a series of prayers for his daughter and son and for their generation”. Against the horrors and brutalities of the world are set the virtues of family and friendship. Fallon’s friend Seamus Heaney was fond of quoting from a Shakespeare sonnet: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”; it is a plea that is raised throughout this book. Here, beauty – whether in the lyrical observation of trees or birds – holds its own: the heron’s lift-off “is a gift and grace and true uplift”. It is undeniable that “As if there were no end to plenty / we plundered earth”; but, as the narrator in The Night Itself looks at the snowflakes, he sees in them “earth’s / impetus to goodness, despite its aches / and disappointments”.
Heaney said that Fallon’s fundamental concerns were “care, company and community”; in this book to these may be added compassion and fellow-feeling – with people, animals and the natural world. Certainly family and friendship have their pains too: in the wonderful poem The Man Who Never Was, Fallon returns to his son John, who died straight after birth and now “who’d be a man who’s twenty-three”. In the lines from The Night Itself (perhaps the finest poem in the book) “When my old friend / falters on a stair / or founders on a word or name” the reader must think of Yeats’s beautiful lines about Lady Gregory in old age in Coole and Ballylee, 1931: “Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound / From somebody that toils from chair to chair”. But the eloquent sympathy in these passages forbids despair; at the end of Light (in the Sorrow Field), the suffering “widow woman” can tell the hare which lies low: “Go, long lugged, long legged one,/ run for fun, run for your life”, and we remember that Fallon when a child released the hares that were held for a coursing meeting.
The cover-note tells us that this is Fallon’s first collection since The Company of Horses in 2007. It is not surprising that such meticulously crafted and well weighted poems as these take time. And of course much of his time and literary skills have been put at the service of the other writers that he has published through the Gallery Press. He is generally recognised as the foremost Irish publisher of poetry; what this book establishes – or reminds us – is that he is also one of the foremost practitioners. Perhaps it is time that Gallery devoted to him one of its fine volumes of Collected Poems; or maybe that would be premature for a poet at the height of his powers who still finds so much of moment to say, and who says it so persuasively. Bernard O’Donoghue’s most recent collection of poems is Farmers Cross