Poetry: Edged with nightmares and inspired by troubadours

Collections from Mary O’Malley, Peter Sirr and WS Merwin are full of strange originality

When a session was interrupted by a crying baby, Mary O’Malley tells us, “His father picked him up. Tucked his bellows / Under his elbow and started playing him / Along with two fiddles, a tin whistle / And the piper who tuned in to the baby’s cries.”

This is a memorable, comic image of the artist at work, making use of whatever material is to hand. Taking it further, O’Malley tells us why this musician, understandably, “avoids the pipes”, via another tale, which gives her new book its title and its major theme, how the instruments of the art, for good and ill, shape an artist’s life:

He had heard the story
Of the octopus who was locked into a room
For a week to practise.
When they let him out the pipes had learned
To play the octopus.

(– Uilleann)


In Playing the Octopus (Carcanet, £9.99), the parables and more formal poems show a poet writing as well as she has ever done. These poems are swift and mysterious, but what structures them is their interest in art's relation to darkness. Elpenor asks of its Homeric subject, "Would we know his name without his year in hell?", while January Aubade "releases slowly the mind hurt" into "a raw daub of light in the east".

The book develops this idea of the dark origin of art in different ways. In The Tree, O'Malley displays a Connemara scepticism about wooded landscapes: a great beech is "half alien / Half thundercloud" even before it falls, violently "punch[ing] five holes / In the roof". The tree, for O'Malley, is where

harpies nested and snapped twigs bled.
Now it is timber, rhymed, end-stopped,
Ready to be transformed

Into something simple, a desk or breakfast bar.
A bad dream dragged into daylight
And hewn into a table and chairs.

O'Malley edges the margins of her best poems with nightmares. In the fantastical landscape of The Raven, "There is a conspiracy / Of you over my head in your black / Priests' dresses. Go back / To whoever sent you from the cave / Near the volcano." In the "rubbish" of Posy, O'Malley's sideways music makes a riddle of simple actions:

Those gentians I promised not to –
I hid between the leaves
And yesterday on my knees
I came across them in the rubbish
Where so much starts. They washed
The house in quantum blue.

This big book is studded with strong, original poems. Its division into five sections, though, seems arbitrary, or anyway less convincing. Some sections overlap with others; individual sets of poems – on trees, on animals, the translations, on motherhood, on poets’ marriages – could be sequences.

Throughout, though, there are crisp, memorable lines, nowhere more so than in affectionate elegies for Dermot Healy, a kindred spirit who could make us see and hear the world around us. In The Angel of Camden Street, she makes a gift of a statue for him, "three feet high with a mad grin / Sweeney, if he'd been Indonesian [. . .] half-angel, half-bowsprit, you're all I've got to send out / To guard Dermot in his trawler, caught in a force eight."


Peter Sirr's fluent, lyrical poems have a natural affinity with the medieval troubadours he translates in his new collection, Sway (Gallery, €11.95, €18.50). These Occitan poets developed courtly love as a subject and their songs were formative for vernacular poetry across Europe. They are still so much part of our vocabulary, in pop songs as well as love poems, that the poems can sometimes slip by too smoothly and easily.

Sirr, like Ezra Pound and others before him, aims to prevent this. His best work has always thrived on recalcitrant material, Dublin's medieval streets and modern shopping, abandoned houses and office life, medical spells and state bureaucracy. Occasionally, the troubadour material fires up this aspect of Sirr's imagination, especially in the marvellous A Busy Man, whose propulsive strangeness carries the reader away with it:

A man gets busy
and the world is wide
a servant I was and more
besides a gilder a girdler
a ceiler a carver a dapifer an arbalestier
a pimp a pedlar a purser

From the Vidas likewise dreams up and relishes its improbable world: "He was a good lover though treacherous, / after the secret marriage he legged it to Treviso / where he wrote many good songs or he didn't he vanished, / it's as if he never lived."

The Last Song, too, catches the way these poets insisted on the precarious and temporary:

And still it comes out,
the punctual tune,
the gift still spinning
whether I sink in gloom
or salute the moon.
Fulfilment, despair,
I weigh them both,
the brimming beaker,
the empty chair.

This is a book about that eternal sub-genre, the lovelorn, and when the poems yoke together the contemporary with the original arcana, Sirr's distinctive, jagging imagination finds real purchase: "dull ministries monitor", he writes in Road Songs, "the inputs of light / the outcomes of flowers. / Birds of the new dispensation / submit for their supper / their triplicate wit, the trees apply for leaves."

Troubadour songs

WS Merwin is another who has reworked the troubadour songs. Now aged 89, he composed the poems of Garden Time (Bloodaxe, £9.95) when he was going blind. His graceful, often stunning poems have been one of the pleasures of poetry readers for decades. At a time when insularity and identity politics seem, daily, to be set upon reducing and simplifying the complexity of the world, his new work again shows off the cosmopolitan virtues of this great American poet. Focused brilliantly on what we see and how we are seen, he is as urgent and perceptive as ever. After the Dragonflies imagines another species' demise as a tragedy, for us:

the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way
when we appeared in their eyes
we were strangers
they took their light with them when they went
there will be no one to remember us

John McAuliffe's fourth book, The Way In (Gallery), was joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Award in 2016